Debate on ministries’ budgets

Singapore is different - it plans for the present and future: Speaker Tan Chuan Jin

Rounding up the debate on the Budget yesterday, Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin said the $6.1 billion Merdeka package would never have been budgeted for if this year's Budget goodies were part of a "cynical election scheme".
Rounding up the debate on the Budget yesterday, Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin said the $6.1 billion Merdeka package would never have been budgeted for if this year's Budget goodies were part of a "cynical election scheme".PHOTO: GOV.SG

If this year's Budget goodies were part of a "cynical election scheme", the $6.1 billion Merdeka Generation Package would never have been budgeted for, Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin told Parliament.

Rounding up the nine-day marathon debate on the national Budget yesterday, Mr Tan said: "We would have shifted the burden to the future. That is what most governments do because the monies can be spent to make all of us happier in so many different ways."

Referring to how the Government stresses prudence and trade-offs, he added: "Which government in the world would embark on this when they have funds and reserves to do so many more things to keep the electorate happy? But that is not the way we are."

Mr Tan was making a larger point about how Singapore, unlike many countries, plans for the long term when it allocates resources. Around the world, some systems are "running from pillar to post, from one election cycle to another" because the governments' focus is on being elected in the present, he noted.

Instead of long-term investments in public infrastructure, some governments spend on initiatives which people respond to at the polls.

In corrupt systems, projects are started so leaders can "cream off the kickbacks" and make what they can "because... you don't know how long you are going to be there".

But Singapore, Mr Tan said, is different. It plans for both the present and future, and in the process grapples with the difficult challenges and trade-offs that must be made.

 
 
 
 

This year's debate saw about 500 speeches made or questions raised.

A hot topic was streaming in secondary schools, which was finally laid to rest when Education Minister Ong Ye Kung announced that it would be phased out in 2024.

Mr Tan quipped: "Many supported the slaughtering of this particular sacred cow, including, surprisingly, Mr Louis Ng."

Mr Ng (Nee Soon GRC), a vegetarian, is an animal rights advocate.

Mr Tan added: "While every cow is a good cow, no cow is perfect. There are sometimes unintended consequences. Because over the years, we have learnt that it emits methane gas and so, therefore, it impacts the environment. So, over the years... we have sought to trim the cow, adjust its diet, sliced off its rump, have a little barbecue, its flanks... and finally we lay it to rest."

Leader of the House Grace Fu noted the social ministries had a record high number of questions, with MPs focusing on educating and training Singaporeans, as well as caring for the aged and vulnerable.

Ms Fu said in her round-up that the robust debate saw MPs come to agreement on three things.

First, Singaporeans need to be at the heart of policies. This means workers must not be left behind in the pursuit of economic progress. It also means improving access to affordable healthcare and helping children build strong foundations.

Next, Singapore must "keep an eye on the future", even as it works on the present. This means taking advantage of technology to stay competitive. It also has to maintain fiscal prudence and find "the next water story" in waste and food.

Lastly, the Government can arrive at effective solutions if it gives space for civic participation in policies and implementation of plans.

Ms Fu thanked the House for "coming together to weave strategies to build a stronger fabric for a united Singapore", making special mention of the nine Nominated MPs who were appointed in September last year and attending their first debate on the Budget.

"They have researched, studied and presented their case with robustness. Their contributions have enriched the debate," she said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2019, with the headline 'Singapore is different - it plans for the present and future: Speaker Tan'. Print Edition | Subscribe