As budgets go, this one is faultless. As far as hype is concerned, that is. Named the Resilience Package by its architects and hailed as “unprecedented”, “bold” and “decisive” by its cheerleaders, Budget 2009 suffers from the same old problem: there is a complete lack of transparency and accountability.
While we expend our energy analysing the wisdom or folly of the proposed expenditure, how do we know when the funds are going to be spent, who they are actually going to go to, and whether or not they are achieving the intended results?
We need to remember that the Budget is just a plan – and we all know what plans in Singapore become after a few months (think the Growth Triangle, Sentosa Theme Park, Suzhou Industrial Park etc).
With a government as notorious as this one when it comes to transparency and accountability, whether we have a Budget and a debate or not makes little difference.
So what if citizens think it’s a bad budget. What are we going to do? Make the Government change it? So what if the Government doesn’t deliver what it promises in the Budget, what are we going to do? Hold it accountable?
Contrast this with the new US administration under President Barack Obama who promised that “every American will be able to see how and where we spend taxpayer dollars by going to a new website called recovery.gov.” The website, still under construction, calls US citizens to check “how and why your tax dollars are spent.”
Will the Singapore Government, given all its rhetoric about being a wired nation, do the same?
In addition the US Congress, the media, and citizens themselves through NGOs will be keeping a close watch whether the President keeps to his word and how effective the spending programmes are. In fact, state agencies are obliged, under the Freedom of Information Act, to make such information readily available to the public.
In Singapore, the week after the Budget debate no one will remember the plans put forth and fewer still will be keeping track of them simply because there is no Parliamentary opposition, no free media and no civil society to do so.
In Singapore we pretend to analyse and critique, and the Government pretends to listen.
If the Government is intent on helping people get through this economic crisis, it can do a few very simple things without all the fuss and mumbo-jumbo like “Resilience” which, if one stops to think for a moment, is absolutely meaningless.
Below is a 5-point proposal by the Singapore Democrats that will help Singaporeans and the economy tide through this crisis. It is based on three underlying principles:
1. The economic help must be direct and tangible for the people, starting from the bottom and progressing upwards instead of the usual help for the top echelons and hoping that the assistance trickles down to the ordinary folk.
2. Financial programmes must proportionally, but not exclusively, benefit the following groups: the retrenched and unemployed, the elderly, and the lower-income groups.
3. The measures must put money in the pockets of the people.
Based on this guideline, the following initiatives should be implemented and implemented expeditiously:
Suspend the GST. In order to help everyone get by these difficult times, suspend the GST for at least two years. This will help workers and lower-income groups to sustain themselves during a period of reduced income. It will also help businesses who need customers and patrons to survive. Overall the economy will benefit.
Reduce land transport costs. To encourage people to maintain their economic activity, the ERP should be limited only to peak hours on weekdays and capped at $1 per entry. Bus and MRT should be reduced by 30 percent with immediate effect. Such reductions would not only help to keep the expenses down for the average individual and motorist, but they will also encourage people to go about and continue their economic activity.
Institute unemployment entitlement. When middle-aged Mr Tan who has to take care of a family of four is laid-off because of the meltdown in Wall Street which he had absolutely no control over, who is going to help him tide over the months ahead? Ensuring that revenue for basic necessities are not abruptly cut off would help families not just financially but also socially. Familial ties come under tremendous strain when incomes dry up. In addition, these funds will be plowed back into the economy when they are used for day-to-day expenses.
Give out spending vouchers. Distributing vouchers especially to lower-income households for daily purchases would help to keep the economy alive. Vouchers have an advantage in that they cannot be hoarded because they become invalid after a pre-determined period, they cannot be taken out of the country because they are not a tradable currency, and they cannot be abused because they are ineligible for purchase of certain categories of items such as tobacco, liquor, bets and luxury goods.
Slash ministers’ pay. The salary of the ministers should be reduced by at least 50 percent. Even after such a reduction, PAP ministers are still estimated to take home $75,000 a month! This is still higher than what the US president makes. The ministers have no moral authority to demand such obscene salaries when it has been proven time and again that they are bankrupt of ideas in leading Singapore forward. The cut in their salaries should go towards providing for the weakest and most vulnerable segments of the population.
The above measures will address the immediate and urgent needs of Singaporeans. They are not some help promised at some later time that may or may not come. Also, the people will be able to experience the economic relief from Day One and will not have to worry when or how the financial help is going to come. They go a long way to helping revive the economy which is worsening by the day.
They also have the advantage of removing the question of transparency and accountability. Suspending the GST and reducing the transport costs for instance will not need the constant tracking of what the Government does.
If the PAP is serious on helping the people, then it should implement these measures proposed by the Singapore Democrats. No fancy names, no complex time line, just quick and good help for the people.
But if the intent is to make the Budget sound and look impressive while evading transparency and accountability then names like Resilience Package would go a long way in aiding the wayang.