S'pore's Budget 2019 is definitely not an election budget. The one coming next year will be.

We dig up some older data to make better sense of all this speculation.

Martino Tan | February 21, 2019, 05:05 PM

It is a tradition for finance ministers to go on television and the airwaves to share their thinking behind the annual Budget statement.

This year, the challenge for Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat is to find 4,237 ways to explain why the government does not plan budgets in anticipation of an election.

In the "Ask The Finance Minister" TV forum, one of the questions Heng had to address (and, arguably, is on many of our minds) was whether the government will break its piggy bank and spend the surplus it earned during this term ahead of the next General Election.

In his response, Heng told host John Leong and the 25 invited guests at the forum:

"The Budget is a strategic plan to allocate resources for Singapore to remain successful, vibrant in the long run and to be fair across generations.

It is not about ‘okay, we are near the election so therefore let’s spend this, let’s spend that’ … (and) it doesn’t mean that next year, we are going to spend that S$15 billion".

So is it true that this year will be an election year?

Here are three reasons why it's more likely that Budget 2020, not Budget 2019, will be this election cycle's "election budget".

1. The Merdeka Generation Package is not this election cycle's version of the Pioneer Generation Package.

Political observers like academic Tan Ern Ser have been quoted in the South China Morning Post as saying:

"I believe Budget 2019 is an election budget. There are some parallels between 2015 and 2019... 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."

We're not sure this observation is completely precise, though.

The Pioneer Generation Package, which handed out healthcare benefits to some 450,000 Singaporeans, was actually introduced in 2014, and not in the election year of 2015.

If the next GE is called by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong this year, the only similarity between this year and 2015 is that Singapore is celebrating or commemorating a significant national milestone (SG50, Bicentennial).

2. Heng, busy man that he is, has the matter of that national conversation to work on this year, after Budget 2019.

In December last year, Heng told the media that the fourth-generation (4G) ministers will launch their planned series of discussions with Singaporeans after Budget 2019.

Now, it's clear of course that this year's Budget and Committee of Supply debates will keep Heng and the government occupied until mid-March.

If Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) in 2012 is any indicator of how long the process of this new round of national conversations will take, it'll likely clock in at nearly a year.

PM Lee first announced the OSC during his 2012 National Day Message, and it was a whole year later that Heng, who was leading the effort if you recall, took to Facebook with this reflection:

It would also only be at the 2013 National Day rally that PM Lee shared round-ups on the issues discussed in the course of the conversations.

If the experience from the 2012 OSC is anything to go by, this new discussion series will likely conclude at the end of this year at the earliest, if the discussion series were to take nine months to complete.

Not a bad thing at all for Heng, though, timing-wise, because he'll be able to tie in Singaporeans' suggestions to his plans for Budget 2020.

It's also worth noting that earlier this week, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung told The Straits Times that our young Cabinet ministers have already completed a third of the 90 ministerial community visits planned across the whole of Singapore.

And the likely conclusion of the remaining 60 or so ministerial community visits? Mid-2020, he says.

So here's a possible timeline for key events this year:

Budget 2019 (Feb. to Mar. 2019)  Heng's National Conversation (Apr. to Dec. 2019) → Budget 2020 (Feb. to Mar. 2020)  Completion of Ministerial Community Visit (June 2020)

Sounds like a plan in the run-up to GE2020.

3. Because history paints the clearest picture for us.

Going back to the TV forum, the CNA presenter John Leong asked Heng again for his response to those who speculated this year's budget to bear resemblance to an election budget.

Heng's reply?

"Well, if they mean that they are very happy with the budget, well, I will say that that is good. But I don't plan on that basis."

The perception that the government will run a deficit ahead of a general election is probably caused by an impression some may have gotten from the 2015 budget.

It is true that the government ran a deficit ahead of that GE, but it is not accurate to infer that the government will always (or for that matter, only) run a deficit ahead of a GE.

Here are the government's fiscal positions in the past five election years:

GE 2015: S$6.67 billion deficit

GE 2011: S$4 billion surplus

GE 2006: S$0.05 billion deficit

GE 2001: S$2.69 billion deficit

GE 1997: S$5.25 billion surplus

Now from here, you can already see — one cannot conclude definitively that a deficit means there will be an election.

Even looking at the overall trends over election cycles (the four- to five-year period between each election), here's what you get:

FY 2012-2015: S$1.91 billion budget surplus

FY 2007-2011: S$12.06 billion budget surplus

FY 2002-2006: S$0.37 billion budget deficit

FY 1998-2001: S$7.095 billion budget surplus

It provides a picture that again doesn't necessarily show this year is an election year.

If this year's was indeed the election budget, the government will be heading into this year's GE with its biggest-ever budget surplus in two decades at a whopping S$15.6 billion.

Therefore, if recent history may serve as a guide, the election cycle of 2012-2015 shows us a surplus in the first two years (S$5.82 billion, S$3.92 billion) before a deficit (S$1.16 billion) in the third year and an even bigger deficit (S$6.67 billion) in the fourth year.

Here are the government's fiscal positions over the last three years:

2016: S$6.12 billion surplus

2017: S$10.86 billion surplus

2018: S$2.12 billion surplus

2019: S$3.5 billion deficit (estimated)

All Heng needs to fit the 2012-2015 trend is to clock a bigger budget deficit next year.

And of course, he will need Budget 2020 to do that.

Top photo from Heng Swee Keat's Facebook page.