Public debates enhance citizen participation in Budget

Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob's lament that people were not interested in following the Budget debates, despite emphasis on the human aspect of economic initiatives, merits comment ("Policies put children at heart of what we do: Halimah"; April 15).

The annual Budget is a critically important instrument in ensuring transparency, accountability and good governance.

Budget debates, speeches and documents are not mere facts, figures, numbers and programmes.

Scrutinising them, one can understand the Government's intentions, its priorities, policies and allocation of financial resources, all of which contribute to a sea change in the lives of the people affected by it.

Yet, in Singapore, citizen participation has been lacking in Budget debates because there is no motivation to participate, and there does not seem to be a mechanism to create awareness of the Budget debate's significance.

Participation is also made difficult by barriers such as the lack of knowledge about budgets and their complexities, public perceptions that their opinions are unwanted, citizen apathy, complacency, lack of time and cynical attitudes towards government programmes that are often punctuated by abbreviations, as humorously pointed out by Madam Halimah.

To be really meaningful, a Budget must be a two-way process involving parliamentarians and the citizenry, the stakeholders being aware of the budgetary measures well in advance, to generate public debate.

Such public debate participation needs to occur early in the Budget process when there is a greater opportunity for feedback to be considered by government officials as they deliberate the views and proposals from citizens.

Experience in other developed countries has shown that citizen participation is most beneficial when it occurs early in the process, and when it is a two-way deliberative communication, rather than simply one-way information sharing.

It is, therefore, of utmost importance that the Government structure citizen participation mechanisms and present greater possibilities for participation, so that citizens can propose meaningful initiatives and opinions on Budget proposals even before the Budget is finalised and tabled before Parliament.

Parliament is then obliged to evaluate submitted views and proposals, and appropriately inform citizen groups about its decisions.

Transparency and public debate are further enhanced when the media also ensures that the central issues are widely understood.

Public debates ensure healthy citizen participation and promote two-way communication in the Budget process.

This enables people to get good insights into policies, as well as feel motivated and empowered to make more informed choices for themselves.

V. Subramaniam (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2016, with the headline 'Public debates enhance citizen participation in Budget'. Print Edition | Subscribe