A netizen recently wrote on Facebook commenting that the Singapore government has incurred huge public debt as a percentage of GDP.He said, “Our government debt vs GDP ratio is almost 100%. Anything above 70% is a ‘Red Flag’. Once the global financial meltdown in progress hits home, we need the next man at the best station, just to stay afloat. Don’t believe me? Let’s watch as it unfolds.”
Public debt is the cumulative total of all government borrowings less repayments. It is one of the common methods used by the government to raise money in order to finance its operations and expenditures.
Indeed, according to the CIA World Factbook, Singapore is in the top 20 countries in the world with high public debt as a percentage of GDP (https://www.cia.gov/library/
In fact, by last year, Singapore’s public debt has already exceeded the ratio of 100% of GDP. Some of the countries we are ranked together with included Japan, Zimbabwe, Greece, Lebanon, Jamaica etc.
MOF clarifies CIA World Factbook report
However, MOF did take note of the public debt reports such as the one from CIA above and attempt to clarify the report (https://www.gov.sg/factually/
“Some international reports list Singapore as having high levels of Government debt. These include the CIA Public Debt Factbook and the World Economic Forum report. Some are puzzled why this is so, as the Government runs a balanced budget. Some ask if it is fiscally sustainable to have such a high level of debt,” MOF wrote.
“The answer is ‘Yes’. This situation is fiscally sustainable. This is because these reports only look at gross debt. Taking into account our assets, we have in fact no net debt.”
MOF said that Singapore does not borrow to spend but to invest instead (i.e, buying financial assets). “All borrowings are thus backed by assets. What we earn in investment income from our assets is more than sufficient to cover the debt servicing costs,” it added. “This makes us a net creditor country, not a net debtor country.”
“This is why international credit rating agencies give the Singapore Government the highest short and long-term credit ratings of AAA,” it further boasted.
Singapore Govt borrows from our CPF monies to invest
MOF explained that there are 2 types of domestic debt securities issued:
(1) Singapore Government Securities (SGS) bonds are issued to develop the domestic debt market.
(2) Special Singapore Government Securities (SSGS) are non-tradable bonds issued specifically to meet the investment needs of CPF.
“Under the Constitution and the Government Securities Act, the Singapore Government cannot spend the monies raised from these two existing domestic debt securities. All borrowing proceeds from the issuance of SGS and SSGS are invested. These investment returns are more than sufficient to cover the debt servicing costs,” MOF said.
And of the 2 debt securities, SSGS constitutes the majority.
So, primarily, the government borrows monies through our CPF savings with the issuance of SSGS bonds (presently at 4%) to the CPF Board. In return, the CPF Board only pays us 3.5% on the first $20,000 and 2.5% for the rest of our CPF OA monies (http://theindependent.sg/you-
Metaphorically, as a netizen said, it’s akin to the CEO of CPF Board taking our CPF monies every morning, walking from CPF building to the MAS building to buy SSGS bonds.
But what if the investments fail?
Now, what the MOF website didn’t say is, how are the investments, through the borrowing of our CPF monies, faring. Also, what if those investments fail? How is the government going to pay our CPF monies back when we reach 55?
In 2014, replying to questions in Parliament, DPM Tharman disclosed that CPF monies are managed by GIC (http://www.straitstimes.com/
And MOF further disclosed that our government does not publish the details of funds managed by GIC (http://www.mof.gov.sg/
“Revealing the exact size of assets that GIC manages will, taken together with the published assets of MAS and Temasek, amount to publishing the full size of Singapore’s financial reserves,” it said.
“It is not in our national interest to publish the full size of our reserves. If we do so, it will make it easier for markets to mount speculative attacks on the Singapore dollar during periods of vulnerability.”
“Further, our reserves are a strategic asset, and especially for a small country with no natural resources or other assets. They are a key defence for Singapore in times of crisis, and it will be unwise to reveal the full and exact resources at our disposal,” MOF added.
So, the question remains, if hypothetically the government lost substantial sums of our CPF monies through bad investments and was unable to return back the CPF monies to us when we retire, what do you think the government would do?
Print more money? Further extend minimum sums or payout age? Reduce CPF life payouts?
At the point, only the government themselves know what to do since we do not even know the exact size of financial assets that GIC manages – all in the name of “national security”.
In other words, we can only suck thumbs at this point, until perhaps another government with a different sets of policies, priorities and philosophy comes along.