The national Budget is about putting the country's interests first, rather than trying to please everyone, said Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam yesterday.
"We don't shape Budgets to win elections. We shape Budgets that are in the interest of Singapore's future, and we've got to find the right balance," he said.
He was speaking to about 400 young people at a forum on the Budget organised by the People's Association Youth Movement and moderated by Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Janil Puthucheary.
Mr Tharman was responding to a question from Dunman High School student Gwyneth Lee, 18, who asked about the hike in petrol duties introduced in last month's Budget, and how the Government would deal with any dissatisfaction stemming from Budget measures ahead of the next elections.
He said: "I think Singaporeans should be very worried if every year's Budget was all sweetness and light. Because then you'd be worried about what this Government is about, if it's only wanting to do popular things... So we do what is right."
Citing some European nations that overspent and are now in the grip of austerity measures, Mr Tharman said: "They overdid it in the earlier years, year after year, election after election, promising people all the good things. Eventually you come to the limit, and you have to cut back, and the cutbacks hurt the young and the poor."
The higher petrol duty, he added, would help Singapore confront the problem of road congestion and reduce carbon emissions.
In the meantime, the Government will offset some of the pain with a one-year road tax rebate.
Mr Tharman also put to rest worries that government help would weaken the role of the family or the individual. "It's not that government and community help has to be at the expense of them exercising their own effort."
He added, from his years of experience interacting with people on the ground: "One of the heartwarming things about Singaporeans is they will often rise to help themselves more when they receive help from you."
He also said that when the Government lends a hand, it is with an eye to strengthening the values that underpin society here, namely work and family support.
"If we get generous too quickly, we find it erodes the values that are important to us," he said.
The new SkillsFuture programme, which will help Singaporeans master skills in adult life, was also a hot topic among the forum participants. They included Hwa Chong Institution graduate Clarence Cheong, 19, who asked about the scheme's rationale.
Mr Tharman said it was important not to "frontload" too much learning as this favours "those who have a head start".
"If we stretch learning out throughout life, I think it's better also for social mobility," he said.
He repeated this point last night at a Chinese New Year dinner in Eunos, where he was guest of honour among 1,200 residents.
Speaking on stage at the dinner, he stressed the importance of developing every Singaporean's potential throughout his life. "You will never know your potential when you are young. You may think you got good grades, you got bad grades," he said. "That is not your potential. Your potential will appear only during life."
Additional reporting by Amelia Tan