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National reserves: Whatever their strategic value, Singaporeans have right to know how they are managed

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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The ruling People’s Action Party is weaponising knowledge of the exact amount of Singapore’s national reserves as a way of helping it stay in power. That’s unacceptable. It does not have such an in perpetuity right. One of the debates in Parliament during the week seems focused on why we should not reveal how much we have – because letting others know is like leaking a national secret. Fair enough. It, however, avoids the highly discussable issue of whether it is wise to let only a very small handful of persons know what is going on at the three agencies handling the reserves, in particular, the GIC the amount of which it is holding is kept confidential.

Instead of continuing to rake up the usual old chestnuts, a more productive debate should from now on be on how Singaporeans can be reassured that there are strong checks on the handling of the reserves and how non-establishment political leaders who are no less loyal and committed to the country can sooner or later be co-opted in to share responsibility for the reserves’ health and accountability.

The idea of having an elected executive president is supposed to provide a second key safeguard since his assent is needed for drawdowns from past reserves. For that function to be properly performed, it seems obvious that he should have access to the information.  Up to, I think, the middle of last year, the public was generally not clear about this. DPM HengSwee Keat said in Parliament in June last year in reply to questions from NCMP Dennis Tan and Faisal Manap(Aljunied GRC) that President Halimah Yacob was aware of the size of our reserves. And the Finance Minister  said he was surprised by the question because it was “public information” that she had access to the information.

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During this week’s debate, Heng reiterated that it was public knowledge. It has been enshrined in Section 22F of the Constitution. And it may be worthwhile to quote the section so that whoever the president may be, we do know he would not be stonewalled like the late Ong Teng Cheong:

“22F.—(1) In the exercise of his functions under this Constitution, the President shall be entitled, at his request, to any information concerning —

(a) the Government which is available to the Cabinet; and

(b) any statutory board or Government company to which Article 22A or 22C, as the case may be, applies which is available to the members of the statutory board or the directors of the Government company.

(2) The President may request —

(a) any Minister, or any senior officer of a Ministry or of a department of the Government; or

(b) the chief executive officer and any member of the governing board of any statutory board or the directors of any Government company to which Article 22A or 22C, as the case may be, applies, to furnish any information referred to in clause (1) concerning the reserves of the Government, the statutory board or Government company, as the case may be, and the Minister, member, officer or director concerned shall be under a duty to provide the information.”

Section 22A refers to the appointment of members of statutory boards and Section 22F refers to the directors of Government companies.

I’m spending some time over the president’s role because whether the present government likes it or not, the president is an elected one, whatever his former political background. And however  much the establishment wants decisions to be harmonised, ground sentiment does change over time and whoever the president may be, he cannot be seen as out of touch with what most Singaporeans think. If there is disquiet over the way our reserves are being managed, he must rise up to the occasion to reflect that. He has this moral responsibility.

The government will say all presidents are periodically briefed on the finances of the country, as they should be. But seeing is believing. The public must know this for a fact. It would be reassuring if the president can be seen as less the Siamese twin of the ruling government and more like a separate entity who will be act as a real check on profligacy or straightforward incompetence or negligence.

No government is perfect. The assumption that the PAP government is the only one deserving of the privilege of handling our assets is flawed. The party does not have any such special right to be the eternal custodian of the reserves.

Stop this us and you thing.

This attitude has long been part of the PAP’s DNA in the early years. I recall sometime in the 1970s   one of our New Nation reporters returning from a press conference chaired by the Health Minister Howe Yean Chong. She had asked some questions on the CPF and was told bluntly: “Why are you asking so many questions? The CPF is not your money.”  She was shocked.

Similarly, the current PAP ought to move away from a self-declared  or at least the wrong belief that the national reserves have a PAP chop. They are Singaporeans’ reserves, after all. It should start thinking about how to let Singaporeans know more about their national asset or how it is managed – at least in some general way without being over-specific. Let them have a sense of ownership – instead of regarding them as unentitled peasants.

Believe you me, these peasants have a habit of biting back at you.

 

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.

 

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