Budget debate: From the gallery

Budget debate 2016: When the little details matter as much

Every year, when the Finance Minister delivers the Budget, he does not just set out the financial position of the Government. He also paints a vision of what the Government wants to achieve with the money it intends to spend.

But when it comes to implementation of these big ideas, the smallest details are equally important, especially in how these policies will affect individuals.

That is where an MP, as a representative of his constituents, has a duty to not only engage in discussions about that big vision, but to also point out the fine print.

And that was what several MPs got down to doing yesterday, the second day of the debate on the Government's Budget for the new financial year.

While some MPs raised philosophical questions or talked about mega trends taking place, Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC), Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) and Mr Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio GRC) zoomed in on the specifics and the details.

Like the Silver Support programme, for instance, and the scheme's eligibility criteria in particular. Their main beef: The use of housing types to means-test those who are eligible for cash payouts under the scheme.

Those who own five-room flats are currently not given any support. The assumption is that they have the means to support themselves.

But this may not be necessarily true, said Mr Zaqy. An example he cited was of a resident in his ward, Mr Ho, who bought a five-room flat with his son for $190,000 some 19 years ago. Their primary motivation for doing so was that they wanted to live together, and not because they were well-to-do.

"However, leaving out senior citizens who are in five-room flats and larger, does leave many retirees who were lower-middle and middle-income earners, unsupported," he said. "Means-testing this way no longer makes sense as a reflection of wealth or income status."

Similarly, Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), who works with low-wage workers and has a passion for finding solutions on the ground, came through when he addressed the SkillsFuture scheme to promote lifelong learning.

SkillsFuture is not just ambitious in scale, but fraught with major implementation challenges, he said.

Workers and companies need to change their understanding of the labour market as it exists, and work together to anticipate future trends.

This is a big challenge as most people tend to discount the future for their present needs. Many have no real incentive to change.

That is why, according to Mr Zainal, the success of SkillsFuture will also depend on tweaking small things - like procurement contracts that will encourage the use of technology, or adopting performance standards to pressure companies to use better technology when they provide services.

Another area that resonated with many MPs was the fear for retrenched workers given the backdrop of a slowing economy.

Mr Lim wants the Government to enact a law to compel firms to pay minimum retrenchment benefits of at least three to six months.

This was similar to the unemployment insurance that Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) raised on Monday, a suggestion that was also mooted yesterday by Nominated MP Azmoon Ahmad.

They want some form of unemployment insurance that would help a retrenched worker tide over for a short period. It would allow him to seek retraining instead of having to immediately look for a job and income to support the family.

There is of course the risk that focusing too much on one's own constituents may seem parochial. Parliament may not always be the best place to be singling out blocks of flats that need covered walkways.

And there is the argument, too, that speeches in Parliament need to take the conversation to a new level and inspire new solutions instead of being only concerned with matters at the individual level.

But at the heart of any system of political representation is the expectation that MPs accurately reflect the views, fears and aspirations of their constituents.

This means MPs have to be constantly in contact with them and reflect views in a considered manner to policymakers so that policies can be improved.

This is a view that Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) clearly embraces. He spoke of the need to get the Budget consultation process up and running much earlier so that the Government can incorporate the views of the people.

MPs are "not there just to explain policies to people, to throw them facts and figures, but we are there to truly listen and understand", he said.

This not only builds trust between people and their representatives, but also deepens bonds between citizens and the Government, which, because of the ground-up views taken in, can make better policies for all.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2016, with the headline 'When the little details matter as much'. Print Edition | Subscribe