Budget 2020: Despite Biggest Threat to the Singapore Economy Since 2008 It’s Deja Vu as Heng and His Master Play Their Old Tricks of Hiding The Money
Every year the Finance Minister produces the same fake Budget in a process that at various points over the years I have been writing my blog I have characterised as “Smoke and Mirrors” (2012), “How to Make A Surplus Disappear Without Anyone Noticing” (2013), “What Is The Real Surplus” (2014), “Budget 2016: Stuck in A Car in The Fog. Case Who to Ask for Directions?” (2016), “Hey Lee Hsien Loong, Where’s Our Money Dude?” (2017) and “Budget 2018: Same Old Cliches as Heng Makes Your Money Vanish in The Uniquely Singaporean Version of the Shell Game” (2018).
During this period my analysis has moved steadily to the mainstream and become accepted wisdom among the Opposition and independent commentators even though my role in this goes unacknowledged in large part.
Despite the Coronavirus emergency, this year’s Budget is no exception to the well established pattern of fakery and concealment of the nation’s finances. Finance Minister and Trusted Lee Family Retainer Heng could just repeat the same speech that Tharman made in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 with a few figures changed If the POFMA laws were implied impartially then Heng should be slapped with Correction Notices over his use of the words “expansionary” or “deficit” in connection with his Budget which is nothing of the sort. While Heng has made a great song and dance about helping Singaporeans overcome the Coronavirus recession his fiscal stance is basically unchanged from last year.
Last year 2019 the deficit was originally forecast to be $3.5 billion but after underspending it came in at $1.65 billion. This year the forecast deficit is nearly $11 billion (2.1% of GDP. This might seem like a large increase but Heng has increased the Top-ups to Endowments and Trust Funds by almost $4 billion, to almost exactly match the Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC)As I have argued since 2012 these do not represent current spending and are a ploy used by the Government to hide the real surplus. For example, in 2019 only $4.4 billion was spent of the $13.6 billion allocated, about a third. If we assume that actual spending from the Endowments and Trust Funds is in the same ratio then that will mean that approximately $12 billion of the NIRC is saved rather than spent. So instead of a deficit this year the Government is actually running a surplus of about $1 billion or about $4 billion once the actual spending is revised downwards.
Even this is undoubtedly too conservative as it is not clear from the Government’s figures what interest was earned on money already in the endowments and trust funds and whether this is accounted for elsewhere. If we assume that the earnings on these funds covered most of the expenditure then the surplus if non-current spending is excluded is at least $7 billion and more like $10 billion.
Of course the NIRC only represents up to half what the Government assesses to be the long term rate of return. If the reserves are $1 trillion (which again should be a conservative number since accumulated surpluses since 2000 alone are probably close to a trillion) then that represents a 1.8% return. So if the Government earns a long term return of 4% after inflation then we should be able to spend $40 billion a year. In my analysis of the 2018 Budget I said that we should spend at least 4% of the net assets every year which is the Norwegian model. I am glad that some of the Opposition are incorporating my figure into their economic plan. 4% may be conservative as the US S&P 500 index has returned more than 10%p.a over the last 30 years. Temasek boasts an annualised return of 15% over 40 years though a substantial part of that is fake.
The NIRC also does not include the revenues from land sales. Since the Government owns 90% of the land in Singapore it is only right that the NIRC should include part of the land revenues as well. If we value public land holdings at $2 trillion (to take a conservative estimate) then the Budget should include at least a 1% return on those holdings which would add another $20 billion to money available for real spending and not moving from under one shell to another to pretend that it is all gone.
In addition to the fakery going on with the movement of the NIRC into long term funds masquerading as current spending (which I have said repeatedly should raise red flags to any decent forensic auditor and may indicate that there are large hidden losses or worse at our sovereign wealth funds), there have to be real doubts over whether the Government’s own expenditure figures are an accurate reflection of actual spending since a large part of many ministries’ budgets are grants to organisations and statutory boards. If those are part of the public sector and the money allocated is not spent but saved then it increases the surplus at the General Government level.
We need an accurate accounting of all the Government’s assets including land and a comprehensive Statement of Assets and Liabilities then is provided to Parliament and the President. The current one is so sketchy as to be an insult to the concept of Parliamentary accountability and shows the contempt the PM has for proper constitutional checks and balances. Looking at the latest statements many of the funds are missing like the Productivity Fund, the Rail Infrastructure Fund and the Changi Airport Fund. Has the money been spent? Why have no accounts been produced and debated in Parliament? I have repeatedly drawn attention to the Productivity Fund, under the control of LHL, where $3.5 billion appears to have vanished. How was it spent? Was it used to cover losses elsewhere?
If we assume that the PAP Government is not concealing enormous losses or widespread fraud then we should prudently and conservatively be able to spend up to $60 billion above current levels without raising taxes. More in fact because a significant percentage will come back to the Government in the form of higher tax revenues. So Singaporeans should be able to enjoy what citizens of other rich countries enjoy in terms of benefits. These include, in no particular order, universal health care, free education to tertiary level, old age pensions and child benefit. Instead they are insulted and patronized by LHL by being offered a derisory $830 million Care and Support Package.
In case there is any doubt there is absolutely no need for the GST increase whatsoever. In fact the Government are using the looming GST increase as an excuse to sock away another $6 billion in this Budget on the pretext that it will be used for GST vouchers to soften the increase. So Singaporeans are in effect paying twice, once now and then again when the GST increase goes into effect after 2021.
Why does LHL’s Government persist in being so stingy? Beyond what started out as conspiracy theory but becomes less implausible with every Budget with a fake NIRC, namely that the reserves have been lost or stolen, is the underlying crude social Darwinism (which has its roots in Calvinism) of LKY. He believed that it was not worth helping those at the bottom because they were already genetic losers since all the best people had risen to the top, which meant him, his family, relatives, ministers, MPs and plutocratic cronies, in that order. Rather than waste money on a feckless and low IQ underclass, LKY preferred the cheaper option of importing foreign talent from the UK, Europe, Australia, India, the Philippines and China, a policy which his son and the PAP continue. They are put on a fast track to citizenship and excused NS, which is only for losers and little people.
The mystery is not why LHL and the PAP behave like they do but why Singaporeans let them and surrender their birthright so cheaply. If one mentions additional spending voters become agitated and ask how you are going to pay for it despite the evidence that I have presented here and in such exhaustive detail over the years that state coffers should be running over. Even $6 billion a year (the amount Heng snatched away supposedly to cushion GST) would be enough to finance child benefit of $300 per month per child under 18 and an old age pension of $500 per month. This has been part of Reform Party’s manifesto since 2015. Yet returning a tiny bit of the surplus that the Lees have extracted from the people over the decades is seen as electoral suicide and Opposition parties vie with one another to promise to cut spending, especially on defense. PAP brainwashing and gaslighting of Singaporeans has succeeded beyond LKY’s wildest dreams. The PAP are truly masters of Fake News.
To illustrate how nothing has changed over years of Budget presentations I reproduce my article about the 2018 Budget. This charade will continue forever as long as Singaporeans let them.
Budget 2018: Same Old Cliches As Heng Makes Your Money Vanish in the Uniquely Singaporean Version of the Shell Game
Budget time yesterday and my first thought was that I had stepped into a time machine and been transported back to last year’s Budget. In fact the same could be said about any of the Budgets over the last five years. The Government could save a lot of money by eliminating the need for a Finance Minister. Instead they could just replay Heng’s or Tharman’s old speeches just updating the figures every year. That would save at least $2.5 million p.a. Include the Minister of Trade and Industry (Iswaran) and the Ministers of State and savings would be over $10 million p.a.
This year everything sounded even more deja vu than usual. For ease of understanding I have regurgitated Heng’s familiar cliches together with what they really mean in brackets: a “caring … society” (shamelessly stolen from my father’s title for the Workers’ Party manifesto he wrote in the 1970s), “building a smart nation” (investing in comprehensive and all encompassing citizen surveillance following China’s example), “a carefully calibrated foreign worker inflow” (opening the floodgates for a new wave of foreign labour without any minimum wage protection for Singaporeans), and “a fiscally sustainable and secure future” (we will continue to pretend we are running out of money while raising taxes in the most regressive way imaginable).
The FY2018 fiscal position set out in Annex D was the usual mixture of fake accounting, inappropriate categorisation, deliberate under-forecasting of revenues and missing money that has been the pattern in previous Budgets. I have been writing on the subject since 2012. I am sure many of you are familiar with my posts but for those who are not I have posted links to some of my articles below.
- Fake Accounting.and Slush Funds Every year the Finance Minister sets aside substantial sums which he transfers to endowments and trust funds. This year was no exception. Former classmate and second class Cambridge Economics degree holder (but master magician in the Tharman mould) Heng put $2 billion into the GST Voucher Fund and $5 billion into the newly announced Rail Infrastructure Fund. He also announced that the Changi Airport slush fund stood at $4 billion. However according to the Analysis of Revenue and Expenditure (ARE) actual spending from the GST Voucher Fund was only $791 million. last year. Setting aside money for Rail Infrastructure out of current revenue is also strange when funding for the construction of new MRT lines and other infrastructure comes out of current revenue. A few years ago Tharman set aside over $8 billion for the Pioneer Generation Fund, which neatly entirely offset the whole of the Net Investment Returns Contribution. Four years later the Fund still stands at $7.5 billion.
- Inappropriate Categorisation Funding for long-term infrastructure projects out of current revenue does not make good economic sense when the returns and benefits will largely accrue to future generations. The Finance Minister goes one step further and pre-funds future infrastructure spending today, robbing Peter to pay his son or grandson Paul. In this year’s Budget Heng has also set aside $16 billion in grants and capital injections to organisations. It is even more inequitable when many of these investments are in profit making corporations like Changi Airport Group (CAG). Though it pays dividends these are small compared to the loans and Government support it receives. CAG could undoubtedly raise the finance it needed in the private sector.
- Deliberate Under-Forecasting The Finance Minister always deliberately under-forecasts the surplus each year. Last year he failed spectacularly. At Budget time he predicted a slight surplus (based on the PAP Government’s dodgy accounting) of just under $2 billion. This year he revealed that due to a surprise windfall gain from MAS of about $5 billion as well as under-spending on infrastructure that $2 billion turned into a $10 billion surplus. This has happened every year that I have analysed the Budget. If this happened in the corporate world such deliberate under-reporting would probably be criminal. We need the equivalent of the independent Congressional Budget Office or the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies.
- Missing Money Despite being required to do so by law many of the funds that the Government sets up fail to publish accounts or give any explanation of their spending. Many of the funds do not appear in the Statement of Assets and Liabilities that the Government is obliged to publish every year with the Budget. An example which I have drawn attention to many times is the Productivity Fund to which another $1 billion was allocated last year. This is controlled by the Prime Minister’s Office yet to the best of my knowledge no accounts have been published and it does not appear on the Government’s balance sheet. According to the ARE it spent $202 million last year. Is it a secret slush fund? At the same time as WP are being rightly asked to account for $33 million in spending by the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council citizens should be forcing PM Lee to account for the billions that have disappeared into the Productivity Fund.
These are the questions that any Opposition worthy of the name should be pressing the Finance Minister for an answer to:
- Why when the state coffers are overflowing is the Finance Minister even contemplating raising taxes at the moment, let alone committing to raising GST by 2% between 2021 and 2025? Is there something he’s not telling us about the Government’s accounts?
- Why does the Statement of Assets and Liabilities not include physical assets for a true picture of the Government’s net worth? In fact what does it include? This is a question I have been asking for six years but we will never get an answer as long as PAP remain in power and there is no proper Opposition in Parliament.
- On what basis is the Net Investment Returns Contribution calculated? For $14 billion to be 50% of the returns on $1 trillion or more of assets is ludicrous. We should move towards the Norwegian model of spending 4% of the net assets (which will be transparent) every year. Better still divest the assets to Singaporeans as I have argued previously.
- What other Funds are there besides those displayed in the Statement and why are there no accounts?
- In particular what has happened to the Productivity Fund?
Instead of transparency all Singaporeans got were a few hundred million dollars of handouts including the insulting Singapore Bonus of up to $300 per person over 21. The Finance Minister estimated this would cost $700 million though given his poor ability at Maths it will probably be much less. There was not even any new welfare programme like the misleading Pioneer Generation Package. No doubt Singaporeans will be overjoyed by the prospect of $100 or $200 when the Government is making a surplus of $30-40 billion p.a. and will vote enthusiastically for the PAP at the fast approaching next election.
The Germans also love the fact that their government makes large surpluses year after year rather than cuts taxes. But at least the government still has debt which it is paying down and Germans expect a high level of spending on welfare and public facilities. Singaporeans must be the only people who derive utility from being told that their money is piling up in the bank but they can never spend it. Recently the BBC published a story about an African con man who swindled a Dubai bank out of hundreds of millions in the 1990s by promising to double their money through black magic. Heng and the PAP must be the only con men in history who have persuaded people to hand over their money in return for promising to halve it year after year and made them grateful into the bargain.