Parliament

President briefed on reserves, supported drawing on it: DPM

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat and officials from the Ministry of Finance briefing President Halimah Yacob and members of the Council of Presidential Advisers in December on expected returns on the reserves. Mr Heng said the President is entitl
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat and officials from the Ministry of Finance briefing President Halimah Yacob and members of the Council of Presidential Advisers in December on expected returns on the reserves. Mr Heng said the President is entitled to any information on the reserves and is aware of its size. PHOTO: HALIMAH YACOB/FACEBOOK

President Halimah Yacob is aware of the size of Singapore's reserves and had given her approval for the draw on it with full knowledge of why it was necessary, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said in answer to questions from two Workers' Party MPs.

Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan and Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) had both asked during the two-day budget debate that ended yesterday if the information was made available to Madam Halimah before she made the decision to allow the reserves to be drawn down.

Mr Heng, expressing surprise that they would even ask, said it is public information that the President has access to information about the size of the reserves.

Citing Article 22F of the Constitution, he said the President is entitled to any information regarding the reserves for the purposes of exercising her constitutional functions. The Ministry of Finance (MOF) website also states that the President has full information about the size of the reserves.

Mr Heng added that the Government had conducted two briefings for President Halimah and the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) on its assessment of the global and local health and economic situations, the details of measures to address the coronavirus pandemic and the resources needed, in seeking her approval.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Indranee Rajah were with him at the briefings. Mr Wong and Ms Indranee are both Second Ministers for Finance as well.

"In our system, the President is the custodian of our past reserves. She needs to concur with any draw, and her decision is made in full knowledge of why the draw is necessary, and the size of our reserves," said Mr Heng.

He noted that Madam Halimah herself had said in a message to the House, delivered on her behalf by Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin before Mr Heng announced the Resilience Budget on March 26, that she had been apprised of the situation.

In her message, President Halimah said she gave her in-principle support to the proposed draw on the reserves, and she was satisfied with the process by which the Government had proactively reached out to her and the CPA, adding that the agencies had comprehensively answered her queries as well as those from the CPA.

The Government eventually required a $21 billion draw on the reserves in April, when more measures were announced to help companies and people during the circuit breaker period. The Fortitude Budget requires a fur-ther $31 billion draw, bringing to $52 billion the sum that may need to be drawn from past reserves this financial year.

Mr Heng said: "We have a strict governance system scrupulously observed."

Singapore's past reserves, which comprise assets accumulated in previous terms of government, are safeguarded by a so-called "two-key system" - with the Government and the President each holding one key. Any draw on these funds by the Government would thus require the consent of the President.

Over the years, critics have charged that Singapore uses too little of its reserves at the expense of current generations, and some have asked for the size of the kitty to be disclosed so the public can judge.

Mr Heng said part of the amount is already known as what is invested by the Monetary Authority of Singapore and Temasek is public information. Only the component invested by GIC is not disclosed.

The MOF's website states that as at March 31, 2019, the official foreign reserves managed by MAS were $401 billion and the size of Temasek's portfolio was $313 billion. While the size of funds managed by GIC is not published, it manages well over US$100 billion (S$139 billion).

Mr Heng warned that revealing the full size of the reserves to all and sundry will diminish its value as a strategic asset to defend against threats, and is not in the national interest. "We will be diminishing its value if we disclose this for potential adversaries to use against us. No responsible leader will lay bare their nation's defence plan."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2020, with the headline 'President briefed on reserves, supported drawing on it: DPM'. Subscribe