Can't Please all Fund members

The Central Provident Fund (CPF) has been a part of Singapore's history for so long - since 1955 - it may be near impossible for many people to imagine life without it.

But what if there were no national compulsory savings scheme in place, and Singaporeans were free to do what they wished with the money they earned?

How much would people choose to spend, and how much would they force themselves to save?

While doing research for this article, I was astonished to read about the lengths poor people in the developing world go to to stash away funds for a rainy day.

In West Africa, for example, the poor pay a "susu collector" interest of 40 per cent a year to look after their deposits. In the slums of India, a deposit collector can earn interest of 30 per cent a year.

These are findings from a book entitled Portfolios Of The Poor, based on the experiences of 250 families living on less than US$2 (S$2.50) a day in South Africa, India and Bangladesh.

Its authors found that poor families use unorthodox financial instruments to create a more stable life than their erratic incomes would otherwise allow.

As it turns out, banks and national savings plans are among the privileges enjoyed only by those who live in developed countries. And as consumers of these financial services, it is natural that Singaporeans want, where possible, low fees and high returns.

Service providers, on their part, have to decide what they can realistically offer, to remain viable.

Going by recent events, it seems that some CPF members would not choose to put their money with the CPF Board if the scheme were voluntary.

These are the CPF members who chafe at rules requiring them to keep a Minimum Sum in their CPF accounts for their retirement needs, and who resent a recent hike in that sum and the raising of the age at which they can start drawing down from it.

They have unleashed a torrent of complaints online and to their Members of Parliament about CPF shifting the goal posts, and some of them showed up for yesterday's "Return Our CPF" protest at Hong Lim Park.

It is unclear what share of CPF members share their sentiments.

But there are also many CPF members who have not joined the chorus of condemnation.

And while it would not be wise to assume silence signals all-round satisfaction, there are anecdotal accounts of CPF members who want just the opposite of what the "Return Our CPF" crowd are after.

If these members could, they would put even more of their hard-earned money into the CPF, because it yields higher risk-free returns than equivalent products on the market.

CPF savings in the Ordinary Account earn interest of 2.5 per cent a year.

By comparison, local banks are now paying interest rates that are well below 1 per cent for short- term deposits.

CPF savings in the Special and Medisave accounts enjoy higher returns of 4 per cent a year.

Since 2007, the CPF Board has also paid an additional 1 per cent interest on the first $60,000 of a member's combined balances, with up to $20,000 from the Ordinary Account.

As I see it, the unhappiness over CPF as it is currently structured has two different sources.

The first is tied to CPF members having no say in how much of their income goes into the compulsory savings scheme, what they can use the funds for and how much they can withdraw when they stop work - either when they lose their jobs or when they retire.

This lack of choice frustrates many. Last week, Ms Tin Pei Ling, an MP for Marine Parade GRC, asked that CPF members be given more flexibility to withdraw their funds should they find themselves in dire straits due to joblessness, for instance.

The second concerns the rate of return.

While the Government has been at pains to point out that the interest rates on CPF savings are better than what similar financial products in the market offer, others - such as Nominated MP Tan Su Shan, a senior bank executive - have observed that CPF returns have not kept pace with inflation in recent years.

Ms Tan suggested having regular savings plans that are tied to bonds or fixed-income unit trusts that pay regular dividends to ensure that inflation does not erode the value of CPF savings that are not invested.

The Government can try to fix each of these problems in turn.

Indeed, it has indicated that it is moving to make sure the payouts from the CPF Life annuity scheme are indexed to inflation. It has also said it would look at how the returns on CPF savings can be improved.

As for greater flexibility on withdrawals, my colleague Toh Yong Chuan suggested recently raising the amount that CPF members can withdraw at age 55, whether or not they meet the Minimum Sum. It now stands at $5,000 and has not been adjusted for at least a decade, he pointed out.

What the Government cannot fix through policy is suspicions and conspiracy theories that allege it is changing the rules on the CPF Minimum Sum and withdrawal age because it relies on CPF monies as a cheap source of funds to either enrich itself or to cover up losses by its sovereign wealth fund GIC and investment company Temasek Holdings.

It has sought to counter these allegations by releasing information to explain what happens to CPF monies, as the Ministry of Finance did last month in its reply to questions from The Straits Times.

The ministry said no CPF monies go towards government borrowing as that is prohibited by law; that Temasek does not manage any CPF monies and that there is no link between CPF interest rates and the returns earned by GIC, as the CPF monies are invested entirely in risk-free assets, namely, Special Singapore Government Securities.

Back in 2007, when the Government's announcement of new rates of return for CPF savings drew many questions and comments, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam - then Second Finance Minister - tackled this issue head-on.

He said in an interview with this newspaper that the charge of the Government using CPF as a cheap source of funds was "wrong and plainly misleading".

"The Government doesn't need to borrow from the CPF. If we needed to borrow, we can borrow from the market at lower rates than from the CPF. Every finance professional knows that.

"If we had issued one-year treasury bills, the rate we would have paid over the last 10 years would have been 1.7 per cent on average.

"If we wanted to borrow through longer-term bonds, we could issue 10-year bonds and pay the market rate, without the plus one percentage point. So if the Government needed to borrow money, it can do so at lower cost.

"CPF money is actually expensive money for the Government, not cheap money," he added.

It is a pity that such allegations continue to fly about for they cast government and people as enemies when they are not.

As a national, compulsory savings scheme, the CPF cannot be tailored to fit the needs of each and every one of its members.

Therefore, individual members are bound to have issues with how the scheme is run.

Ultimately, though, both the Government and the people have a shared interest in getting the CPF to work better, rather than tearing it down.


This article was first published on June 8, 2014.
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