Tuesday, 26 September 2023

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Budget surplus: $3.9b or $36b?

By NG (Concern citizen) and Leong Sze Hian

According to the Singapore government’s latest budget statement , the government’s budget surplus was SGD 3.86 bn (SGD 3.61 bn before Net Investment Return Contribution (NIRC) and top ups to endowment and trust funds) for 2012. However, according to the “Monthly Digest of Statistics Singapore” published by the Department of Statistics (DOS), the same is reported as SGD 36.26 bn (Table 14.1 on page 77 in the section on Public Finance). This would represent almost 12% of GDP.

Difference between DOS Monthly Digest of Statistics & Budget?

The footnote below the table seems to indicate that the difference arises because the SGD 36 bn budget surplus is based on International Monetary Fund (IMF) standards whose definition of “revenues and receipts” is broader than that used in the Singapore budget. The wording of the explanation in the document is as follows:

Note : Presentation format of the table follows that of the National Summary Data Page (NSDP) for Singapore, which disseminates the data prescribed by the International Monetary Fund’s Special Data Dissemination Standards (SDDS). Data in the table represent a broader definition of Government revenues and receipts than the fiscal position presented during each year’s Budget under Singapore’s Constitution as it includes the revenues and receipts accruing to both the Government’s current and past reserves.”

IMF Standards?

The next two notes under the table:-

“Accrues to both current and past reserves and does not reflect budget fiscal position of the current term of government.

Includes land sales and capital receipts (which accrue primarily to past reserves) in additional to taxes and other revenues.”

seems to suggest that the IMF standards include revenues from land sales and capital receipts (which accrue primarily to past reserves). Our understanding is that the Singapore budget does not include revenues from land sales while return on reserves is only to the extent of NIRC (see link)

Large difference in Revenue?

So, when you compare the budget figures as presented in the Monthly Digest with that presented in the budget , you see this difference in the revenue line (around SGD 82 bn as per IMF standard versus SGD 55 bn in the budget statement). Table 14.3 (page 78) of the Monthly Digest shows that the “operating revenue” of the government is almost the same as the total revenue shown by the government in the budget document. Table 1 shows the differences.

Table 1: Comparison of revenue, expenditure and surplus numbers presented under the budget and DOS documents


1. Others included in IMF standards to account for difference between reported expenditure in Table 14.1 and reported operating and development expenditure in Tables 14.4 and 14.5
2. Not explained as to what this is in the IMF standards reporting. This increases the budget surplus due to it being negative
3. Assume this does not need to be netted off under IMF standard4. IMF Standards represent a narrower definition of Government expenditure (such as some transfers to endowment funds) in the Budget
Sources: Singapore Budget, DOS Monthly Statistical Digest.

Higher surplus in every year

Comparing the budget surpluses reported under IMF standards for past years (source) with the government’s figures reported in the budget documents, one would find that the surplus reported under the IMF standard in the statistical yearbook is much higher in every year for which data is available (Table 2)

Table 2: Comparison of surplus/deficit numbers presented under the budget and statistical documents for past years

Conclusions (and questions) – 
Table 2 shows that if you include land sales and return on reserves, the government actually made a surplus of SGD 187 bn cumulatively during the eight years 2005-2012 compared to SGD 17.35 bn reported in the budget document.

1.       The Singapore government’s fiscal position as reported in the government’s statistical bulletin which are prepared under IMF guidelines is significantly stronger than that reported in the budget statement. Interestingly, while the statistical bulletin carries a foot note that the revenue numbers are different from those reported in the budget, the budget report does not seem to have a similar note that the revenues presented there are a “narrower” definition and that it excludes capital receipts.

2.       Comparing with other countries?

Why is the surplus/deficit reported in the budget statement the official number that makes the headlines? One would assume that the IMF prescribed method to present the deficit/surplus would be a more representative and comparable number for countries globally. As an example, if you look at Hong Kong’s budget statement for year ending March 2012 (source), you see that the revenue and surplus (page 7 of the report) include capital receipts (page 13) and is consistent with the headline numbers reported (e.g. http://www.rttnews.com/1871769/hong-kong-2011-12-budget-surplus-exceeds-estimate.aspx, among others). Hence it appears that the reported budget number of Singapore only shows a part of the surplus – it seems to include operating revenue, operating expenses and development expenses (which are probably capital in nature) but not capital receipts.

3.       7th highest budget surplus in the world?

If we take Singapore’s 2011 budget surplus of around SGD 26 bn or around USD 20 bn (including capital receipts),  Singapore would have had the seventh highest budget surplus in the world, according to Wikipedia data. It would have been ahead of even the oil rich United Arab Emirates, which reported a surplus of USD 17.9 bn and just behind gas rich Qatar (USD 23.1 bn).

Note that even based on the government’s reported surplus, Singapore is a respectable seventeenth on this list. This picture of fiscal strength is not consistent with what the government has said recently. For example, the population white paper says “For society as a whole, a declining old-age support ratio would mean rising taxes and a heavier economic load on a smaller base of working-age Singaporeans.”

While the statement may be appropriate, does it have significant implications if we are in such a strong fiscal situation? The point on rising taxes has also been used during the debate on the white paper to justify the need to have a large working population.

Ever have substantive debate in Parliament?

It may help if Parliamentarians can propose a debate in Parliament on the budget surplus of SGD 36 bn in 2012 if the IMF standards are used (in the DOS monthly digest), vis-a-vis the SGD3.9 bn in budget document.

This may help to enable Singaporeans to have a clearer picture of our revenues, expenditure and surplus, and the implications for Singaporeans and the future of our country.

Authors’ note: The authors have used the term “IMF standard” to refer to the “International Monetary Fund’s Special Data Dissemination Standards” as mentioned in the DOS statistical report.



IMF Special Data Dissemination Standard (SDDS)

IMF Code of Good Practices on Fiscal Transparency (2007)

IMF Manual on Fiscal Transparency

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