CNA: ‘We are not done building Singapore’: Build for the future but be prudent, says Heng Swee Keat (6 Feb, Singapore News)

To future-proof Singapore, infrastructure planning will have to take on a long-term view and with prudence, says Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in an interview with Channel NewsAsia.

SINGAPORE: Growing the economy and enhancing the liveability of Singapore will require continued spending on infrastructure developments, but these will have to be done with prudence.

This is according to Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat who spoke to Channel NewsAsia’s current affairs series Looking Ahead.

While challenging, infrastructure planning must take on a long-term view with continued investments to keep the country’s infrastructure developments running efficiently.

“We have to look into the future. What our needs will be, how our needs will grow, how do we plan for that and how do we marshal the resources to enable us to do that,” said Mr Heng.

“Many of these infrastructure projects do not end when the construction ends. In fact, it is just the start,” he added. “Therefore, we must also continue to invest in operating and maintaining these systems.”

“MAKING SINGAPORE AN ENDEARING HOME”

Amid an ageing population, creating a better quality of life for Singaporeans through the renewal of public infrastructure has been one of the Government’s key focus, according to Mr Heng.

With one in four Singaporeans likely to be aged 65 and above by 2030, planning ahead will allow seniors to age gracefully, he said.

Forward-planning efforts thus far include adapting to the population’s changing residential needs. For one, HDB homes have been made more liveable and safer for seniors with the installation of features, such as grab bars and slip-resistant floor treatment.

“We are also looking at the renewal,” added Mr Heng, referring to makeover plans for neighbourhoods and HDB heartlands, as well as a broader “national renewal”. “Those are important moves that we are making. It will take us some time, but we will make steady progress.”

Technology, through the push of the Smart Nation initiative, will play a key role.

Mr Heng raised the example of the Municipal Services Office (MSO)’s OneService mobile application, which aimed to make it easier for residents to report or provide feedback on issues in their HDB estates.

“You just make a report and the information will be routed to the correct agency… At the same time, it gives (you) a dashboard to look at the progress and that’s been very helpful,” he said, while adding that such pilot initiatives are a “very good way” of experimenting new solutions for issues such as healthcare needs.

On a national level, the Government has also been investing in new technology that would pave the way for “big improvements”.

These include the vision of smart urban mobility that involves experiments with autonomous vehicles, projects to promote electronic payments in the country and the construction of a superhighway for used water management dubbed the deep tunnel sewerage system (DTSS).

With sustainability being a “key pillar” of the Government’s policy from day one, the finance minister noted that projects like these constitute “very important investments for the future”.

Coupled with the upcoming carbon tax system, Mr Heng said: “What we want (is) to go beyond just growing the economy and enabling the economy to create good jobs. Those are very important but it is about creating a better quality of life for our people and therefore, enhancing liveability in Singapore.”

“Making Singapore an endearing home is very much a part of the broader strategy.”

MAINTAINING PRUDENCE

In his interview with Channel NewsAsia, Mr Heng also touched on how billion-dollar major infrastructure projects, including Changi Airport’s Terminal 5 and the Tuas mega port, will be essential in maintaining Singapore’s competitiveness.

Given that the global economy remains poised for growth over the long term, particularly in Asia where the economic outlook remains rosy, Singapore needs to capitalise on its global linkages which have given the country a “head start”.

“Our connectivity to the world has been a big advantage,” he said. “That connection has allowed us to capture the global flow of trade in goods and services. (Being) a major aviation centre, we are connected to so many countries in the world and that allows Singaporeans to travel and our business people to do businesses all over the world. Most importantly, it allows our factories to export through our ports and airports to all over the world.”

Moving forward, Mr Heng noted that there must be a “concerted effort” to make Singapore “a node of trade, investment, innovation, technology”.

“If we are a node that connects to all the vibrant centres around the world, it will give us certainly give us a big lift so we must continue to think ahead, look at what are the trends and how we must continue to invest.”

Given the need to build for durability and maintainability, infrastructure projects tend to be hefty investments. Making them future ready to accommodate technological advancements adds to the cost, said Mr Heng.

“Technology will continue to change the way infrastructure is being used,” he explained. “To be future ready, you need to think about what are some of these new features that we need to incorporate and even if the new features are not available today, we need to provide the flexibility to modify and adapt as new needs and new technology emerge.

As such, adopting a long-term and holistic view will be key.

“Infrastructure investment is by nature a long-term investment. In fact, the more we seek to provide for future needs, the more it will raise the cost. But at the same time, what it means is that if we plan it well, it will last us a much longer time and therefore, it will reap even more benefits in the long run,” said Mr Heng.

This despite the challenging nature of infrastructure planning given the cyclical nature of economic growth and how it is “not possible to be hundred per cent accurate” when it comes to responding to demand.

Mr Heng cited his experience in running the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) from 2005 to 2011 prior to entering politics. “We had many major global banks that wanted to set up in Singapore but at that time, we didn’t have enough space. After they came in, we had the global financial crisis but the recovery took place very quickly and today, we see financial activity going very strongly again in Singapore.”

He added: “If we do not expect to be hundred per cent accurate all the time, make sure that in the longer run we get it right then I think we should continue to invest.”

Mr Heng also emphasised the need to maintain prudence and financial sustainability during the planning and execution of mega infrastructure projects.

This comes as Singapore’s spending needs continue to grow, which has given rise to speculation of higher taxes being announced in the upcoming Budget.

The areas in need of higher Government expenditure include homeland security, which was described as “a very major item” in Budget 2018 by Mr Heng last week, and healthcare.

Infrastructure is another sector that will likely see increased spending in the coming years and Senior Minister of State for Finance Indranee Rajah said in Parliament on Tuesday (Feb 6) that comprehensive measures are in place to ensure cost-efficiency for publicly-funded infrastructure projects.

When asked how the Government will prevent overspending, Mr Heng said: “We must strive to be prudent and ensure that our spending is financially sustainable. It also means that we will have to think long term.”

“That is how we can continue to grow Singapore,” he told Channel NewsAsia.

“There are many more things that we can do in Singapore and many more things that we need to build. We are not done building Singapore.”

Last updated on 07 Feb 2018