From the gallery

Totting up the dollars and sense of government spending

Money matters dominated yesterday's 90-minute Question Time in Parliament. The sitting opened with MPs pushing for more measures to rein in petrol pump prices, an item that motorists are passionate about since it hits them where it hurts - their pockets.

Next up, questions over the alignment of the MRT Cross Island Line (CRL), which pits its impact on the Government's - and ultimately taxpayers' - pocket against that on the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, this city state's last remaining primary forest area.

Then, Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) asked Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen about the higher cost of the venue for this year's National Day Parade, to be held at the National Stadium.

As yesterday's exchanges showed, spending decisions - whether by individuals or governments - are more often than not matters of judgment that reflect differing values and priorities. 

Obviously, the price tags involved varied greatly, from the hundreds of dollars that motorists believe they are out of pocket due to alleged profiteering by oil companies; to the $2 billion more that the Transport Ministry says it will cost for a longer rail alignment that skirts around the nature reserve.

Two key issues arose from the exchanges between the front and back benches: how to measure value in government spending, and how transparent ministries should be about the sums involved and the corresponding outcomes.

This year's National Day Parade, for example, is estimated to cost $39.4 million. That is significantly more than recent parades held at the Marina Bay floating platform and the Padang, which cost between $15.7 million and $20.6 million. The exception was last year's SG50 parade at the Padang, which cost $40.5 million.

Dr Ng acknowledged the venue costs for the National Stadium - now run as a public-private partnership by the Sports Hub - is higher than for public venues such as the Padang and Marina Bay floating platform. However, the stadium's larger capacity means twice as many people - about 275,000 - can catch the parade, previews and rehearsals this year.

Ms Lim in turn sought greater transparency. She asked for the cost of the parade to be included in the Budget and for an itemised breakdown of costs. Underlying her request, there seems to be a concern that parade costs will balloon in the years ahead, unless organisers are made to account for their spending.

By contrast, the concern when it comes to the CRL seems to be that the Government will be unduly tight-fisted, and sacrifice a nature area that some consider priceless, for the sake of a $2 billion saving in construction costs.

In asking for the total cost of the 50km rail line that will span the island from east to west, Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) was reflecting a point of view that has gained some traction: that $2 billion may not be a significant sum relative to the project's total cost. Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said he did not yet have a figure for the CRL's total cost as the line is a massive project that will first require four to five years of study.

"For the next leg of the studies," he told the House, "if we are allowed to proceed with the site investigations, we will be doing much more public consultations and that will allow the Land Transport Authority to firm up on many of the answers to many of the questions that have yet to be answered, such as who are affected, how much it will cost, etc."

He emphasised the planned rail line's benefits. Nearly half of its 30 stations will be interchanges that allow commuters to switch to other MRT lines. It will serve areas such as Pasir Ris, Hougang, Ang Mo Kio, Bukit Timah, Clementi and West Coast, whose residents are set to make at least 600,000 trips daily after the CRL is completed in 2030.

The Government is considering two alignments: a shorter route that will run directly under the nature reserve, and a longer route that runs around it. Besides costing an estimated $2 billion more, the longer route will add six minutes to travel time, a fact that cannot be "brushed aside", Mr Khaw said.

He also made the point that in choosing between the two alignments, the Government will have to take into account not just the environmental impact, but also the total impact, including that on taxpayers and commuters.

As yesterday's exchanges showed, spending decisions - whether by individuals or governments - are more often than not matters of judgment that reflect differing values and priorities. It is certainly the prerogative of MPs to scrutinise government spending. That is after all a key role of Parliament.

But in doing so, MPs have a duty to both reflect, and lead, public opinion.

Mr Khaw offered some sound advice. He urged Singaporeans to "keep an open mind, go with the facts... look for evidence".

Yet the public will be better placed to take his advice if they feel assured that the Government will be open and upfront with them, and provide them with the facts and information they need to make sound, unbiased decisions.

Ultimately, in a parliamentary democracy like Singapore's, the Cabinet decides on what to spend and how much. But public consultation and transparency in the Government's dealings with concerned stakeholders build trust for the long term.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 01, 2016, with the headline 'From the gallery: Toting up the dollars and sense of govt spending'. Print Edition | Subscribe