Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, presiding over his first Budget marathon, spoke somewhat wistfully yesterday of his desire to join in the debates.
"Some of you think the biggest challenge being up here is how one manages to stay awake or how we answer the call of nature.
"Well, that will remain a trade secret," he said, bringing levity to eight days of parliamentary debate filled largely with serious speeches and equally serious questions.
"What I find most challenging is having the desire to participate but not being able to do so in a way that all of you do. So, what you all have is a unique, precious privilege to make a significant impact on the well-being of our people."
Elected Speaker last September, the former Cabinet minister seemed almost unable to contain himself in the dying minutes of the Parliamentary sitting, declaring with a grin: "Finally, I get to speak! It is my once-a-year occasion."
In his 10-minute speech, he gave MPs a pat on the back for their active participation, even as he stressed the need to be pragmatic in the journey towards the nation's ideals and aspirations.
Substance and details matter too, not just eloquent, emotive rhetoric, he added, reminding MPs of the words of late deputy prime minister and pioneer leader S. Rajaratnam.
Said Mr Tan, quoting the pioneer leader: "What you have done may not get as much publicity as utterances of professional oppositionists, but long after these have gone, what you have done will strengthen the democracy of deeds and not words."
Mr Tan also spoke of trade-offs that must be made, along with difficult, unpopular choices. This is especially so when seeking to balance four purposes he distilled from the debates: Making things better for individual Singaporeans and the wider society, plus meeting today's needs while catering for future ones.
The key is to be united, he added.
Differences are often amplified during debates, but there are more points of convergence and agreement than not, he observed. He cited the move taken for the vote on the Budget, in which members voted not by saying "aye", but electronically at their individual seats.
All Workers' Party MPs present voted against Budget 2018. They had said they could not support the future rise in the goods and services tax without more information.
Mr Tan said: "Argue, fight by all means, but within limits and in a responsible manner. I am thankful that despite it all, we do have a unity of thought and conviction on where we should go and how we should position ourselves as a nation."
He also took an unusual path, to the amusement of MPs, when he joined what he called an "arms race", linguistically speaking. He gave a quick translation in Mandarin of "set-top box" and "analogue TV" which an MP had spoken on. After noting Senior Minister of State Chee Hong Tat spoke twice in Tamil, Mr Tan then slipped into Tamil, saying: "This is a multi-lingual Parliament. I can also speak in Tamil."
The House rocked with laughter.
Like Leader of the House Grace Fu, Mr Tan stressed the need to build a caring society. Going the extra mile for each other will "make us great as a nation", he said.
"This is about the heart and soul of our nation... Unlike everything in the Budget, these cannot be mandated by law, but they can be nurtured. And it is for us as Singaporeans to respond."
Reports from Parliament