Lawrence Wong rebuts WP on tapping reserves

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong has fired back at a statement by Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh that the Government has more money now and does not appear to need more by taxing the population.

The issue of whether to tap more of the country's reserves to meet growing spending needs emerged on the fourth day of the debate on the President's Address, with National Development Minister Lawrence Wong crossing swords with two Workers' Party (WP) MPs.

WP chief Pritam Singh and Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera both highlighted the size of the returns from the reserves. Mr Perera called for the share of returns that can be spent on current needs - now capped at 50 per cent - to be raised.

These returns have "put more money and by extension more political capital in the hands of the current government... than any other generation of People's Action Party leaders", Mr Singh said on Monday, as he questioned the Government's line that the country's fiscal position will become more difficult.

Rebutting the WP yesterday, Mr Wong pointed to considerable investments needed for urban transformation as well as other needs. Mr Wong, who is also Second Minister for Finance, said Mr Singh "forgot to mention" that current fiscal commitments and spending are at their highest-ever level.

"Without additional revenues, how are we to meet the growing healthcare needs as well as the many other proposals that various people, including the WP MPs, have been asking for?" he asked.

The Government has said it plans to raise revenue through a 2 percentage point increase in the goods and services tax (GST) in the next decade, a move the WP opposes.

On the WP's call to relook the 50 per cent cap on spending from the returns of the reserves, last debated in 2016, Mr Wong said: "What does it say about us and our mindsets... if the minute we need the money, the first thing we do is to relax the rules? Surely, that would be ill-disciplined, imprudent and unwise."

While these returns are the biggest revenue source now, Mr Wong does not expect it to rise as a share of GDP. In fact there is a risk that it may come down, due to historically low interest rates, he said.

"So if you look at this overall picture, spending beyond this term of government going up... revenue uncertain (with) more downside risk than before, then I think you will appreciate that our fiscal position is in fact not that strong," he said.

Asked by Mr Perera if the GST hike could prove a drag on growth, Mr Wong replied that it could. "So what I would very much like to hear from (MPs), if you think that this is a concern, please let us have proposals not to spend more, which we keep hearing, but to spend less for a change."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2018, with the headline 'Lawrence Wong rebuts WP on tapping reserves'. Print Edition | Subscribe