Budget debate: Pritam calls for closer scrutiny of expenditure, questions necessity of CDCs

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh urged a "reset of the Government's agenda" in various areas while expressing support for the Budget.
Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh urged a "reset of the Government's agenda" in various areas while expressing support for the Budget.PHOTO: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh has called for closer scrutiny of government expenditure and more transparency on the outcomes of Budget initiatives, adding that this has become even more critical with tax revenues being squeezed and increased spending expected in the years ahead.

"With a tighter fiscal environment in the years ahead, as stressed by (Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat) over many speeches, closer scrutiny of expenditure should not be seen one-dimensionally as political one-upmanship but as an administrative necessity," he said. "The scrutiny raises everyone's sense of ownership in Singapore."

Mr Singh, the Workers' Party chief, made the call in Parliament on Wednesday (Feb 24) as he urged a "reset of the Government's agenda" in various areas while expressing support for the Budget.

Independent parliamentary budget office

He suggested establishing an independent parliamentary budget office to ensure more accountability and transparency in how tax dollars are used, especially given the significant drawdown of reserves to fight Covid-19.

Such an office would look into the outcomes of Budget initiatives, he said, noting that consistent reviews were needed since the amounts committed are meant to be deployed across a number of years.

In particular, he asked for more details on the Capability Transfer Programme, which was launched in 2017 and extended until 2024, and subsidises the cost of bringing in overseas experts to train local staff.

Mr Singh said he was surprised that amid economic transformation and new jobs being created which requires new skills, only a "relatively small number" of 970 Singaporeans have benefited from the scheme.

He asked how much had been spent on it and which industries have been identified for transfer of skills through the programme.

He also called on the Government to give more details on how money will be spent on multi-year initiatives, such as the $24 billion set aside to help firms and workers transform in the next three years, and the additional $5.4 billion set aside for the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package that supports hiring and training for Singaporeans.

He lamented the lack of information on the outcomes of such schemes, citing how the jobs situation reports do not provide the salary levels and age ranges of those who have been successfully placed in jobs through the schemes.

"The effectiveness of government measures should be readily determinable," said Mr Singh who has championed freedom of information laws over the years.

"Without such scrutiny, a perception may crystallise of large sums of money being deployed to address an issue for which effectiveness is hard to establish."

Relevance of Community Development Councils

Mr Singh also questioned the disbursement of cash vouchers through Community Development Councils (CDC), asserting that the Government had done so in an attempt to make the grassroots institution relevant.

DPM Heng, who is also Finance Minister, had announced during his Budget speech on Feb 16 that all Singaporean households will get $100 worth of CDC vouchers for use in heartland shops and hawker centres.

Referring to this, Mr Singh said: "It would appear to me as if the Government is trying to find some way to make the CDCs relevant in view of their relative absence in the public mindshare."

He also posited that there is scope for a "serious review" of the need to have full-time mayors, who are People's Action Party MPs appointed to run the CDCs.

Mr Singh suggested that Citizens Consultative Committees (CCC), which come under the People's Association umbrella and is set up in each constituency, can administer the scheme instead of CDCs, which oversee an entire district.

"It would follow that these local bodies like CCCs are even more closely connected to the ground then the five CDCs, rendering the CDCs' role in the voucher scheme potentially superfluous," he added.

CDCs, established in 1997, coordinate grassroots bodies and manage community programmes, with the aim of bringing the community closer. There are five CDCs - Central Singapore, North East, North West, South East, South West - corresponding with the five districts in Singapore.

The councils have come under the spotlight after last year's general election, with people asking why they are necessary since many of their functions can be carried out by ministries, statutory boards and other grassroots organisations, said Mr Singh.

He added: "Many Singaporeans are of the view that the salaries of mayors are outrageous, principally because they are not perceived to be commensurate with a mayor's roles and functions today.

"Effectively, the need for mayors, full-time mayors, continues to be widely questioned and it would appear that there is scope for a serious review of the necessity of having full-time mayors today."

Mayors are paid an annual salary of $660,000, according to the White Paper on Salaries for a Capable and Committed Government published in 2012.

Mr Singh also asked how much of the $150 million being allocated for the CDC voucher scheme would go towards the vouchers, and how much would go towards administration costs.

He noted that CDCs had already been allocated $20 million, then $75 million in last year's Budgets.

Calling for another "reset", he said: "The relevance of institutions whose roles and functions substantively overlap with other state agencies should also be reconsidered with finite fiscal resources redeployed to support the low income and needy."