Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Friday (26 Feb) rebutted Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh’s suggestion to create an independent Budget office, saying that is a “wasteful duplication” of existing functions, given that there are already independent audits by the Auditor-General’s Office and Parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s spending.
Mr Singh from the Workers’ Party (WP) has earlier proposed setting an independent Budget office to scrutinise the national Budget and to assure “public accountability and transparency in light of the massive drawdown of reserves” to fund COVID-19 measures.
Referring to this, Mr Heng said: “It would be very helpful if each time Mr Singh or his colleagues ask the Government to spend more, [they] give us their estimates of how much it would cost and how they would fund it.
“But instead, the Workers’ Party (WP) has called on the Government to spend S$20 million to set up an independent parliamentary Budget office to do this job for them. Even as they call for more scrutiny on Government expenditure, we invite them to hold themselves to the same scrutiny.”
Mr Heng, also the Finance Minister, then spoke of the high standards of the Government in ensuring its spending is cost-effective to “deliver the best value for money for taxpayers”.
“In addition to independent audits by the Auditor-General’s Office, we also have Parliamentary scrutiny of our spending through their estimates and public accounts committee.
“The Workers’ Party is represented in both of them. Such an office will be a wasteful duplication of these functions,” he stressed.
In response, Mr Singh asked where the S$20 million figure was derived from, to which Mr Heng replied that the figure was provided by one of the WP’s MPs.
To this, Sengkang GRC MP Jamus Lim from the WP, clarified that his proposal–where he suggested creating an independent fiscal council costing S$20 million–was shared with the Ministry of Finance (MOF), but it was yet to be delivered at the time when Mr Heng spoke.
Noting that the MOF’s committee of supply debate had not begun then, Mr Singh argued that the information by Assoc Prof Lim should not be part of the debate.
He went on to explain that the Parliamentary budget office is not an unusual institution but “a fairly new institution” that is meant to help all MPs, adding that it is “consonant with the separation of powers schema”.
Mr Singh shared an incident when he was part of the Parliamentary estimates committee a few years ago: “A senior civil servant said ‘I cannot be smarter than my boss’. Who’s her boss? Her boss is the Minister of Finance.”
“So a Parliament Budget office or officer is there to provide independent analysis to confirm the nature of the Budget, to confirm that programmes are delivering their outcomes that are desired,” he continued.
Mr Singh then raised questions of how the S$24 billion that is set aside for businesses and workers transformation over the next three years will be used, the outcomes of the Capability Transformation Programme, and whether subsidies to private hire bus drivers will be extended.
At this point, Leader of the House and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Indranee Rajah asked Mr Singh to clarify the purpose of the Budget Office and whether it would be the same as the independent fiscal council that was put forward by Assoc Prof Lim.
In response, Mr Singh noted the Parliamentary Budget office mirrors the Canadian model of a parliamentary budget officer, which provides independent analysis to the Canadian parliament on the state of the nation’s finances.
On the second question, he initially asked the House to wait until Assoc Prof Lim delivers his cut in the committee supply debate, but when Ms Rajah asked again to clarify if the Budget Official and fiscal council are the same entities or separately, Mr Singh said it will be “the same thing”.
Hearing this, Mr Heng said he was “totally confused” because they are “very different entities”.
“Mr Singh said earlier we should set up such an office because it is important to examine outcomes. You had an encounter with a Ministry of Finance official who said that, ‘I’m not smarter than my boss’.
“Your arguments are totally convoluted. One does not lead to the other,” he noted.
Mr Heng then asked if Mr Singh and WP members have looked at MOF’s interim assessment of key COVID-19 measures.
“There is a reason why I put up the interim report, even though the full effects have not been done, because I am conscious that we have used a big part of last year’s budget… We have used the past reserves and that I have a responsibility to account for those outcomes,” he said of the report.
Mr Heng also asked if the WP has any comments on the report.
“Because I sat through the debate, I read your transcripts, but no one mentioned about outcomes, no one raised a question about could this have been done better, could that have been done better.
“So what is the purpose of setting up an office when the information that is publicly available is there for you to ask?” He continued.
Responding to this, Mr Singh reiterated that a Budget office would give an independent perspective of the Budget that would be separate from the State organs.
“Those who are approving the Budget ought to have I think access to an independent analysis, and that’s what the parliamentary Budget officer will give,” he added.
While Mr Heng replied that he did not want to “prolong the debate” and they could discuss this at the Finance Ministry’s committee of supply debate, he urged the WP to be clear of its proposals.
“This Budget debate is a serious debate about whether our broad direction is correct. Do you have suggestions on how we can do it better? I’m open to your ideas, but I have to say, unfortunately, so far I have heard none,” he said.
Mr Singh responded that as a point of order, he would not be able to address the issues that he has not spoken about, and that he would ask his questions at the committee of supply debates.
“Mayors are wasteful duplication”
Penning their thoughts under the comment section of CNA’s Facebook post, many netizens pointed out that it is the mayors’ and the Community Development Councils’ (CDCs) roles that are “wasteful duplications”, given how similar their duties are to those of the roles elected MPs.
This was also brought up by Mr Singh during the Emerging Stronger Together Budget on 24 Feb, where he said that many Singaporeans are of the view that the salaries of mayors are “outrageous”, given how they do not appear to “commensurate with the mayor’s roles and functions today”.