In Parliament yesterday (7 Apr), responding to Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat continued to decline to disclose the size of Singapore’s reserves, which technically belong to Singaporeans. He told Mr Singh that it is a matter of national security and cannot be disclosed.
Heng said that these funds serve as a “strategic defence” to protect the Singapore dollar from speculative attacks and bolster the confidence of investors and citizens. “No country’s armed forces will ever tell you exactly how much ammunition and weaponry they really have,” he said.
“To do so is to betray valuable intelligence to potential adversaries. This is obviously not a wise defence strategy, and likewise should not be adopted for our financial reserves.”
He said that the reserves are vital to Singapore’s overall economic and financial stability. “It is neither in the interest of Singapore or Singaporeans to repeatedly ask about the size of our reserves. We are in the middle of a storm, and I am very disappointed that Mr Pritam Singh has used this occasion to raise this question again.”
In response, Mr Singh said the WP seeks figures on the reserves because “when the Government introduces policies where reserves have to be employed, the question we have to ask ourselves is: Is it enough, or is it too much… or is it too little?”.
That is to say, Mr Singh wanted to know the amount of government’s draw down from the reserves for funding the present COVID-19 crisis, relative to the total size of the reserves. In this way, Singaporeans would know if the country could afford such funding or perhaps it could afford to even fund more to help more Singaporeans in the present crisis.
Heng, instead, chose to reply saying that the current system was rigorously designed, and provided checks and balances. He said President Halimah has asked “good questions” when the government sought twice to draw up to $21 billion from the reserves to tackle the COVID-19 crisis.
“I spent a lot of time explaining the details. And I can tell you that the President and CPA (Council of Presidential Advisers) asked very good questions,” he said.
“I am extremely grateful that we have been able to tap the deep financial reserves – our current and past reserves which have been so carefully built up, invested and managed. This has allowed us to respond to the crisis without having to borrow, and without burdening our future generations with repayment obligations.”
Singapore’s reserves consist of assets invested by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), Temasek and GIC. While MAS and Temasek disclose the sum of the funds they invest, those invested by GIC are not. Currently, MAS has about $396 billion in foreign assets, while Temasek’s current portfolio is valued at $313 billion, according to latest figures.
Even though the full size of the reserves is not revealed, it has been estimated by analysts to be at least over $1 trillion.
Norway reveals size of its sovereign wealth fund as well as actual earnings
Meanwhile, it was reported in Feb that Norway’s sovereign wealth fund made a 19.9% return on investment last year, earning a record 1.69 trillion Norwegian crowns (US$180 billion).
Norway has always communicated the size of its reserves transparently to its people. In fact, it publishes the size of its reserves in the oil fund on its website in real time as its asset prices, including shares’ and bonds’, fluctuate by the seconds:
In this way, Norwegians can assess for themselves if their government has been a good steward of their country’s monies. Somehow, they are not afraid of any currency speculative attacks by disclosing the size of their reserves, unlike the Singapore’s PAP government.
In any case, the Norwegian US$1.1 trillion fund’s return for last year was stronger than that of its benchmark index. “2019 has been a very good year for the fund … this is the greatest increase in value in a single year in the fund’s history,” said Norwegian central bank Governor Oeystein Olsen, who chairs the fund’s board.
Last year’s fantastic return on investment amounted to almost US$34,000 for each of its 5.3 million people living in Norway, and the overall value of the fund is now equivalent to about US$207,000 for every Norwegian citizens. The fund’s returns help to provide vital funding for the country’s extensive social welfare programmes.
The CEO of the fund, Yngve Slyngstad, commented that Norway had moved from being “an oil nation to an oil fund nation”. He added that Norway now received more money in government coffers from the fund rather than oil in the North Sea.
“This is the second chapter. I think the first chapter was taking oil from the North Sea, and we executed that in a reasonably prudent fashion. Now it’s the second leg, and that is trying to manage those funds as smoothly as possible and so far it’s been quite adequately executed as well,” he said.
During Slyngstad’s tenure, the fund’s assets have increased five-fold.
Norwegians understand that the government is elected by the people to be the caretaker of the country and its assets. They also understand that if the government didn’t do its job properly, they are obliged to choose a different caretaker to take over. And to assess whether a government is managing its country’s resources well, information needs to be transparent.