UPDATE (as of June 10, 5.50pm) :
DPM Heng addressed the following points in the Fortitude Budget Debate Round-Up Speech on 5 June 2020:
C17. Mr Faisal Manap and Mr Dennis Tan asked if the President was given information on the amount available in the reserves when the Government sought her in-principle support for drawing on them.
C18. 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.
C19. In the process of seeking President’s approval, the Government has conducted two briefings to President and the Council of Presidential Advisers. These briefings covered the Government’s assessment of the global and local health and economic situations, the details of the measures, and the resources needed. Ministers Gan Kim Yong, Chan Chun Sing, Lawrence Wong, Indranee Rajah, were with me.
C20. In our system, the President is the custodian of our Past Reserves. She needs to concur with any draw, and her decision is made in full knowledge of why the draw is necessary, and the size of our reserves. In fact, Members have also heard the President’s message in the Resilience Budget, delivered on her behalf by the Speaker, just before my Ministerial Statement then. We have a strict governance system scrupulously observed.
The Workers’ Party has made some interesting statements in Parliament last week in the debate on the Fortitude Budget. They just showed the importance of having an Opposition, the more the better. Why? Because these questions and statements would never have been aired by any government MPs. Singaporeans must know and appreciate this when they go to the polls in the forthcoming General Elections.
I shall start with party chief Pritam Singh’s big picture comments, which were expected, and end with a seemingly harmless but fascinatingly loaded question from a fellow Aljunied MP.
Singaporeans have the right to expect a thorough review and accounting of the nation’s response to the Covid-19 crisis, Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) said on Friday (June 5) in the party’s first major statement on the government’s response to the pandemic, according to mainstream media.
Now, the layman may ask, why would anyone want to even doubt the government’s commitment in the battle against Covid-19 the end of which is still a long way off? Of course, if money is everything and the only thing. Think of the amount spent – a total of $93 billion, with $52 billion coming from past reserves.
“Adding the COVID-19 response to our usual spending, the total size of our four budgets stands at $193 billion. This is more than double the size of our annual budgets in preceding years,” said DPM and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat.
So why is there a considerable counterveiling amount of concern and unhappiness among some Singaporeans?
Straight answer: Cockups, due to lack of focus, indecisiveness, mixed messages and wrong decisions. Let’s not dwell too much on old ground re the migrant workers dormitories. Manpower Minister Josephine Teo has been working overtime to make up for her alleged omission. I wish her well.
There were other Covid-19 problems. Singh: “For example, there is a broadly accepted view that the public should have been told, early and clearly, and not through illegal recordings behind closed doors, for example, that universal masking would prove to be a challenge in view of supply constraints, requiring the government to prioritise our healthcare and other essential workers.”
Back in February, a recording of Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing speaking to businessmen in a private dialogue session was leaked on social media. He was heard speaking candidly about why masks were not the solution then to the Covid-19 outbreak.
The WP secretary-general added that the public has also been confused by many “piecemeal announcements, U-turns and positions that did not gel intuitively”, such as limiting visits to parents and grandparents, even as safe distancing rules on public transport have already been lifted.
What happened to the Multi-ministry Task Force which was supposed to ensure coordination in the anti-Covid-19 fight?
For the future starting right now, youths, non-governmental organisations not linked to government-linked companies and trade unions, as well as the people sector should be given more space to voice their contrarian views, Singh suggested. About time.
Next, WP chairperson Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) weighed in separately with remarks on the government’s blind spots. She cautioned against holding on to ways of doing things that may no longer be adequate.
If Singapore had an unemployment insurance scheme, the government may not need to spend as much as it is spending today to help workers tide over the coronavirus crisis, she said.
She also highlighted groups that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, for example, those with small or over-crowded homes, or who live with violent family members, Essential workers, including cleaners, have also continued to work on the front lines and been exposed to danger, while those who are more highly paid have been working from the safety of their own homes, she added.
All valid observations.
Finally, there was Faisal Manap. He raised the issue of whether President Halimah Yacob had been furnished with all information necessary for her to decide on the use of past reserves to fund some of the support schemes announced in the four budgets. She had given in-principle support for the government to draw up to $52 billion from the savings of past governments to cushion people and the economy from the pandemic.
The Aljunied GRC MP wanted to know if she had been told exactly how much is in the national reserves before she made her decision. He said the information would have been crucial to know before she could come to a view on whether or not she should approve a draw on the reserves.
Imagine if Dr Tan Cheng Bock had been elected President, he would have been privy to that important piece of information – if, that is, President Halimah was actually given that information. Must have, right? Otherwise, how to give in-principle approval?
Talking about sheep
I do not know what prompted Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Singh to say that cotton came from sheep in a statement on why Singapore may not be able to produce large quantities of masks. “(We) don’t have too many sheep in Singapore to produce cotton,” he said.
And, of course, even primary school pupils know that cotton does not come from sheep.
But he just might be wrong from a Freudian slip point of view. His boss Lee Hsien Loong probably believed that there are an abundant number of sheep in the Republic. I once caught him with what I suspected to be a Freudian slip.
Back in the late 1980s, he was talking about persuading workers on the need to expect lower wages because of an economic crisis. He said to the NTUC: “It’s a matter of convincing your flock…”
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.