WP chief Pritam Singh urges more transparency on Singapore’s fiscal health, ground involvement in policy-making

WP chief Pritam Singh urges more transparency on Singapore’s fiscal health, ground involvement in policy-making

Workers Party Pritam Singh Parliament Jun 5
Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh speaking in Parliament on Jun 5.

SINGAPORE: The Government should disclose how it decided on the amount to set aside in its contingency funds, Workers’ Party (WP) members said in Parliament on Friday (Jun 5).

During his fourth Budget speech on May 26, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said that Singapore would be keeping more money in its two contingencies funds.

Each year, the country sets aside S$3 billion as a buffer in the Contingencies Fund and the Development Contingencies Fund, but an extra S$13 billion will be put aside this year so that the Government can respond to urgent and unforeseen needs swiftly, Mr Heng had said.

READ: S$31 billion to be drawn from reserves for Fortitude Budget

“What is of interest is the decision making process behind the allocation of this amount. How did the government settle on it? And on what basis was it justified to the President?” WP chief Pritam Singh asked in his Budget debate speech. 

"Has the Government factored in any actual draft plans in arriving at the additional S$13 billion contingency funds asked for in this Fortitude Budget and if so, whether it can now share such plans with Singaporeans too?" WP's Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Dennis Tan similarly said in his speech.  

Mr Singh also asked if Mr Heng could give more details regarding a comment that the deputy prime minister made in an interview with CNA, in which he said Singapore's financial position will be a lot weaker in the coming years.

In addition, the opposition leader asked for more specifics on what would happen to recurrent taxes and “the social contract between people and the state” in the next five to ten years. 

WATCH: COVID-19: Singapore’s financial position will be weaker in coming years, but Government will manage the situation, says DPM Heng

On the country’s response to COVID-19, Mr Singh said the Government should launch a federal review - with an independent committee - to review its response to the current public health crisis. 

Some people have felt that the Government has been unclear and indecisive with its tactics to handle the crisis, he said, citing the country’s refusal to requisition its mask supply when other countries were doing so as one example. 

Members of the public have also been confused by some of the official guidelines, such as why visits to parents and grandparents are limited when safe distancing rules on public transport have been relaxed.

“At times it felt as if no one in Government was taking ownership of how COVID-19 directives would be perceived, interpreted and understood on the ground," Mr Singh said.

Fellow WP member and NCMP Leon Perera added that the regulations, which were changed or qualified after being announced, might lead to "rule fatigue and cynicism towards rule compliance". 

READ: F&B businesses come to grips with new circuit breaker measures, but some unsure what to do

"Would it not have been more efficient for the exceptions and caveats to rules to have been announced at the same time?" he asked, adding that the responsibility to ensure safe distancing could have given to facility owners instead. 

Mr Perera also proposed that the Government allow more establishments to open during the post-circuit breaker phases, with business owners still sticking to safe distancing rules while operating at lower economically viable levels, if they choose to do so.

PUBLIC HEALTH EDUCATION HAS TO IMPROVE 

Mr Singh said that the current situation has revealed a lack of public crisis preparedness.

For example, because members of the public did not completely understand what DORSCON Orange meant, many rushed to panic buy, until authorities explained that the DORSCON Orange level had also been applied during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. 

Singapore supermarket panic buying coronavirus feb 7 (3)
(Photo: CNA reader)

And when Malaysia closed its borders almost overnight, many companies were left scrambling to house their Malaysian employees who crossed the Causeway every day for work. 

READ: Singapore firms rush to house Malaysian workers before COVID-19 travel restrictions kick in

“This is unlike the mindset of many Merdeka and Pioneer Generation Singaporeans who would recall emergency preparedness exercises such as water rationing.”

The country should reintroduce public emergency preparedness programmes for “psychological resilience” in the future, he said, and relook sectors that require more self-sufficiency and buffers, particularly essential services jobs. 

“Such a thorough review could potentially become a source of more job opportunities for Singaporeans (and) more respectable wage levels in some cases,” Mr Singh said. 

ALLOW MORE ALTERNATIVE VOICES

In the final portion of his speech, Mr Singh said that COVID-19 has revealed cracks in certain fundamental beliefs.

For one, the COVID-19 situation shored up calls for the country to temper its reliance on foreign labour, a sentiment opposed by various business lobby groups.

READ: Reducing migrant worker population will affect Singapore's competitive edge, lead to higher costs: Industry groups

“With many corporates and big businesses already perceived to be over-represented in our political ecology, be it through the grassroots or through the association in private-public-national level committee, (the) Government needs to consider how it can become a better arbiter between different views,” Mr Singh said. 

He recommended the Government creates more spaces for the youth, independent non-governmental organisations and the people sector's voices to be heard. 

READ: Employers, operators and NGOs step up for workers cooped up in factory-converted dormitories

“Singaporeans do recognise the multitude of perspectives the Government has to take cognisance of, but it is important to recognise and not forget that citizens criticise and even organise because they can,” he said.

The country, he added, needs even more participation from its people to navigate a “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous” post-COVID-19 world. 

“But with the people determined and committed to the nation’s recovery and success, COVID-19 is a golden opportunity for this generation to envision and build a better Singapore,” Mr Singh concluded. 

GOVERNMENT HAS ALWAYS BEEN “OPEN AND TRANSPARENT"

In his closing speech, Mr Heng said that Singapore's constitution includes safeguards over the use of the contingencies funds.

"First, the Government will need to seek the President's concurrence for drawing down the contingencies funds. Second this drawdown must be replaced through a ... final supply bill that has to be presented to and voted on by Parliament before seeking President's assent," Mr Heng explained.

Mr Heng added that these steps provide checks and balances over how the funds are spent.

"We will continue to ensure judicious use of the contingencies funds for urgent and unforeseen needs.”

Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Chee Hong Tat also responded to Mr Singh's comments in Parliament, saying that the Government has always been open and transparent with its citizens. 

READ: About 3,800 companies closed down in April; expect uptick in coming months: Chee Hong Tat

“And when there is new information … we will likewise adopt an open and transparent manner in our communications because we know that is important in our collective fight in this pandemic,” Mr Chee said. 

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Source: CNA/rp(ac)

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