Singaporeans obviously followed the Budget 2023 proceedings with more than the usual interest. If nothing else, they would want to know what the government will be doing to help them cope with the GST increases, among other things. There was another reason. They would be interested in the performance of Deputy PM and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, their future PM.

How would he deal with an elected Opposition which seemed to be getting better and better? Steamroller? Gently dismissive? Engager?

The Workers’ Party, to its credit, took on a positive tone as it usually did for most Budgets. No credible Opposition would want to find major fault with something like the Budget which is usually crafted out to assist citizens, help businesses and launch programmes vital for the country’s economy and social development. You participate as part of the team, as far as possible.

Sometimes, however, things take a surprising turn. Lawrence Wong found himself in a spirited debate with WP MPs Pritam Singh and Leon Perera, both from the Aljunied GRC. The two issues which triggered the debate were BTO flats and Singapore’s reserves.

The DPM spoke about a 2019 WP working paper which, according to Singh, was in response to the VERS programme.

According to TODAY, the paper noted that resident population growth had been around 30,000 a year since 2010 and 2011.

“Assuming an average household size of 3.3, this would mean that around 9,000 or so new dwelling units are required annually,” the paper said, adding that completions of BTO flats within the same time period have far exceeded the resident population growth.

The paper asked: “Will the HDB have a vacancy rate problem, compounded by a still steady stream of 16,000 to 17,000 BTO units in the last few years, which will continue to increase supply up to 2022?

“BTO projects should continue, but, rather than creating too many new towns, planners would do well to consider, in future, partly meeting demand from new family formation by selling balance flats in mature estates acquired under the Universal Sale and Lease Back scheme or USB. This would help advance urban renewal in the mature estates where many Singapore desire to live, since these are nearer to the city centre which will continue to increase supply up to 2022?”

The government had already criticised WPs proposal, with National Development Minister Demond Lee earlier saying: “So in 2019, the WP was recommending that HDB should only build 9,000 dwelling units or so … had we tapered down our supply to WP’s level in 2019, or listened to you and your experts, I think our BTO shortage would be even greater today.”

Leon Perera stood up in Parliament to clarify: “So the call to action (in the working paper) says that BTO should continue. I repeat, “BTO projects should continue”. It doesn’t say the “BTO project should continue at reduced rates”. It doesn’t say, “BTO projects should stop”. It doesn’t say… Let me continue — it says BTO projects should continue and then it goes on to say that you can taper that down in the longer term when our universal sale and lease back proposal kicks in, which would yield flats that could be repurposed for sale of balance flats or for an expanded public rental scheme.”

Wong struck a big tent note when he said: “We are not here to pass judgement because with the benefit of hindsight, of course it is very easy to say (but) no one would have predicted that we would have a Covid-19 crisis and what has happened in the last three years… So let’s acknowledge that with some humility.”

But not before he and Pritam and Perera crossed microphones again over Singapore’s reserves.

Wong: “..their repeated calls for the government to spend more from the reserves — to slow the growth of the reserves, increase the 50 per cent NIRC formula, change the reserve rules — different options, different suggestions, dressed up in multiple ways, but it boils down to the same consistent ask.”

And he contrasted the WP’s current position with that of Low Thia Khiang. The former WP secretary-general had in 2009 expressed concern that the government wanted to draw S$4.9 billion of past reserves to help Singaporeans tide over the Global Financial Crisis.

Pritam replied: “The simple answer to that is that the position of the WP has evolved because circumstances have evolved significantly.”

Similarly, I think our Parliament has evolved. The debates will get better. Everyone of the WP team is capable of testing the PAP. In particular, Leon Perera is getting more vocal.

And Lawrence Wong seems the right, more inclusive, engaging PAP leader for the times.

Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.SG, is a former senior leader with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a magazine publishing company.