What does Singapore PM-in-waiting Heng Swee Keat's 2019 budget say about an early election?

Singapore’s Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat has been designated the country’s Prime Minister in waiting.
PHOTO: Reuters

In the weeks leading up to Singapore's budget, expectations were running high for Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat's first major policy speech since being designated as the prime minister in waiting.

There was intense talk by economists and analysts that he would use this budget as his platform to launch the election campaign for his party, the People's Action Party (PAP), in some style.

Singaporeans were also looking forward to seeing a huge cash bonus in advance of what would be an early general election this year, ahead of the 2021 deadline.

"Pre-delivery, it had the makings of an election budget coming at the tail end of the Lunar New Year," said political observer and Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan.

But if the delivery of the 2019 budget was anything to go by, a general election is unlikely to happen this year. The Singapore government has a lot left in its coffers for a true bonanza before the polls, despite announcing nearly $10 billion worth of subsidies and cash handouts.

Still, there are some signs from this budget that an early election is possible. It bears similarities to the budgets released during the last two general elections - 2011 and 2015.

Typically, before the election is called, the PAP government has given out huge election goodies. In 2011, it dished out a $3.2 billion "Grow and Share Package" which, among other things, gave all adult Singaporeans between $600 and $800 in cash.

Likewise in 2014, the government announced a massive $9 billion Pioneer Generation Package, which gave massive health subsidies to elderly Singaporeans for the rest of their lives.

Yesterday, Heng revealed details of the Merdeka (meaning "independence") Generation Package, an $8 billion package of subsidies aimed at helping some 500,000 Singaporeans aged 60 to 69 cope with rapidly rising health care costs.

Singaporeans are awaiting the 'next big thing' for Singapore that could get voters excited and confident that the new leadership has the wherewithal to keep Singapore exceptional 

- Eugene Tan, political observer and Singapore Management University law professor

In addition, he also announced a fresh $1.1 billion Bicentennial Bonus package. Singapore is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the arrival of British colonialist Stamford Raffles - regarded as the founder of modern Singapore - on the island.

Some 1.4 million Singaporeans will benefit from various top-ups to their state-sanctioned health and educational accounts, which they can use to pay for related services. In addition, they will also get up to $300 in cash by way of a rebate for Singapore's Goods and Services Tax.

"I believe budget 2019 is an election budget. There are some parallels between 2015 and 2019," said National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser.

"In the former, there was SG50 (an initiative celebrating 50 years of Singapore's independence from Malaysia) and the Pioneer Generation Package, and now we have the bicentennial and the Merdeka Generation Package. Other signs are the transition to 4G [fourth-generation] leaders who would need to forge and strengthen their own social compact with the people."

Similarly, Woo Jun Jie, assistant professor at the Education University of Hong Kong's Asian and Policy Studies department, said programmes such as the Merdeka Generation Package were inherently political in nature - firstly, because such long-term packages created a sense of gratitude towards the government that provided them.

"Second, providing for the needs of these generations is very different from simply providing one-off cash incentives, since health care benefits are consumed over a longer term and on a day-to-day basis," he said. "In a sense it is a gift that keeps giving, since individuals will be cognisant of the benefits they have received each time they need to draw on their medical benefits."

But while these moves are certainly preparing the ground for an eventual election, the probability of a general election held this year is low for two key reasons.

One, the next generation of leaders has yet to sketch their vision of where and how they would like to lead the country. Heng was named as the successor just a few months ago and the electorate would want to see what the new leadership has in mind for the country over the next decade or so, analysts said.

"For Heng and his fourth generation of leaders, Singaporeans are awaiting the 'next big thing' for Singapore that could get voters excited and confident that the new leadership has the wherewithal to keep Singapore exceptional," said Tan from Singapore Management University.

Rather than launching an election campaign, Heng delved into details of policy - an arena in which he is comfortable - zooming in on foreign-worker policies, carbon taxes and financial assistance for the poor.

There was a sense of dejà vu as he reiterated themes that had been introduced when he was first appointed finance minister in 2015, such as economic restructuring; the need to re-skill workers for the digital economy; the importance of innovation; and ensuring that everyone had a piece of the country's growth.

The biggest hint of what is to come, however, is in the government's balance sheet.

Singapore's constitution states that the government must balance its books over its term in power, meaning it cannot log a deficit by the time it calls for an election. Whatever is left unspent will be locked up as reserves.

But with the government announcing it will raise the goods and services tax from 7 to 9 per cent between 2021 and 2025, channelling such a huge sum of money into the reserves will be politically unsound.

Since the last election in 2015, economists from DBS and Maybank Kim Eng estimate that the government has so far accumulated surpluses of about $19 billion.

Next year, with the two new big-ticket items, Heng said the government will log a deficit of $3.5 billion, meaning it still has more than $15 billion to spend before the next election is called. This huge keg of powder will not, and cannot, be left untouched. The real election budget is yet to come.

Correction note: The pull-out quote in an earlier version of this article was mis-attributed to Tan Ern Ser. It was actually by Eugene Tan. This has been amended.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.