Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin delivering his closing speech at the Committee of Supply debates in Parliament on Fri (8 Mar 2019). Source: CNA

Parliament would not have made provisions for Merdeka Generation Package if this was an “election Budget”: Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin, on criticisms against Budget 2019

In light of calls for the Government to devise “more universal and permanent schemes” for Singaporeans instead of what some have dubbed as temporary schemes tailored to lure in voters before every General Election, Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin said that contrary to such opinions, the Government already has a history of implementing such long-term schemes in the past.

In his closing speech at the Committee of Supply debates on Friday (8 Mar), Mr Tan said that “Budgets are built upon Budgets of years gone by”, and that “there is always a context and there is always a system in place”.

“When we begin to understand the context of each group that we’re looking at, you then realise that there are differentiated needs as well. Hence, you layer it on with various packages.

“There’ll be those who feel that they’re not directly benefiting from the Budget. But it’s useful to remember, and we’ve been through the debates in the last two weeks, that we have honoured so many different groups.

“When we consider, for example, the Merdeka Generation Package during this COS (Committee of Supply), some have asked for more universal and permanent schemes.

“Honestly, if this was an election Budget, you will not see us budgeting for the Merdeka Generation package here. We will shift the burden to the future. That’s what most governments do because the monies can be spent to make all of us happier in so many different ways.

“A politically astute Government would use this dominance and wherewithal to justify even more spending”, instead of touching “about prudence, about balance, about trade-offs, possible future GST (Goods and Services Tax) increases in the next term.

“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,” assured Mr Tan.

Govt does not seek to act upon “wanton political largesse and populism” in drawing and enacting national policies

Mr Tan, a member of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), also highlighted that “in spite of occasional differences and disagreements over details” with opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) and Nominated MPs in the House during the legislative process, the majority of MPs, regardless of political affiliation, are in support of targeting the needs of specific groups via packages such as the MGP.

He stressed that the Government, in drawing and enacting its policies, does not simply wish to succumb to “wanton political largesse and populism”.

“This can only happen” if Singaporeans “understand the issues that are grappled with and debated here, and have that same sense of perspective,” said Mr Tan.

“But do Singaporeans take reference from what is articulated here or from other sources? Are distortions purveyed online much more seductive? Are we Singaporeans very evidence-based in the way we look at things?

“We talk about false and fake news impacting perceptions. These are really not trivial at all because they erode trust, they erode confidence and ultimately, they undermine leaders and institutions, including the Parliament.

“When that happens, you lose that mandate and space to make the difficult decisions for the long haul and the greater good, even as you endeavour to make life better for individuals today.

“When that happens, there will be a reversion to the norm.

“And the norm is an absence of long-term planning. And what will Singapore look like when that doesn’t exist?” warned Mr Tan.

WATCH: Parliament Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin on how and why #SGBudget2019 was not an ‘election Budget’

 

Fulfilment of the “urgent needs of today” must be balanced with the “contingencies of tomorrow”

Despite the importance of long-term planning, according to Mr Tan, it is crucial for Singaporeans to remember that “there are urgent needs of today and there are also contingencies of tomorrow”, and that it is important to balance the two instead of disproportionately focusing on one or the other.

“There are our pressing wants and desires that are here and now, but there are also those of our children, and our children’s children in the many, many years to come,” he stressed.

“Long-term investments in public infrastructure”, he illustrated, “are not always made because you do not reap the political dividends of these efforts”.

“It takes a long gestation time … By the time the projects are ready, someone else will be benefiting from your generosity.

“The monies are better spent on initiatives where people respond to in the way they vote, today,” he assured.

“In countries where systems are corrupt, you will actually initiate these projects. In fact, many projects, because that’s where you cream off the kickbacks, and you make what you can, because sometimes you don’t know how long you’re going to be there,” said Mr Tan.

“These projects,” he added, “are seldom seen all the way through”.

At the other end of the two extremities, said Mr Tan, “some systems are running from pillar to post, from one election cycle to another, because the preoccupation is the present, just to get elected”.

“Now, if we are an inherently selfish society, we will only be preoccupied with the individual and the present. But is this who we are? And what we aspire to be?” he questioned.

Singaporeans “need to have a sense of history” to understand “what is best for Singapore”, which “may not always be maximal for the individual”

Mr Tan also urged Singaporeans to delve deeper into historical contexts as well as contemporary ones, from both local and global perspectives, in order to understand the reasoning behind changes made in the Government’s policies over time, suggesting that Singapore’s collective interests at times must outweigh those of individual citizens.

“At the heart of everything we do, and we have heard that, is that it surely must be about Singaporeans.

“But as we all know, what is ideal for the individual is not always optimal for society, for Singapore as a whole.

“And what’s best for Singapore as a whole may not always be maximal for the individual.

“Is there, as Minister Heng Swee Keat puts it, a “Singapore Way”, where we are actually interested in others and not just self, and where we are actually interested in our future, and not just the present?

“Now, to do this well, we need to have perspective.

“We need to have a sense of history, a sense of time and space – where we came from, why and how our story and our policies evolved.

“We need to know the context and how it and the world are changing. Our citizens, too, need that perspective,” said Mr Tan.