The Singaporean government must stop its implicit taxation of its citizens through the Central Provident Fund (CPF) and give more weight to its fiduciary responsibility to them if Singapore is to sufficiently provide for its aged, says Mukul Asher, professor of public policy at National University of Singapore. He estimates that by 1998, the average balance members could withdraw upon retirement had declined to the equivalent of a mere 10 months wages.
The table below illustrates this problem. Asher calculates the average monthly wage for a Singaporean, both including the CPF contribution and without, and the estimated lump sum that members will withdraw from CPF upon retirement. The problem is especially acute for women: Ashers numbers are a median between the higher salaries of men and the lower salaries of women. Considering Singapore has been a high-growth economy for decades, the numbers are alarming.
Singapore: Average Balances Per Member*and Average Monthly Earnings, 1987-98
Average Balance Per
Average Balance Per
a: inclusive all remuneration received before deduction of the employee's CPF contributions and individual income tax. They include basic wage, overtime payments, commissions, allowances and other monetary payments, annual wage supplement, and variable bonus.
b: this is calculated as amount in column (2) + Employer's CPF contribution (Amount in column (2)). This is only an approximation and is biased upwards due to wage ceiling for employer's contribution.
c For males, average balance in 1998 was $ 33,765, for females, $ 26,846.
Source: Average Monthly Earnings From Republic of Singapore, Ministry of Manpower, Singapore Year Book of Manpower Statistics, 1997, Table 2.2, p.18. Average Balance per Member from data in Tables 1 and 5 of this paper.
* Note that anyone who contributed to CPF at one time or the other is a member. Hence , the number of members in any given year does not refer strictly to all those stationed in Singapore. Some who are not citizens and permanent residents may not come back to Singapore to spend their retirement. Those who are permanent residents may be working abroad and hence are not active contributors. In general, the "members" are a fluid pool and strict comparability of the annual data on members is not expected.
CPF funds are invested by the Singapore government through vehicles such as the Singapore Government Investment Corp. (SGIC), Asher believes. The government does not say how CPF funds are invested, on what criteria or what returns they achieve. Although many observers have guessed the government invests CPF funds directly into infrastructure and public housing, Asher says the numbers dont support this view: it has persistently run large budget surpluses. That has led him to suspect CPF funds are largely invested offshore.
The professor cites anonymous SGIC executives as saying it aims for an inflation-adjusted annual return of 3-4% in Singapore dollar terms. He assumes if a 3.5% annual return was achieved from 1987 to 1999, when the average actual return to CPF members was 0.88%, then Singaporean citizens are being implicitly taxed the remaining 2.62% return, or S$2.3 billion ($1.4 billion) the equivalent of 20.9% of corporate and personal income tax revenue in 1999.
Government officials accept the need for change, Asher says. But so far the options they have floated, such as raising contribution rates allowed in accounts with higher interest rates or increasing the withdrawal age, are going to have only a minimum impact. The additional contributions required by individuals to sustain a monthly income in retirement of two-thirds their working salary are so high as to be unrealistic. Unless [the government] is willing to end the implicit taxation of CPF wealth, and unless it increases the weight given to its fiduciary responsibility to its members, the progress towards providing the adequate replacement rate will be limited, he says.
He calls for more public accountability for how CPF funds are invested and their returns, and for allowing CPF members to choose among allocations of varying risk. Individual annuity markets or similar options must also be developed. Asher will present his findings in Rayong, Thailand at a seminar sponsored by the World Bank and Thailands Ministry of Finance later this month.