Budget debate breaks six-year record with 545 questions filed

The 2017 Budget debate ended yesterday with a record.

A total of 545 questions, or cuts in parliamentary parlance, were filed during the marathon debate - the most in six years.

It was also 9 per cent more than last year's 499 cuts, Leader of the House Grace Fu noted as she wrapped up the eight-day debate on the Government's financial plans for the year.

"This speaks to the scale of the challenges we face, and the dedication of the Members," she added.

Jobs, the economy and infrastructure topped MPs' concerns as the Budget was delivered amid an increasingly uncertain world economy affected by the rise of populism and protectionist sentiments.

Inevitably, the Manpower Ministry topped the list on total speech time for the cuts filed, followed closely by the Ministry of Trade and Industry. The National Development Ministry and Education Ministry were not far behind.

The order reflects the overriding issues of today - helping out-of-work Singaporeans find jobs as layoffs hit a seven-year high and job vacancies dipped last year, and being ready for tomorrow.

Said Ms Fu: "Preparing for the future economy does not only involve our businesses and workforce, it requires our young and our city to be resilient and future-ready."

Both she and Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob seemed struck by how MPs from both sides of the House championed the cause of the worker.

The two sides also stood united behind Singapore's foreign policy goals, prompting Madam Halimah, who has been Speaker for four years, to remark: "There was a noticeable convergence of views from both the Government and opposition when it came to protecting our sovereignty."

Both women observed how some MPs were visibly moved when relating the hardships of Singaporeans seeking work.

"Tears were shed, not once but three times," said Ms Fu, referring to how Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say struggled to compose himself as he described the challenges a single mother with brain tumour overcame to land a job.

But the sittings were not without levity, and many chuckled when Madam Halimah said: "If only Members could learn to do away with long preambles and go straight to the point raised in their questions and clarifications, they would not need to deliver their speeches at breakneck speed."

It appears to be an annual problem. Thanking the MPs, the Speaker added: "It is your contributions and understanding that have made this debate outstanding in many respects... although at times my deputies and I had to intervene to remind you of your allotted time.

"Very gently, most times."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2017, with the headline 'Budget debate breaks six-year record with 545 questions filed'. Print Edition | Subscribe