As the lights go out from the night spots of Clarke Quay to the brothels of Geylang, Singaporeans have been adjusting to life in the dark shadow of Covid-19 as well as an impending General Election.
The coronavirus outbreak has forced us to adapt to an evolving new lifestyle – less unnecessary travel within the country, more work and play done online, touch-free business transactions, more self-reliance and self-discipline, social-distancing in public, restricting supermarketing and shopping to only the essential, stricter personal hygiene and perhaps more changes to come.
And, oh yes, Singaporeans’ immediate worry about jobs and survival, meanwhile, has been answered and quite substantially allayed by an unprecedented $48.4 billion Resilience stimulus budget announced on Thursday (March 26), the second one after the $6.4 billion package unveiled a month ago to deal with the financial impact of the coronavirus outbreak.
There is something for everyone – from the self-employed to employers to families. It’s all about helping those who lose their jobs and income and making sure viable businesses survive the virus storm now swirling through the highly globalised world to which Singapore is inextricably linked.
Stimulus 1 and Stimulus 2 are what many Singaporeans, including Opposition politicians, would expect from the government. Every time there is a crisis, the automatic reaction would be: Why is the government so reluctant to loosen the purse strings to help us, especially the vulnerable and the down and out? More pointedly, what are all these reserves for?
Well, past reserves are there for a rainy day and the government media machinery has already been laying it thick about Covid-19 being the big storm for which the reserves have been accumulated over the decades. The Opposition can’t now argue against this.
There is a saying: It never rains but it pours. And because this storm may even get worse, PM Lee Hsien Loong has actually said the government may have to dip further into the piggy bank: “We have the dry powder. If we need to do more, we will do that down the road.”
Beyond the aim of tackling an existential crisis caused by the virus outbreak, the government’s response by dipping into the reserves is noteworthy because it has broken yet another national psychological barrier. The same way that the state has been quietly or, some said, even spectacularly discarding the old obstinate mindset about the risks of welfarism. Examples: healthcare and assistance for the elderly and for the underprivileged through the Pioneer and Merdeka Generations packages and a phalanx of social welfare schemes to help the poor.
The issue of reserves has always centred on their exact figures and what the reserves are for exactly. Nobody knows the total amount except those in government who are supposed to know – and maybe not all because we can be sure there will be Chinese walls to prevent more than a handful from being any the wiser. State secret.
The general narrative has been – yes, the Temasek figures are there, so are the Monetary Authority of Singapore ones (the reserves here are for making sure the value of the Singapore dollar is not subject to too much external influence), but the GIC amounts, they are a mystery or at least part of them. Explanation: Temasek operates like a normal commercial entity, with year to year accountability but GIC takes a long-term strategic view, so unwise to tell others how Singapore invests, thus can’t be divulged even in Parliament. No amount of pressure from a handful of Opposition MPs is going to change anything.
What are the reserves, especially past holdings, for?
Not a small number of Singaporeans think they are entitled to a bite (while they are still alive, never mind about ensuring that future generations are not short-changed) because they have contributed to the national savings or assets when they were younger. And the reply has always been: No, it is for exceptional situations. The first of such circumstances came in 2008-2009 during the global financial meltdown. Some $4.9 billion of past reserves was used to cushion the impact then. That amount has been dwarfed by the $17 billion expected to be drawn for the combined $55 billion for the two stimulus budgets, with more to come, if necessary.
So much for an almost sacred cow. So much also for another almost non-negotiable argument for maintaining a pristinely high amount of sovereign funds. Having strong savings allows Singapore to punch above its weight. Who is to say how much is enough and how much one can draw from it to punch above one’s weight? A psychological barrier or two in the ongoing debate about Singapore’s reserves may have been breached by Stimulus 2.
A larger question may be: How much can one plan at a time like this? Stimulus 1 was supposed to be a GE goodie bag cum Covid-19 budget, probably deemed enough to deal with what was thought to be as serious but as limited a problem as SARS in 2006. One country, one area, containable – China, like Hong Kong in 2006. An early election seemed to be on the cards, pushed along by a major crisis but not a life-threatening pandemic. But by the first week of March, it was clear Covid-19 was spreading all over – Iran, South Korea, Italy, Spain, Britain with a new epicentre in the US, with no end in sight.
And the reason for holding an early election has changed dramatically. A new mandate is said to be urgently required because of and cannot be delayed by the growing crisis. The mental gymnastics required to accept the argument – in view of all the restrictions on public movement and safety reasons – lies somewhere between extreme sympathy for a hapless Opposition and serious doubts about the integrity of having such an unfair election.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.