by Yee Jenn Jong
Mr Han Fook Kwang, Editor-at-Large for the Straits Times wrote a good piece “Covid-19: Make sure the $93b is well spent”.
He made several strong points. Here is an extract from his piece on one part which I wish to follow up on:
“President Halimah Yacob’s in-principle approval was sought and granted for past reserves to be used. …
Approving the use of the reserves is an important task, but it is also equally critical to make sure that it was used for their intended purposes.
Do the elected presidency (EP) and CPA have these monitoring powers? I could not find anything in the Constitution regarding this. But it seems to me that some review has to follow.
If you approve funds for a particular scheme, you should want to know its result, and what action was taken if it did not achieve its objective or fell short. …
The EP’s primary role as a second key safeguarding the country’s reserves is intended to prevent a future rogue government from raiding it. To do this job well, it should have some review powers over whether those funds were used for the purposes which it had approved and if they had achieved their objectives.”
These were questions I had too. And my WP colleagues in parliament covered some of these quite well already in the debate on the fourth budget, the Fortitude Budget.
A summary is here by a former senior leader with The Straits Times, Tan Bah Bah: “Faisal Manap: Did in-principle President Halimah Yacob know the exact amount of our reserves?”
The government’s reply? “I am surprised that both Mr Faisal and Mr Dennis Tan had to ask. It is public information that under our Constitution, the President has access to information about the size of reserves.
Under Article 22F of the Constitution, in the exercise of her functions under the Constitution, the President is entitled to any information regarding the reserves. In addition, on the MOF website, it is already mentioned that the President has full information about the size of the reserves.”
Well done then. So it will not take the Accountant-General “52 man-years” to produce the list of physical assets of the Government, something which our first (oops, second – things are sometimes confusing in Singapore) Elected President, the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong had to struggle with the Government on. I am not sure if he ever got his answer.
The mystery of the size of our reserves aside, Mr Han raised the important question of accountability in the way money is spent.
No one will question that we need an extraordinary budget to deal with a major global crisis that will impact jobs and lives. Speed is important as the crisis is immediate and widespread. All four budgets were approved in quick time. The combined size of our response to Covid-19 is nearly double the annual government budget. How well will the money be spent? How effective have they been to address the situations they were intended for?
These are important questions because we will need to know for better response to a future crisis on this magnitude. Could the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) be better designed? Companies that continued to do well or even better during this period, such as the supermarkets, got the JSS too. Some companies have stepped forward to return the money or donate them to charity.
Yet, many companies continue to close even with JSS. Jobs continue to be lost. There is no perfect solution. Some form of JSS is necessary, but some post-mortem certainly can be done. How well did the major recipients of the funds respond? Mr Han cited the aviation sector. Yes, they need help for sure. How did they use the money and were they effective?
We do not know how much the government has and will continue to spend on fighting the explosive spread of Covid-19 in the crowded foreign employees dormitories. Did we fairly apportion enough of the huge intervention costs to the dorm operators? Did we let off too easily the operators who have not done well in implementing measures to manage epidemic which they should have been doing? Did we execute the rent relief properly such that the money did flow down fast enough to tenants? The list goes on.
The President approved $52 billion from the reserves (the balance are from budget surplus and from borrowings which have to be repaid by the next government).
What roles will the President have in scrutinizing how well the money have been spent and how effective the schemes have been. I hope it will be a big and important role. ‘Ownself check ownself’ is not always the best.
Yee Jenn Jong is a member of the Workers’ Party who served as a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament in the 12th Parliament. The above post is reproduced from Mr Yee’s blog with permission.