National interest not served by 'repeatedly' asking about reserves: Heng Swee Keat

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat. (PHOTO: YouTube screengrab)
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat. (PHOTO: YouTube screengrab)

SINGAPORE — Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat slammed opposition leader Pritam Singh for “repeatedly” asking about the size of Singapore’s reserves, claiming that it goes against the national interest to do so.

Addressing supplementary questions from Members of Parliament on the Solidarity Budget on Tuesday (7 April), Heng told the House, “It is neither in the interest of Singapore, or Singaporeans, to repeatedly ask about the size of our reserves. We are in the middle of a storm, and I'm very disappointed that Mr Pritam Singh has used this occasion to raise this question again.”

He added, “We do not disclose the total size of our reserves, for the sake of national security and strategic interests.”

Heng noted that Singapore’s reserves comprise assets invested by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), Government Investment Corporation (GIC) and Temasek Holdings. While MAS and Temasek publish the size of the funds that they invest, GIC does not. “Our current and past reserves have been so carefully built up, invested and managed. This has allowed us to respond to the crisis, without having to borrow, and without burdening our future generations with repayment obligations.”

Drawing an analogy with the Singapore Armed Forces’ arsenal, the designated successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “No country's armed forces will ever tell you exactly how much ammunition and weaponry they really have. To do so is to betray valuable intelligence to potential adversaries.”

“This is obviously not a wise defence strategy, and likewise, should not be adopted for our financial reserves.”

Heng urged Members to instead focus on other policies and programs, especially those which may require the use of reserves, and to debate the merits of these programs, including the expenditure required for them.

Opposition also a steward

Singh, the Worker’s Party chief and an MP for Aljunied GRC, responded to Heng’s remarks by noting that the opposition is also a steward of the reserves and expenditure priorities of the government.

“But we seek these numbers because when the government introduces policies where reserves have to be employed, the question we have to ask ourselves is: is it enough? Or is it too much also, because that's a relevant question too. Or is it too little?”

He stressed that it is the opposition’s duty to ask questions of the government on such issues, not because it wants to “make life difficult for the Ministry of Finance”.

Singh asked if there might be scope to reveal information on the reserves in a “nuanced” manner: keeping certain aspects of the reserves secret, while revealing some aspects such as the amount which can be spent on improving the livelihood of Singaporeans.

In response, Heng referred Singh to the net investment returns contribution (NIRC),which is the single largest component of spending and which sets out spending rules. He added that the Elected Presidency serves as a key check and balance on the usage of the reserves.

Heng noted that President Halimah Yacob and the Council of Presidential Advisors asked “very, very good questions” on the drawing down of the reserves to fund the supplementary Budgets that address the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. He concluded, “So the checks and balance that we have in our system has been very rigorously designed and very well observed.”

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