From babies to exams to housing: Debate on ministries’ budget at a glance

The debate in Parliament spanned a range of topics, including helping young families find a home. PHOTO: ST FILE

The nearly week-long debate on government spending in Parliament covered a range of topics – from schemes to help senior citizens live healthier and happier, to moves to help first-time Build-To-Order flat applicants who are married or with children secure a home.

1. Prime Minister’s Office


The Government will start making regular progress reports on public sector sustainability initiatives.

A new ScamShield bot will be available on WhatsApp later in 2023, allowing the public to easily report scam messages and check whether a message is likely to be a scam.

The Health Appointment System will be expanded by April to allow appointment bookings for all vaccines under the National Adult Immunisation Schedule, and by June, vaccines under the National Childhood Immunisation Schedule.

Issues raised:

NMP Hoon Hian Teck suggested that the organisation of work and the promotion and compensation system be adjusted to enable workers to have better control of their work schedules, while keeping full-time employment status.

Ms Cheng Li Hui (Tampines GRC) asked if the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority would consider more favourably the permanent resident applications of seniors who have resided in Singapore for decades and have strong family ties here.

Workers’ Party (WP) MP Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) called for the lowering of voting age from 21 to 18, to empower younger Singaporeans to have a say at national elections.

2. Ministry of Finance


Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) will be able to bid for government contracts under a new category by end-2023 that will allow more suppliers to participate in tenders with value higher than $90,000 but below $1 million.

From financial year 2024, for tenders of construction projects and information and communications technology (ICT) projects with minimum estimated procurement value of $50 million and $10 million respectively, up to 5 per cent of the evaluation points will be set aside for sustainability-related considerations.

Issues raised:

Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Bukit Panjang) asked how the ministry could better support SMEs participating in government procurements as they have innovative solutions and product offerings.

Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) suggested that the Government identify the most pressing areas of need where philanthropy can have the greatest impact, given tighter fiscal space in the coming years.

NCMP Leong Mun Wai suggested a framework where a proposal is not considered to be a “raid on the reserves” if the expenditure required is small relative to the size of the reserves and net investment return, and it serves an important purpose.

3. Ministry of Defence


Singapore will acquire another eight F-35 fighter jets, growing its fleet to 12 by the end of this decade.

From April, operationally ready national servicemen who need to leave Singapore for an extended period need to apply for an exit permit for only trips of 12 months or longer, compared with six months now.

A new organisation has been set up to oversee all defence and military museums here, amid efforts to update Singapore’s military museums.

Issues raised:

Mr Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) asked how the Singapore Armed Forces is pursuing training safety together with operational realism and effectiveness as existing commanders may not have necessary experience from two years of low-tempo training.

WP MP Dennis Tan (Hougang) asked for an update on efforts to safeguard Singapore’s critical access to the air and sea in the event of an emergency, in view of tensions in the region.

Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) asked how the Singapore Discovery Centre could be used to help children learn more about the country’s history and its future.

4. Ministry of Foreign Affairs


Singapore reopened its Honorary Consulate-General in Lima, Peru, and will open a new Honorary Consulate in Bogota, Colombia.

A new consular corps of professional first responders has been established to provide 24/7 consular response and assistance to Singaporeans.

Issues raised:

NMP Cheng Hsing Yao noted that Singaporeans may have forgotten the precautions and preparations needed when travelling and asked if the ministry reaches out to them to share travel tips.

Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) asked if the Government could consider extending scholarships to a limited number of refugees, who would benefit from education as an equaliser.

WP MP He Ting Ru (Sengkang GRC) asked about what more is being done to support women in the foreign service and their families, as the women move forward in their career.

5. Ministry of Home Affairs


Legislation will be introduced later in 2023 to protect Singaporeans from online criminal harms, such as scams and foreign interference.

Saliva test kits are being used at land checkpoints to aid in preliminary detection of the abuse of drugs such as cannabis, methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine within 10 minutes.

The Automated Passenger In-Car Clearance System will be rolled out at both land checkpoints eventually, allowing travellers to remain seated in the car and self-scan their passports and biometrics instead of manual checks by officers at counters.

Issues raised:

Mr Patrick Tay (Pioneer) asked for a review of the Registration of Criminals Act to look at the type of offences that are spent, including the duration since the past offence before a criminal record is spent, giving former offenders a higher chance of employment. A person with a spent record can legally declare that he has no criminal record.

Deputy Speaker Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) noted the recent proliferation of scams and asked for an update on public education and awareness efforts.

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) suggested that citizenship application criteria should include working proficiency in English, for better integration into society.

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6. Ministry of Law


The Public Defender’s Office set up in December 2022 received more than 250 applications as at Jan 31. Thirteen public defenders have been hired.

The Community Mediation Centre has begun offering mediation services at six satellite locations at selected ServiceSG centres and community clubs.

An industrywide secondment programme will be launched to deepen the capabilities of lawyers in important markets as well as new or high growth areas.

Issues raised:

Mr Derrick Goh (Nee Soon GRC) said the framework to address community dispute needs more bite to encourage compliance with relevant orders and agreements.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) asked for an update on divorce aid from the Legal Aid Bureau. He had come across divorce cases where only the unemployed party qualified for aid. The other party with a low-paying job ended up being unrepresented and disadvantaged.

WP MP Jamus Lim (Sengkang GRC) noted that with high land costs, religious institutions may struggle to find space. He asked if religious institutions that meet societal needs can have a special consideration for their class of land leases.

7. Ministry of Trade and Industry


A new 12-month Heartland Innovation and Transformation Programme will provide training courses and a conducive ecosystem to support innovation, such as by providing more temporary and permanent shop spaces to test ideas to build capabilities and scale.

Five tiny houses will be available at Lazarus Island for short-term stay, while other leisure activities will roll out in phases by around June at the Southern Islands.

EnterpriseSG will expand the Enterprise Sustainability Programme with new initiatives to give local enterprises easy access to tools and resources such as digital solutions, courses and partner programmes.

Issues raised:

Mr Melvin Yong (Radin Mas) proposed a cooling-off period for the beauty industry so that consumers have sufficient time to consider their beauty package purchases, addressing complaints of pressure sale tactics and misleading claims.

Ms Mariam Jaafar (Sembawang GRC) said that with 40 per cent of overall emissions coming from the power sector, decarbonising is an urgent priority. She asked how many solar panels on public flats are in operation.

NMP Raj Joshua Thomas asked if the Government was aware of the number of unprofitable businesses that rely on government funding schemes to stay in business.

Five tiny houses will be available at Lazarus Island for short-term stay. PHOTOS: LIANHE ZAOBAO

8. Ministry of Communications and Information


A new code of practice for app stores will require them to have systems and processes in place to deal with harmful content, such as those depicting explicit sexual activities or inciting violence.

A new DigitalAccess@Home scheme from April will provide subsidised broadband and digital devices to eligible low-income Singaporean households at rates as low as $5 per month.

Issues raised:

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Sustainability and the Environment, and Transport Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) said that vulnerable groups are disproportionately affected by harmful online content. Apart from the elderly, he said women, youth, people with disabilities and LGBTQ+ individuals are also at risk, and called for more awareness of such issues.

Mr Sharael Taha (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) asked how the ministry would ensure that the tech workforce stays resilient, given recent layoffs in the sector.

WP MP Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC) proposed that the Government should develop legislation to clarify what exactly constitutes greenwashing, which should be explicitly covered in the code of advertising practice.

9. Ministry of Education


From 2024, project work will be a pass/fail subject for first-year junior college students, and excluded from the University Admission Score (UAS).

Admissions from academic year 2024 will no longer have the fourth content-based subject in A-level exams counted in the computation of the UAS. It will be included only if it improves the UAS.

Starting from the 2024 Secondary 1 cohort, the ministry will post Primary 6 pupils to secondary schools through Posting Groups 1, 2 and 3.

Issues raised:

Dr Wan Rizal (Jalan Besar GRC) proposed that with some teachers facing stress and burnout, the ministry should establish clearer guidelines on working hours and designated times for things like marking and lesson planning.

Ms Carrie Tan (Nee Soon GRC) asked that nature and outdoor-based learning be made the main approach in early and primary education beyond occasional visits to farms and community gardens.

WP MP Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) asked about the proportion of SkillsFuture courses that are accessible to persons with disabilities, as they sometimes face barriers in attending the courses, such as charts and diagrams with no text descriptions.

10. Ministry of Manpower


To ensure employment pass applicants are not granted work passes off fake qualifications, their employers will need to provide third-party verification of diploma and higher qualifications they hold from Sept 1.

A new CareersFinder feature – a job and skills recommender – will be rolled out on the MyCareersFuture portal in the third quarter of 2023.

Employers will get an additional wage offset of up to 20 per cent for nine months, if they hire persons with disabilities who have not been working for the past six months.

Issues raised:

Mr Yip Hon Weng (Yio Chu Kang) suggested that to promote senior employability, the ministry could encourage phased retirement where seniors could gradually decrease the number of working days a week till retirement.

Ms Rachel Ong (West Coast GRC) asked how the ministry could support caregivers struggling to re-enter the workforce, given the lack of recognition of transferable caregiving skills such as empathy, stress tolerance and communication.

WP MP Louis Chua (Sengkang GRC) said the upcoming Tripartite Guidelines on Flexible Work Arrangements should be legislated and enforced rather than be just mere guidelines.

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11. Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment


Most supermarkets are set to charge at least five cents per plastic bag from July 3, including FairPrice, Cold Storage, Giant, Sheng Siong and Prime stores.

By mid-2024, consumers will have to pay a small deposit when buying a pre-packaged beverage and will receive a full refund when the empty container is returned for recycling at a return point.

The Singapore Food Agency will launch the first land tender for a wider range of new food types, such as fruited vegetables and mushrooms, in the second half of 2023.

Issues raised:

Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC) asked about the progress in novel future food such as cultured meat, given Singapore’s plan to meet 30 per cent of its nutritional needs locally by 2030.

Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC) said that with increased prices at hawker stalls, many have suggested reducing rental costs. She asked if rental costs had been increasing in tandem with inflation.

Ms Poh Li San (Sembawang GRC) noted that there were 19 dengue deaths in 2022 and asked if the ministry would be extending Project Wolbachia to more areas in the near future.

12. Ministry of National Development


Among the pool of first-timer applicants for Build-To-Order flats, eligible couples who are married and aged 40 or below or with children will have an extra ballot chance to help them secure a flat more quickly.

From May, all rental coffee shops due for tenancy renewal will need to provide four budget meals and two budget drinks.

A third community care apartment project with 200 units will be launched in Bedok in 2023, providing more options for seniors.

Issues raised:

Ms Cheryl Chan (East Coast GRC) asked if the ministry could build more four- and five-room flats and reduce the number of three-room flats so more young families who aspire to upgrade or move to larger units eventually could obtain a larger unit from the start.

Mr Ang Wei Neng (West Coast GRC) suggested that for segmented flats that need to incur high costs to install lifts on every floor, owners could be allowed to sell the flat back to the Housing Board at market price, after which JTC could lease them out to younger workers without mobility issues.

NMP Koh Lian Pin noted that researchers had identified temperature hot spots in areas such as Geylang and Woodlands, and asked about efforts to ensure the built environment continues to be liveable for residents in all estates.

13. Ministry of Transport


Trials of “Friendly Streets” will be conducted by 2025 in five towns to improve the walking and cycling experience in residential neighbourhoods, making them more inclusive and less vehicle-centric.

The deadline for condominiums to receive a grant to install electric vehicle chargers has been extended by two years to December 2025.

A total of 77 pedestrian overhead bridges have been retrofitted with lifts and another 30 will be done. The authorities plan to launch a new phase to retrofit more than 110 existing such bridges with lifts.

Issues raised:

Ms Yeo Wan Ling (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) said point-to-point drivers who use electric vehicles for their livelihoods should have priority use of charging points.

Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) asked the ministry to consider a feasibility study on extending the Cross Island Line from Punggol West to support residents in Jalan Kayu and Yio Chu Kang Road.

Ms Nadia Ahmad Samdin (Ang Mo Kio GRC) asked the ministry for an update on silver zones being rolled out, given the ageing population.

Trials of “Friendly Streets” will be conducted by 2025 in five towns to improve the walking and cycling experience in residential neighbourhoods. PHOTO: LTA

14. Ministry of Health


From July, Singaporeans will be awarded 3,000 Healthpoints worth $20 after completing the first Healthier SG doctor consultation, which will be fully subsidised by the Government.

For patients with complex chronic diseases and who need more medication, they can opt to get drugs that are commonly used in polyclinics at around the same prices as they usually get at polyclinics, when they go to a Healthier SG GP clinic.

Another benefit under Healthier SG is the removal of cash co-payment when using MediSave for chronic treatment. Patients can use MediSave to pay their bills fully, up to the withdrawal limit, from early 2024.

Issues raised:

Mr Xie Yao Quan (Jurong GRC) asked about the ministry’s plans to scale up palliative care capabilities and capacities, given that many Singaporeans wish to eventually die at home.

Ms Ng Ling Ling (Ang Mo Kio GRC) asked how traditional Chinese medicine practitioners can be supported to embark on clinical research that can provide data and insights on health intervention efficacy.

NMP Tan Yia Swam proposed a new speciality – a clinical insurer or a medical doctor who changes track mid-career and brings their clinical knowledge into how insurance should work.

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15. Ministry of Social and Family Development


There will be 1,400 more programme places over the next two years for children requiring medium to high levels of early intervention support.

More than 20,000 employees in the social sector, such as social workers and early intervention educators, will see pay increases of between 4 per cent and 15 per cent in the 2023 financial year.

The Families for Life @ Community initiative will be expanded from two to nine towns by end-2023 and all towns by 2025. The initiative offers localised marriage, parenting and grandparenting programmes.

Issues raised:

Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) asked that regular feedback be sought on schemes such as the Community Silver Trust, whose design she said encourages charities to keep thinking of new projects yearly to qualify for funds when there are existing programmes that need to be paid for.

Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) asked if the level of support under the KidStart programme for children from low-income families is adequate.

NMP Shahira Abdullah asked if the ministry would review staff-child ratios in childcare and infant care centres to ensure smaller group sizes.

16. Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth


All Singaporeans and permanent residents aged four to 12 will receive a top-up of $100 ActiveSG credits, if they are ActiveSG members or sign up between May 1 and Oct 31.

To help professionalise the sector, a new National Registry of Exercise Professionals will be launched in three phases from April.

Mendaki will expand its Professional Networks programme, which connects young Malay/Muslim professionals in the care, green and digital sectors, to include other in-demand industries like finance, sustainability and engineering.

Issues raised:

Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) suggested that the National Youth Forum or the likes of it be reinstated to allow youth a more structured and hands-on programme to learn how policymakers think.

Ms Hany Soh (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) asked if the former Innova Junior College site’s running track could be used by residents to create a new community sporting venue.

NMP Mark Chay asked about efforts to ensure aspiring national athletes are given adequate emotional and psychological support, as mental health and resilience are essential factors to sporting success.

By the numbers

A total of 68 MPs raised their concerns or proposed alternative schemes in 646 cuts – or short speeches – across 16 ministries. They also made suggestions to improve the processes of the judicature and Parliament.

The total expenditure across ministries is expected to hit $104.2 billion in Budget 2023, up from the $102.4 billion in 2022. This is out of the overall $123.7 billion Budget that also includes special transfers such as Community Development Council vouchers.

When an MP wants to raise questions or suggestions for a ministry’s programmes, he will ask for a symbolic “cut” – a nominal $100 reduction from the ministry’s allocation in the new budget. The minister and other office-holders then give their responses, and the MP withdraws his proposed “cut” if he is satisfied with the explanation.

During the debate, 29 office-holders announced their respective ministries’ latest plans.

This took about 52 hours over seven days, from Feb 28 to March 6. Following the debate, Parliament approved the Budget. It becomes law when the President’s assent is given.

Every MP, Nominated MP and Non-Constituency MP has 18 minutes to speak on areas they are interested in. Opposition MPs and chairmen of government parliamentary committees have an extra two minutes, or 20 minutes in total. MPs who start the debate for a ministry also get an extra two minutes.

This year, everyone but two MPs set out to make full use of their allotted time, whether it was 18 minutes (minimum) or 24 minutes (maximum). Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth, and Social and Family Development Eric Chua (Tanjong Pagar GRC) used eight minutes, while Ms Poh Li San (Sembawang GRC), used 17 minutes.

Longest cuts: Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) for health (19 minutes), Mr Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC) for manpower (12 minutes), Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) for home affairs (10 minutes)

Longest speeches by ministers: Mr Ong Ye Kung (Sembawang GRC) for health (45 minutes), Mr Tan See Leng (Marine Parade GRC) for manpower (45 minutes), Mr Edwin Tong (Marine Parade GRC) for culture, community and youth (45 minutes)

MPs with the most cuts: Mr Xie Yao Quan (Jurong GRC) with 30, Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) with 29, and Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) with 22

Ministries with the longest clarification time: Ministry of Education (55 minutes), Ministry of National Development (50 minutes), Ministry of Manpower (45 minutes)

Ministries with the longest debate: Ministry of National Development (5hr 45min), Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (4hr 50 min), Ministry of Manpower (4hr 45min)

Ministries with the most cuts: Ministry of National Development with 81, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth with 71, and Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment with 49

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