Welcome back, Mr Heng

In the nine months since Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat collapsed during a Cabinet meeting in May last year, Parliament has sat seven times - and yesterday's Budget 2017 sitting was as keenly anticipated for his return as it was for the Government's spending plans.

With a sweeping, confident wave, he signalled it was business as usual yesterday as he entered with his characteristically purposeful stride of old into Parliament House to deliver the Budget speech.

Mr Heng was making his first appearance in the House after suffering a stroke from a burst aneurysm on May 12 last year. Some had wondered then if he would be able to recover and deliver another Budget this year.

So, as he made his way to the rostrum from his seat in the front row, it was clear the House was happy to see him back. Even before he began to speak, a loud thumping broke out spontaneously as Members of Parliament from both sides of the aisle tapped the armrests of their chairs in welcome.

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A grin spread across his face as he looked around to acknowledge his colleagues, and asked: "Before I begin the Budget statement, may I express my deepest thanks to the House?" Of course, he could.

As he went on to thank Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and members of the House for their get-well wishes when he was not well, a palpable feeling of goodwill swept the gathering. The minister, who appeared to have gained weight since giving his first public interview in December, continued: "Thank you also to all friends and colleagues, the residents of Tampines, fellow Singaporeans and friends from overseas. Your kindness and encouragement are both humbling and uplifting to me and my family. I am happy to be back in the chamber and grateful for the opportunity to continue alongside members of this House to serve Singapore and Singaporeans to the best of our ability."

Although Mr Heng returned to work at the Finance Ministry last August, he has mostly stayed away from public events on the advice of his doctor, as his lungs were still recovering from an infection picked up in hospital.

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Still, the road to recovery after a stroke is not an easy one, let alone for a man in charge of a country's finances. But any concerns were dispelled as, appearing relaxed and steady, Mr Heng outlined the Government's financial plans and policies for the year.

For 11/2 hours, he spoke without a break, stopping briefly for a drink of water only when materials were being handed out to MPs.

In the even, purposeful manner with which he delivered his first Budget a year ago, he explained how the policies would address the immediate concerns of Singaporeans and companies, while laying the groundwork for a rapidly changing world.

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At the end of his speech, a relieved House burst into thumps again. Heng Swee Keat was back.

Said Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland- Bukit Timah GRC): "He was more relaxed (than during last year's Budget), and he paced it very nicely and delivered it very smoothly."

Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) said some people wondered if Mr Heng had intentionally spoken for a shorter time this year. His maiden Budget speech as Finance Minister last year lasted over two hours. But Mr Zaqy said the length had more to do with there being no "major blockbuster announcements".

Political observer Zulkifli Baharudin said many would have been watching for the slightest pause or sign of strain. "People want to be confident that he can carry on in the job and do it well," he said. He added: "It is not just about him, it is about how Singapore keeps to its word that it will always pick the best person for the job, so if he had shown signs he was not up to it, people would have lost confidence."

Former Nominated MP and law don Eugene Tan said Mr Heng had been able to sustain his energy level throughout the session. "You look at his posture, his voice, his demeanour, no one would have suspected that he had suffered a stroke."

He pointed out that next week's Budget debate will be a lot more demanding for Mr Heng, as MPs typically make about 50 speeches.

This article was first published on Feb 21, 2017.
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