Parliament approves $123.7b Budget as debate ends with call for MPs to avoid polarisation, populism

Parliament’s deliberations should shape the public discourse and set the direction for the country, said Leader of the House Indranee Rajah. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE – Parliament here must avoid going down the path of others worldwide that have become gridlocked, hamstrung or at such loggerheads that countries cannot move forward, and their people pay the price, Leader of the House Indranee Rajah said on Monday.

She was responding to a speech by Nominated MP Cheng Hsing Yao near the end of the debate on the Government’s Budget. He had laid out four principles that MPs here should follow to ensure that the Singapore Parliament would always be “an effective and respected political arena”.

The four principles are to be factually accurate, to highlight both benefits and trade-offs, to be constructive and to avoid creating polarisation.

Ms Indranee agreed with Mr Cheng, and added a fifth: “We should consistently endeavour to do what is right and avoid a descent into populism.”

This exchange occurred right before Parliament passed the Government’s $123.7 billion spending plans for the coming financial year, and Ms Indranee, as Leader of the House, rounded up the debate.

“As MPs, we not only have to reflect the concerns of people and give voice to the aspirations of Singaporeans, but also exercise our judgment on issues and speak up for what we believe in, even if it is contrary to the prevailing or most popular view,” she said.

Parliament’s deliberations should shape the public discourse and set the direction for the country, she added. 

“We have to think not only about the here and now, but also for the future. We must think not only for one group, but for all Singaporeans.”

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She cited examples of other countries where polarisation has led to ugly outcomes, such as the attack on the Capitol Building in the United States on Jan 6, 2021.

“Those were scenes we never expected to see in America, the bastion of democracy, but they happened, and they happened as a result of deep polarisation. We can have different political philosophies, but what we must avoid in our Parliament is the politics of division,” she said.

She added: “There is a difference between reflecting genuine ground concerns, which is our duty, and the deliberate stoking of anger and creating or intensifying of divides, which is not only wrong, but dangerous.”

Mr Cheng had said earlier that bringing up alternative viewpoints is critical to prevent groupthink. 

“However, there is a constructive way to do it. We can promote critical thinking among our populace, but not cynicism,” he said.

In his round-up speech, Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin also spoke on the role of MPs.

He noted that the Budget debate this year was “relatively genteel and civilised”, and there was “more agreement and alignment than not”.

“We know that there is no way that every single person would agree with every single thing, not within government, nor the opposition nor society at large. And this is natural, and it is to be expected,” he said.

“But when the dust has settled, I think it is important for us to agree to disagree in areas that we don’t find agreement on, but also come together, unite and support a shared agenda so that we can move forward decisively together,” he added.

Mr Tan asked the House to ponder on some questions – what kind of parliamentarians and leaders do they want to be in the Chamber, and what kind of leaders they want as citizens.

“What do we as leaders in the political environment… do? Do we pander to popular sentiments, knowing that it actually does work? Or do we try to make what we believe would be right, or perhaps a less popular decision?” he said.

“Do we promise dreams that cannot be fulfilled because we know that we don’t have to actually do it for real? Truth is, this is probably the norm in most societies.  So the question again is, what do we want for our own society and Singapore?”

Concluding on a positive note, Mr Tan said he believed Singapore’s best days are ahead of it.

“How much better we can be, if we begin to iron out the kinks, if we begin to actively seek to improve and to develop better leaders at all levels. There are far greater heights that we can climb, and we can all do even better for people and our nation,” he said.

The round-up speeches capped two weeks of debate which saw close to 70 hours of back-and-forth, where 58 MPs spoke on the Budget statement itself, and 661 cuts – short speeches – were filed in the debate on the ministries’ budgets.

This year’s debate, while more muted than last year’s, which discussed the goods and services tax rate increase and measures on foreign manpower, covered a wide range of topics, from housing prices and supply to support for lower-wage workers.

In her speech, Ms Indranee summarised the various moves made by all ministries, but highlighted one in particular.

She said: “Every year, there will be one ministry that receives intense interest and the highest number of cuts. This year was no exception. And this year, the distinction went to the Ministry of National Development. Not surprising, with the high interest in housing issues.”

She added that with the approval of Budget 2023, the current Parliament had taken an important step in positioning Singapore well for the post-pandemic future.

“Budget 2023 will enable us to adapt more nimbly to this changed world and to secure our future, anchored by a fair, sound and sustainable fiscal plan.”

In a Facebook post on Monday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote that slower growth, higher inflation, and increased geopolitical tensions are but some of the many challenges facing Singapore, and this year’s Budget will prepare the country to go forward in the post pandemic era.

“I thank everyone – MPs, officers from the Whole of Government, and the team at Parliament of Singapore – who contributed and ensured that proceedings ran smoothly,” he said. “We all have a part to play in forging a better Singapore for ourselves and our loved ones.”

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