SINGAPORE - Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, presiding over his first marathon Budget debate, spoke somewhat wistfully on Thursday (March 8) of his desire to join in the debate.
"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 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 would typically take great pains to explain the issues of the various portfolios he held over his five years as an office-holder in the Government.
So, by the time the debate came to a close on Thursday, he seemed almost unable to contain himself, 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 and reminded the House of the words of one of Singapore's pioneer leaders: deputy prime minister S. Rajaratnam.
The late Mr Rajaratnam had said: "What you've 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 that 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 stay united in the direction to which policymakers and lawmakers are steering the country, he added.
Differences are often amplified during debates, but there are more points of convergence and agreement than not, he observed.
He cited the unusual move taken for the vote on the national Budget, in which members voted not by saying "aye", but electronically at their individual seats.
All the Workers' Party MPs present voted against Budget 2018. They had said earlier they could not support the future increase in the goods and services tax without more information.
Said Mr Tan: "Argue, fight by all means, but within limits and in a responsible manner. But I'm thankful that despite it all, we do have a unity of thought and conviction as to where we should go and how we should position ourselves as a nation."
The new Speaker also took an unsual path, to the amusement of MPs, when he joined what he called an "arms race", linguistically speaking.
Noting that Senior Minister of State Chee Hong Tat spoke twice in Tamil, Mr Tan was not to be out-done.
He gave the House a quick translation in Mandarin of the words "set-top box" and "analogue TV" that an MP had spoken about.
He then slipped into Tamil to say: "This is a multilingual Parliament. I can also speak in Tamil." The House rocked with laughter.
Like Leader of the House Grace Fu, Mr Tan emphasised the need to build a caring society, like through the national SG Cares movement.
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 else in the Budget, these cannot be mandated by law, but they can be nurtured. And it is for us as Singaporeans to respond."