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Singapore – Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said that an independent Budget office would be a “wasteful duplication of functions” as there are independent audits by the Auditor General’s Office and parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s spending.
On Friday (Feb 26), during his Budget wrap speech, Mr Heng responded to Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh’s proposal for an independent Budget office to examine the Government’s Budget and assure “public accountability and transparency in light of the massive drawdown of reserves” in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr Heng noted that information on the results of last year’s Budget measures had been published. He was referring to the “Interim Assessment of the Impact of Key Covid-19 Budget Measures” released by the Ministry of Finance earlier this month.
“I am glad Mr Singh agrees with the need to be prudent and accountable in our spending. And in fact, it would be very helpful if each time Mr Singh or his colleagues ask the Government to spend more, to give us their estimates of how much it will cost and how they will fund it,” Mr Heng was quoted as saying by channelnewsasia.com.
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“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.”
For a second consecutive year, Singapore will draw on past reserves to cushion the pandemic’s impact, drawing another S$1.7 billion this year. This will raise the total amount withdrawn to S$53.7 billion for FY2020 and FY2021.
Mr Heng noted that the estimated S$52 billion allocated last year would not be fully utilised. The Government expects to use S$42.7 billion of the S$52 billion for FY2020, resulting in a S$9.3 billion balance, the report added.
Mr Singh asked Mr Heng where the S$20 million to set up an independent Budget office came from. Mr Heng replied that was the figure given by Member of Parliament Jamus Lim, who later clarified that the amount was for the Finance Ministry’s upcoming committee of supply debate.
Mr Singh then pointed out that the Finance Ministry’s committee of supply debate had not yet begun and, therefore, Associate Professor Lim’s figure should not be part of the current discussion.
Mr Singh asked how the S$24 billion allocated for businesses and workers’ transformation over the next three years would be utilised.
He also asked about the outcomes of the Capability Transformation Programme and if the subsidies to private hire bus drivers would be extended as they have been affected by the decline in tourists.
However, before Mr Heng gave his reply, 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 confirm if it was the same as the independent fiscal council that Assoc Prof Lim referred to.
In his first answer, Mr Singh confirmed the two proposals were not the same. He added that the House should wait for Assoc Prof Lim’s proposal.
When Ms Rajah asked once more if the Budget office and fiscal council are the same, Mr Singh said it would be “the same thing.”
Mr Heng then noted he was “totally confused” because these two entities were “very different.”
“Your arguments are totally convoluted. One does not lead to the other,” said Mr Heng, referring to Mr Singh’s earlier mention of 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’,” said Mr Singh earlier. “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,” Mr Singh argued.
Mr Heng also asked if Mr Singh and WP members had read the interim report on Budget 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.
Mr Heng added no one questioned the outcome of the measures. “So what is the purpose of setting up an office when the information that is publicly available is there for you to ask,” he said.
In response, Mr Singh said that the proposal for a Budget office was a question about organs of state and separated from the issue of outcomes.
He explained that the Budget office would offer an independent perspective and help Parliament in approving the Budget. “Those who are approving the Budget ought to have, I think, access to an independent analysis.”
Not wanting to “prolong the debate,” Mr Heng informed Mr Singh that they could further discuss the issue at the Finance Ministry’s committee of supply debate, with specific issues being discussed at the relevant ministries’ committee of supply debates./TISG
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