Parliament: MPs voice concerns over balancing the books given heavy spending on Covid-19 measures

Three MPs asked if the current draw in Covid-19 measures to the tune of $52 billion would need to be returned in full.
Three MPs asked if the current draw in Covid-19 measures to the tune of $52 billion would need to be returned in full.ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - Three MPs have voiced concerns over whether Singapore would be able to balance the books for the current term of government, as well as in the future, after the Government committed nearly $100 billion in Covid-19 support measures this year.

During a debate on the Government's strategy on Covid-19 in Parliament on Wednesday (Oct 14), they asked if the current draw to the tune of $52 billion would need to be returned in full if further draws on the reserves would be considered, and the impact of the draw on reserves on their longer-term returns.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat had announced in August that $8 billion will be spent on measures such as extending wage subsidies for firms and a grant for Singaporeans who have been laid off. This comes on top of the nearly $100 billion committed under four Budgets this year.

He had said that this $8 billion will be funded by the reallocation of monies from other areas, such as development expenditures that were delayed due to Covid-19.

There was no further draw on past reserves beyond the $52 billion for which President Halimah Yacob's approval was obtained earlier.

Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Bukit Panjang) noted that the main reallocation are from ministries such as the Ministry of Transport, Trade and Industry, and National Development, according to estimates.

Taken together, all of the freed-up funding amounts to $5.1 billion, leaving a potential deficit of about $2.9 billion just a few months into the new term of government, he said.

The picture also looks daunting on the revenue front, he said, as the latest estimate projects a drop in the Government's operating revenue of $12.3 billion, or a 16.1 per cent decrease.

"Given the revenue outlook and the likelihood of further Covid-19 support that is needed, how does (Mr Heng) envisage we could balance the Budget in the next two to three years?"

Mr Liang asked, as some of these projects are necessary spending as they are capability investments for the future, if the Government would consider a further draw on the reserves.

Mr Louis Chua (Sengkang GRC) sought clarification on the the Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC) - the returns on investments of Singapore's reserves - component of the Government's revised revenue estimates.

Given the substantial draw on reserves to fight Covid-19, Mr Chua asked how the NIRC estimate remains the same as it was in February, at $18.6 billion, and how this was determined.

Mr Chua also said there is scope to rethink Singapore's position on when to employ government debt, given the low interest rate environment.

"In this lower-for-longer interest rate environment, we should as a government be open to exploring such possibilities as well, instead of funding our expenditures with higher cost equity funding or funding from our reserves," he said.

Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) asked if Mr Heng, who is also Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies, would clarify if the $52 billion drawn from Singapore's reserves would be returned in full or in part.

Mr Giam said that restoring the amount in a short time may subject Singaporeans to unnecessarily high levels of austerity, cause slower economic growth, and cut public services that may affect the poor.

He asked: "Can the DPM assure Singaporeans that they would not have to go through a period of austerity after the economic crisis is over, in order to restore the reserves?"

He noted that during a Parliament debate in June, Mr Heng had said that there was no legal or constitutional obligation for the Government to restore the draw on past reserves, although he also said that the Government is committed to doing so.

Mr Heng had noted then that the Government had put back the $4 billion drawn from the reserves during the global financial crisis in 2009, but could not be definite about how long the restoration for the current draw would take.

While Mr Giam acknowledged that the $52 billion was necessary to prevent excessive job losses and boost consumer spending during the crisis, he urged greater consideration of the possible burden that could be imposed on the next generation of Singaporeans.

"Given the budget impact of potential provisions to restore this extraordinarily large amount to the reserves, I feel it's important for the Government to provide more clarity about its broad timeline to do so," he said.

Mr Heng will round up the debate on Thursday.