Farewell Note from Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies and Minister for Finance, Heng Swee Keat14 May 2021
Each Budget season, while many of you are cloistered in meetings with me going over Budget measures, a ritual takes place in my office that not many know about. My PA Sally takes a black bag out of storage, dusts it off, and gives it a good polish. On Budget Day, I slip the year’s Budget statement into the bag, and carry the files to Parliament House. The media tradition is to capture a photo of me arriving at Parliament House with that bag, which kicks off the day’s news coverage for Budget.
While I am delivering the Budget Statement, I know the initial attention is on the number of files and the thickness of each file. The black bag sits at the foot of my seat in the House as I speak. The whole time that it sits there, it repeats a message to me.
What is that message? I have not told this to anyone before. Today is a good time to share it with all of you.
You may have noticed that the bag that I use for day-to-day work is different from the black bag I use on Budget Day. The bag that I normally carry is stuffed full of documents that I need for the day, and my laptop. It has even been known to carry snacks from residents or colleagues, and has frayed threads at some seams. Though it does not look impressive, it does the job! When I moved to MOF however, it was better to get something more presentable in which to carry our Budget statement.
The black bag that I use for Budget Day is a gift from my daughter. It was made by a local leather craftsman. At first, she didn’t tell him who it was for, but she did specify that it would need to be black and be able to fit two, maybe even three, large binders in it. The craftsman named the unique design “The Banker” and my daughter knew this was the right bag for the purpose. She asked for one more hidden detail – a small metal plate on the inside of the bag with a message from her to me.
Her message is this: Our resources may be limited, but our opportunities are endless.
It is, in fact, an approach to life that we discuss in our family – a way of thinking that I hoped my children would imbibe, as I believe it would help them to grow in a way that fulfilled their potential and created value for others, even if they faced constraints. My daughter decided this was an apt message for me in my new role as Finance Minister.
Each time I open the bag and see that message, I am determined that while we must work within the reality of our limited resources, this need not and will not hold us back from recognising, seizing, and creating opportunities for our people. I am also reminded of my duty to my children’s generation and generations to come.
I have tried to stay true to this approach in my time at MOF. And, I am proud to say, all of you have also shown me the truth of this message through our time together.
It started with Budget 2016, my maiden Budget, and Singapore’s 50th Budget. Together with MOF officers, we worked to develop a Budget that broke beyond our limitations to focus on making the most of the possibilities available to us, and even actively create new opportunities.
We launched the Industry Transformation Maps and kickstarted our economic transformation efforts. Five years on, these efforts have yielded results and have given us a head start as we seek to recover from our worst-ever economic crisis.
We implemented Silver Support, which provides for less well-off seniors in their retirement years. Ensuring that growth is inclusive and leaving no one behind are important principles we will continue to uphold, especially as our population ages.
We made our taxes more progressive and resilient. That year, we introduced a cap on personal income tax reliefs. And in the years since, we introduced more measures, including higher Buyer’s Stamp Duty, and applying GST to imported services and low-value goods.
I remember that it was a steep learning curve for all of us. We had less than half a year to develop that Budget, which is usually a year-long process. Besides mastering the issues, I was getting to know MOF’s people and history, and you were getting to know my strongly-held beliefs in the importance of values, and in the value of consultation and collaboration. I thank the team then for helping me along, including SMS Sim Ann, and then-Permanent Secretaries Peter Ong and Soo Hoon.
Together, in that crucible period, we developed the theme of partnership, anchored in the belief that however meagre or vast our resources, we can push the frontier to achieve more together, when we share a common purpose. It was a key feature of Singapore’s 50th Budget, and also my personal conviction that this has to be our approach as a nation and society. It was very exciting to carry those two messages – one of opportunities, one of partnership – into Chamber for the first time.
After Budget 2016, Sally stored the black bag and I went back to using my day-to-day bag. Little could any of us have envisaged that, by the next time we took out that bag, I would be on my “second life”. Indeed, there were a number of days when it seemed I might never use either bag again. My wife and children were deeply anxious.
I had my stroke in May of that year, a few months after my maiden Budget. In fact, it was five years to the day of my stroke, two days ago. Yes, I have counted the years and months since awakening from the stroke. I recognise that what time I have now is a gift. I am thankful that I have this time in good health – and I thank my healthcare team, family and friends, and many Singaporeans of all faiths for their prayers and well wishes. I feel more responsible than ever to use this time to make a difference.
Time often seems like the most limited of resources. All of you who’ve worked with me know that I’ve long thought there simply isn’t enough time to do all the things we need to do. I know it may seem ironic that, even though I think there is not enough time, I wanted to set aside even more time to gather feedback and refine our policy options. It’s because I believe that every voice deserves to be heard, and that every problem demands our attention. This is how we serve Singaporeans.
For example, when we worked on Our Singapore Conversation, we put in many hours listening to Singaporeans. The insights gained on our people’s aspirations and concerns, remain invaluable. It was a humbling, yet gratifying experience. The outcome was important policy shifts, such as the introduction of MediShield Life, changes to the PSLE scoring system, and the Pioneer Generation Package. We took this same approach in each Budget engagement. To take it further, I subsequently launched the Singapore Together movement.
In the days following my stroke, when the limitations of time weighed on me more than ever, you and fellow Singaporeans showed me what it is to be unconstrained by limits – I felt your care, teamwork and encouragement to be without bounds. SM Tharman had just handed the MOF baton to me less than a year before. He gamely stepped up to fill the void when I was out of action, providing continuity and stability. I am thankful to SM for this, and for sharing his counsel and experience.
When I returned to work, because of the severe respiratory infection I had caught while in the hospital, my doctors ordered that, when I had to have meetings, it could only be a small group of officers at a time. This was to reduce risk of infection, as I was still recovering. Some of you may remember, my office and some meetings rooms had sterilising wipes and hand sanitiser on standby. All this was before COVID-19 and quite unusual at the time. It would have made daily work more inconvenient for everyone. But you were so kind to adapt your work habits to support me. Indeed, you only ever made me feel cheered and eager to get back to work.
The next time that I brought the black bag to Parliament, it contained my words of thanks to my colleagues in the House and fellow Singaporeans for their well wishes following the stroke. I said I was grateful for the opportunity to continue alongside Members of the House to serve Singapore and Singaporeans to the best of our abilities. The opportunity to stand up in the House again, to stand up at all, came from some greater force. The opportunity to present budget measures that support our people and businesses when standing up in the House again – that came from all of you at MOF.
After that fateful Budget, the black bag fulfilled its function over the next two years, carrying, most importantly, our thinking behind the need to raise GST sometime in the next few years. It was a difficult but necessary decision. We had to think about the long-term needs of our people, and do what is right. This was the right action because we want to ensure that we have enough resources to care for our seniors and continue investing in our young. At the same time, we also introduced a carbon tax and other measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create a greener future for our children. And thankfully, within that term of government, we also had enough fiscal space to take better care of our Merdeka Generation through the Merdeka Generation Package.
Last year, however, the bag could not stay in storage for an entire year. We had 5 Budgets in 230 days!
Those days were intense and stressful, and I don’t believe any of us had the chance to note the passing of the days. We just had to push on and get support out to our frontline staff, to our companies and people, to support them in the fight against COVID-19. It was a race against time, a battle against an invisible and mutating enemy, and we felt ourselves coming up against limitations on every front.
It was a great weight on me to have to contemplate going to our President to draw on our reserves. We had done so only once before – during the Global Financial Crisis. Drawing on our past reserves to combat COVID-19 was the right thing to do given the unprecedented circumstances we faced, and I take heart that we have been able to help our people and businesses.
And yet, looking back, I would say that all of us together made 2020 a story not of limitations, but of possibilities. When our GPC gave me a farewell last month, they gave me a thoughtful plaque with the newspaper headlines after each of our Budgets in 2020. It struck me that while all countries were focused on confronting the immediate challenges, what made us different was that we were also gearing ourselves to emerge stronger from this crisis. On this note, I thank Eng Hwa, Mee Har and all members of our GPC for their honest feedback and good suggestions that sharpened our policy design and implementation.
The SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package was an example of overcoming limitations. You worked tirelessly with other agencies, industry partners and the Labour Movement to roll out new jobs and opportunities in record time – so that we could help workers who were at-risk or had lost their jobs. I was moved when, in a recent Meet-the-People Session, a resident came to say, “I am creating a start-up, and have just secured funding from venture funds. I would like to create 20 positions for Singaporeans. The SGUnited programme may be useful – can you help link me up with your people?”
This was the best kind of policy effect that I could hope for. Not only did our work take us beyond our resource constraints to create meaningful new opportunities, it inspired people from other walks of life to actively venture out, to create opportunities for themselves, and for others! As Minister for Finance, I was proud to say to all of you, “Yes, good plan, I will support you in this.” As a Member of Parliament for East Coast, I was even prouder to say to my resident, “Yes, good plan, I will help you in this.”
COVID-19 has also strengthened our spirit of partnership within the public service. You worked closely with IRAS, and many others, to develop and implement schemes such as the Jobs Support Scheme, Household Support Package and the Grocery Vouchers. We rolled out targeted assistance to those in need, swiftly and decisively. Take the Solidarity Payment for example. Over 90% of citizens received their Solidarity Payment within 10 days of the announcement of the scheme! The pace and scale of rollout were unprecedented and were possible only because of your boundless energy and excellent teamwork.
At Budget this year, as our economy gradually reopens, our efforts shifted from containment to restructuring, even as we provide targeted support for the hardest hit sectors. Earlier this week, I moved my last piece of legislation as Finance Minister – the SINGA Bill – which will enable us to borrow to finance major infrastructure projects while maintaining fiscal prudence. I am glad that we continued to plan ahead and make decisions for the long-term, even in the midst of a crisis.
It is quite amazing to me how, even though none of you knew about it all this time, time and again, you showed with your work the power and truth of this message – that though our resources are limited, our opportunities are not. Our opportunities are of our making.
In my almost six years as Finance Minister, I have done 10 Budgets. In every Budget, all of you have given me your fullest support. To everyone in the MOF family, I am deeply grateful – for your consistent strength and professionalism in stretching every dollar and being stewards of our fiscal resources, for your extraordinary contributions in fighting the pandemic, and for your every gift of concern for me and my family.
Mulling over what may be the best way to reciprocate your commitment, perhaps the most useful may be for me to share with you the lessons I have learnt in the last few years, in the hope that these may be of some value to you.
As MOF officers, never forget your duty to safeguard our resources and to use them judiciously – not simply to keep the country functioning, but for Singapore to be exceptional. Collaboration with the rest of the public sector, with industry, the people sector, and our people will be key to this. As you have experienced in every Budget, we had valuable inputs from our business chambers, trade associations, unions, social services agencies, economists and academia.
As public servants, I hope you come, as I have, to see our people not as our only resource – but as our greatest resource. I am thankful for our early leaders’ foresight and discipline in building our financial reserves. For a country with no oil, no minerals, no natural resources of any kind, our reserves have served us well so far.
We also could not have navigated these difficult times without the social reserves of our people – their store of resilience, unity, solidarity, fortitude, and compassion. Indeed, we took inspiration from some of these qualities to name our Budgets last year.
While we build on and guard the financial reserves started by our pioneers, our task going forward must also be to grow the reserves of our greatest resource – the strength and spirit of our people. By combining both our financial resources and the social resources of our people, we can build a more dynamic and resilient Singapore.
And as individuals, remember to make time for yourself and for your loved ones. Take care of your health. Take care of your family. Take care of one another in the office. Don’t put off to tomorrow that act of kindness or care that will mean something to someone else.
Finally, I would like to thank my two co-drivers Lawrence and Indranee for charting the course with me in the past few years – for your sound counsel, for helping me oversee different aspects of this vast portfolio, and for taking on PQs in Parliament. I would not have been able to make as much impact – especially during the COVID-19 crisis – without the both of you.
I will be leaving MOF in very good hands. Lawrence will have a massive task ahead. We must continue to invest for the long term to emerge stronger, at a time when our fiscal position is extremely tight. He will also have to raise revenue – including the implementation of the GST hike – to put Singapore on a more sustainable fiscal footing in the years ahead. I have every confidence that he will succeed, and I will always be here for Lawrence and the whole MOF family. I am also glad that Indranee will be staying on to lend her strengths to MOF’s work.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Ching Yee, who has been a pillar of support. I have helmed two Ministries in my political tenure – Education and Finance. Both times, we journeyed along the same path.
Ching Yee was the Permanent Secretary at MOE when I first took office. She was instrumental in helping me settle into political life, but she left in a year for MOH. Years later, Ching Yee joined us at MOF soon after my first Budget. She has been invaluable in working with Ministries on their budget needs, and ensuring that proposals were thoroughly evaluated. She organised the Budget machinery like clockwork – with the clock becoming more precise with each Budget! Our Budget meetings were always very productive, as the papers were well put together and well-considered. This enabled me, Lawrence and Indranee to focus on major priorities and strategies.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Deputy Secretaries Ping Yi and Neng Hsiu, and earlier Hoon Ping. Thanks go too to Fook Chuen at AGD, Wai Choong at IRAS, Chee Pong at Customs, Yong Kian at Tote Board, Khiaw Hong at ACRA, Denis at VITAL, Evan at SAC, their predecessors as Heads or CEOs, and all their team members.
Thank you to all Directors and members of our directorates at MOF HQ, both past and present, who worked hard with me over the past few years to prepare for Budget and to assess the many funding proposals, And also to all of you behind the scenes – you have been working tirelessly to keep MOF going. In particular, I thank our Corporate Development team, who kept us well-nourished over the marathon Budgets, and put in place the split-team arrangements on short notice. Thank you to Aunty Mei Jok and her porridge team.
And my special appreciation to my PAs Irene and Sally, who have been working tirelessly to support me over many evenings and weekends, especially during Budget season.
So the black bag that my daughter gave me will not carry any more Budget statements. But it will always hold this belief to break past our limits and resource constraints, to create endless opportunities. We must stretch our imagination and create new partnerships in Singapore and with people around the world. My black bag, and I, will always hold the lessons, memories, and a sense of pride from serving with all of you, from SG50 to this crisis of a generation. Thank You!