Parliament: 8 things that capture this year's Budget debate

(From left) MPs Louis Ng, Tin Pei Ling and Saktiandi Supaat.
(From left) MPs Louis Ng, Tin Pei Ling and Saktiandi Supaat. PHOTOS: ST, BH FILE
Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob presided over nine days of Budget debate which wrapped up on April 14, 2016.
Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob presided over nine days of Budget debate which wrapped up on April 14, 2016. ST FILE PHOTO

SINGAPORE - Nine days, close to 70 hours of debate and nearly 500 questions raised.

The annual Budget debate wrapped up on Thursday (April 14) after 15 ministries and the Prime Minister's Office presented their spending plans for the new financial year.

We sat through the marathon debate and summarised eight things you need to know - including the lighter side of the annual session.

1. MADAM SPEAKER, I HAVE A QUESTION

More than 60 MPs filed 499 "cuts" that gave them time to speak on each ministry's spending plans. The number of cuts is 7 per cent more than last year, and the highest in the past five debates.

The MPs touched on a broad range of issues from security, the economy to bread-and-butter concerns, such as jobs, housing and health.

2. BUSIEST MPs

  • First-term MP Louis Ng topped the list with 20 cuts, based on our calculation.

The MP for Nee Soon GRC, who is executive director of the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres), raised a broad range of questions, from his pet topic (animal welfare), haze and climate change, help for companies, childcare leave to extending the smoking ban. Despite the long list of "cuts", he cut a composed figure in his sharp jacket and shirt.

  • Second-term MP Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) came in second with 14 questions.

Ms Tin, who became a mother last year, zoomed in on issues close to her heart, such as childcare, healthcare, eldercare. She paid attention to both substance and style, opting for interesting wardrobe choices, including a striking pink sweater.

  • Another first-term MP Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) took the No. 3 spot, with 14 cuts.

Mr Saktiandi, who is head of foreign exchange research at Maybank, covered topics including innovation, future economy and helping the Malay/Muslim workforce.

3. BUSIEST MINISTERS

 
 

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong were among the busiest ministers, going by the number of cuts for their ministries.

The top three ministries with the most number of cuts were the Ministry of Health (50), Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (47) and Ministry of National Development (43).

Ms Grace Fu, who is Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, shared the load with Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim. The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) is a statutory board under MCCY.

The hot topics for the three ministries included:

MOH: Caring for the elderly and manpower for healthcare sector.

MCCY: Volunteerism, building sports facilities and grooming sporting talents.

MND: Helping low-income families own a flat and making Singapore more "car-lite".

Last year, the Manpower Ministry topped the list with 53 cuts, followed by MND (49 cuts) and MCCY (43 cuts).

4. 2 SACRED COWS SLAYED

Budget debate 2016 will be remembered as one that slayed not one but two sacred cows.

First, the PSLE T-score, blamed for the nation's obsession with academic results, will finally make way for a new scoring system from 2021.

Acting Education Minister Ng Chee Meng, during last Friday's (April 8) debate on his ministry's budget, announced that the new scoring system, which affects this year's Primary 1 pupils, will have wider scoring bands, like the grading at O and A levels.

Second, unwed mothers will soon get the same 16-week maternity leave that is given to married mothers. Their children will also get a Child Development Account, which helps pay for their childcare and healthcare needs, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin said on Tuesday (April 12).

5. LAUGHTER IN THE HOUSE

There were moments that lightened up the otherwise heavy-going debate.

Speaker Halimah Yacob (pictured above), who presided over most of the nine-day sitting and made sure the debate did not stretch beyond the allocated time, drew laughter from the House with her sharp wit and sense of humour.

After hearing several MPs lobbying for facilities to be upgraded or new ones to be built in their constituencies, the MP for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC quipped that perhaps she should also put in a request.

Her deputy Charles Chong , who took her place when she was away, also lightened the atmosphere when several MPs, who were too focused on delivering their speeches, addressed him as "Madam Speaker". His reply: "It's okay. I am used to it."

Some ministers also livened up their speeches with anecdotes and the occasional joke.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, who declared war on diabetes, said he asked his colleagues Lim Swee Say and Grace Fu, who is an avid runner, whether they have diabetes. He was quick to point out that he probably had a higher risk compared to them.

On the last day of the debate, the straight-talking MP Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) had her colleagues breaking out in laughter. When she was told her request for a new public swimming pool in her constituency had to wait because of manpower crunch which could affect the quality of construction, the engineer volunteered to personally supervise the project.

To which Madam Halimah was quick to quip that Ms Lee had set high standards for the other MPs.

6. SAY WHAT?

Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say (pictured above), known for coming up with snappy catchphrases, "betterer" himself by creating several new terms during his speech: triple-strong and triple-weak.

"Triple-weak" companies, he said, were the ones lacking a Singaporean core as well as commitment to nurture one in the future, and that did not contribute significantly to the economy or society.

"Triple-strong" companies are the opposite, with both a strong Singaporean core and future plans to nurture it. They must also have a strong contribution to "economic linkage and social impact", he added.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, meanwhile, spoke about how Singapore is in a new normal period of "troubled peace" with challenges such as terrorism.

7. GET USED TO IT - MORE ACRONYMS TOSSED UP

Besides new terms coined, new schemes - 22 to be exact - were also launched. Adding to the alphabet soup of schemes are new ones like TAC-CIP, EAE, iPREP, SSF and OSF, just to name a few.

Find it confusing? You are not alone.

Madam Halimah, in her speech wrapping up the debate on Thursday (April 14), said: "I must admit that I struggle quite a bit and I don't blame the public if they too have a hard time remembering."

For your information, here's what the acronyms stand for:

TAC-CIP: It refers to Collaborative Industry Projects involving Trade Associations and Chambers.

EAE: Early Admissions Exercise. It allows polytechnics to admit students based on their aptitude, talents and interests in the course being applied for.

iPREP: Industry Preparation for Pre-Graduates Programme. It pairs students in the infocomm disciplines to internship or mentorship programme.

SSF: Singapore Skills Framework which highlights emerging skills

OSF: Our Singapore Fund which supports ground-up projects that build national identity or meet needs in society.

8. 3 MEMORABLE SPEECHES TO PONDER UPON

1. Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong's speech drew applause from the chamber, and it was shared on Facebook by several MPs. Madam Halimah said she was deeply moved by it.

Ms Chia, who uses a wheelchair, said Singapore has become more inclusive, but called for a campaign to raise awareness of those with disabilities, including those not as noticeable.

She said: "We hope for you to give up your seats in the train. We feel bad for you not to have a seat, but our ankles are weak and we cannot stand for long... Do not be offended if I do not respond to your greetings. I cannot hear you."

2. Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin spoke about how Singapore's "kiasu" culture, or fear of failure, has led to a lack of originality in the local entrepreneurship scene.

The way she approached the topic of entrepreneurship was a refreshing break.

She blamed the "kiasu" culture for creating a subculture of "grantrepreneurs" - people who "call themselves entrepreneurs but are really just grant-chasers".

3. Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo's speech on marriage and parenthood.

Going beyond the incentives for couples to start a family, she pointed out that it is important that society continues to celebrate parenthood, celebrate having babies and celebrate families.

She said: "Yes, I believe our TFR can go up, but if and only if the whole of Singapore society gets behind this effort."