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The PM Burdens Every Generation of Singaporeans with His Outmoded Economic Ideas


PMLeeIn a Facebook post on Wednesday night, the PM made another statement of breathtaking economic illiteracy. He said, “Singapore must never fall into the same hole as some countries which spend more than they can earn,” Perhaps it is the fact that he studied Mathematics rather than Economics that has led him to make such a fallacious statement.  As every first-year student of Economics learns, while one country may be able to increase its savings as long as other countries are willing to go into deficit, if all countries simultaneously tried to increase their savings and run current account surpluses, the result would be a catastrophic slump. This is what caused the Great Depression and fiscal austerity has unnecessarily prolonged the Great Recession since 2009.

However I suspect his motivation is political rather than economic. As the head of Singapore’s elite he has a vested interest in stopping spending on the bottom 80% of the population if it might conceivably lead to a rise in taxes for him and his cronies down the road.

But such fears are unfounded. Singapore is in no danger of spending more than it earns for the forseeable future. We run a current account surplus (which represents our external saving or forgone consumption) of around 20% of GDP year after year.  This is already attracting attention internationally from the US and the IMF because of the drag it exerts on world growth.

Singapore has no external debt and while the PAP rip off CPF holders by forcing them to lend money to the government at below-market rates of return, all CPF debt is owned by Singaporeans. So if we were to spend more than we earn we would be borrowing from ourselves. However we are very far away from this ever happening. In fact the rate at which government reserves are accumulating, at least on paper, is accelerating.

As I wrote about in Budget 2014: A Very Generous Amount of Wool Pulled over Your Eyes, the PAP government is hiding a surplus of around $30 billion a year from its citizens. Over the last six years to 2012 the cumulative surplus amounted to $187 billion, even with the poor returns the government has been able to achieve with our captive CPF money.  Even the Pioneer Generation Package, which the PM said MPs from both sides of the House had paid tribute to for its generosity, only represents $260 million of current spending and not the $8 billion headline number, which is unlikely ever to be spent. Why then, for goodness’ sake, is the PM talking about taxes having to rise? To quote the PM, “We are alright for the next few years. Beyond that, we must think about raising more revenues.” 

One might suspect he has taken leave of his senses. On present trends, using the figures the government reports to IMF, the cumulative surplus to 2020 is likely to be in the region of $250 billion.  So either he is mad, mendacious or we should be afraid, very afraid, that our vaunted reserves are not all they are cracked up to be.  Government secrecy can be used to hide a multitude of sins.

I wrote about this in “Where have our reserves gone”, “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing (or Merely Hidden) Reserves“, and “An Unappetizing Picture.” It is one of the classic signs of an autocracy that the government treats the people as children, who cannot be trusted to make decisions for themselves. The Finance Minister’s Budget presentation is certainly like a nursery story for children.  It serves to cover their political motives in not wanting Singaporeans to realise how badly they are being short-changed.

However I will reserve further discussion of the contradictions in the PM’s statement to another time. Here I just wanted to make one simple point. If the PM and the PAP were serious about not burdening future generations then why not give HDB owners the freehold of their apartments once they have paid off their thirty-five year loans?  As everyone knows, HDB leases are only for ninety-nine years, which means that future generations will have to start the process of paying for a home all over again because the property will revert to the government at the end of the lease.

In his National Day Rally Speech in 2011,  the PM said “The way we have done it which I think has been successful has been to give people assets, especially an HDB flat;”. As usual the PM is being economical with the truth, as in an actuality the HDB purchase price should be amortized over the life of the lease. At the end of the lease the asset will be worth zero and our descendants will inherit nothing.

If Singaporeans collectively own the freehold of our HDB properties then we can manage the estates ourselves and make our own decisions about upgrading and redevelopment. The full rise in the value of the land will accrete to us rather than a large part being siphoned off by the government. If the majority of us can never aspire to owning (a share of) freehold property, then we can never become a true democracy, because we will always be dependent on the government.  Just as at Cheng San in 1997, the PAP government will continue to try and use Singaporeans’ insecurity over property ownership to ensure that they stay in power. This cannot be to the long-term good of our country

HDB

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