Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Budget Debate 2016.
Madam Speaker, let me first start by thanking the Minister for Finance for a positive Budget 2016 and a Budget Statement that was filled with positive stories. It is a Budget Statement about how everyone has a role to play and together, we will write the next chapters of the Singapore story.
This is a budget which helps everyone but with a stronger focus on SMEs, our young, our low wage workers, persons with disabilities, our seniors and Institutions of Public Characters.
It is a budget that tells us that more change is on the horizon and we must take this journey of change together.
Issues close to my heart and the hearts of Singaporeans
I initially wanted to focus this speech on the issues I filed cuts on. Issues that I care about deeply and issues residents and fellow Singaporeans have raised to me.
I filed 20 cuts altogether, raising concerns on how we can help single parents, young parents, the elderly, low-income families, micro SMEs, drug offenders in their rehabilitation process, foreign workers, fighting climate change, the transboundary haze issue, improving flood management, moving towards a Car-Lite City, beefing up our Home Team, improving electronic waste recycling, expanding the ABC Waters Programme, extending the smoking prohibition, improving animal welfare, fighting wildlife trafficking and lastly improving the OneService App.
Engage and partner with Singaporeans in nation building
It would have been a speech about a few main issues from the above cuts but I scrapped that speech and decided instead to focus on something more fundamental and what the President had asked us to do in his address to us in January this year. And that is to “engage and partner with Singaporeans in nation building”, the fifth of the five key aims, this government aims to fulfill.
I see this Budget Debate as one of the last few chapters of this “Budget” journey. In fact, we are nearing our destination. I do feel that we perhaps need to take a few steps back and add a few more chapters in this journey.
This budget is one huge item in our agenda that affects everyone in Singapore. It is something that everyone has a stake in and everyone should have a voice in. I strongly believe that we should use this opportunity to engage and partner with Singaporeans in nation building. This is our best opportunity to do so in each financial year.
In this journey, we have asked fellow Singaporeans for their feedback through a public consultation exercise which started on February 1 and ended on February 26. In less than a month, the Budget Statement was announced and many have asked if we can effectively digest all the feedback from the public within a month.
Minister Heng had mentioned that we received over a thousand feedback but of course I understand that not all was received on the last day.
But the question here is whether we can make this journey less rushed. I am not advocating for us to delay the Budget Statement but rather I hope we can start the process earlier.
Refining our public consultation process
For a financial year that starts in April, I suggest that we start the first public consultation about the Budget in November the previous year for a period of one month.
So we start the consultation in November rather than February and this consultation is similar to what we are already doing. It gather general ideas from the public about what they want to see in the Budget and members of the public provide this feedback without knowing what the government has in mind or the general direction it is heading.
We then take two months to digest all the feedback, which is from December until January.
In February, we release a draft Budget Statement similar to what we released on March 24. We then have another round of public consultation about that Budget Statement for a month.
This second round of public consultation is a good opportunity for members of this house to obtain feedback from the ground and work towards incorporating them into the final Budget Statement. And the feedback obtained from this consultation will likely be more specific since member of the public now know what the government has in mind based on their previous feedback and it is now about fine-tuning the ideas.
The final Budget Statement is then read towards the end of March, after digesting the feedback from the second round of public consultation for a month.
Is this process more tedious? The answer without a doubt is yes. But will people feel more engaged, more empowered and will this strengthen our partnership with fellow Singaporeans? The answer is without a doubt also yes.
We need to change the narrative and it is changing. It has gone from the government organising sessions to tell people what the new policies are to sessions now asking for feedback before we draft the new policies. But I think we can, we should and we must go one step further.
The destination is important but I feel the journey is even more crucial. Communication has to be two ways and after we obtain feedback from the public, we should incorporate as many of them as possible into the policies, show people the draft policies and then get feedback again.
This will show that public consultation is not just an exercise for us to put a tick in the box but that we are truly listening and that their views and feedback are being looked into, worked on, perhaps even expanded and then incorporated into the final product.
Ground Concerns about Budget 2016
But don’t get me wrong, this Budget 2016 is a good budget for Singapore and Singaporeans but it can be better. I feel there are more ideas out there that can be explored.
There is no doubt that there has been a lot of public feedback about this Budget.
I am sure we have all seen the feedback about the budget both online and in the print media and on the ground, at the coffee shops and during our house visits.
As always, there is praise and there are criticisms. There will always be negative feedback but these may also be ideas that we have not thought of and they may be worth exploring.
The most feedback I’ve received is from the parents of the 93 babies born each day before 24 March 2016 when the new First Step Grant kicked in.
There are questions on why 24 March, why not 1 January 2016? Since the babies born from 1 January until 23 March 2016 missed out on the SG50 Baby Jubilee Gift and now the First Step Grant. And so I hope we can backdate it and provide the grant to babies born from 1st January 2016.
There are concerns about whether the cap on the tax relief will hit working mothers hardest, there are concerns on whether the development of Coney Island will affect the environment there. There are concerns on why we are lowering the cash payout rate for the Productivity and Innovation Credit Scheme and proceeding with increasing the foreign worker levies for the services and construction sectors.
I believe these are all valid concerns that we should look into and it is for that reason that I hope that for the next year, we will include a public consultation phase after the Budget Statement is read and before the announcement of a final Budget.
Madam Speaker, in my maiden speech, I spoke about how we can mobilise our most important and valuable resource in Singapore – our people.
How to engage people, we need to listen more than we speak. And I quoted “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”
And how we are not there just to explain policies to people, to throw them facts and figures but we are there to truly listen and understand.
I held my townhall last Saturday and spent close to two hours just listening to the feedback from residents about the Budget and many other issues. They spoke of their hopes, their aspirations and their dreams for Singapore. For me, it was a powerful session and there are ideas and suggestions there that we need work on and perhaps incorporate into the next Budget.
This Budget is about partnerships and about starting our journey together for the next 50 years. And I agree with Minister Heng that there is no doubt that we must grow our economy and invest collectively for the long term – in our people, our home, our security.
And with a population that is engaged, empowered, inspired and mobilised, this journey will be even more amazing, the Singapore story even more powerful and this red dot will shine even brighter.
Madam Speaker, I support this Budget.