Members of Parliament are required to file their questions for the ministers about two weeks before the Parliamentary sitting. This is to give time for civil servants to draft out a reply for their minister to read out in Parliament. The minister’s prepared reply usually gets wide coverage in the mainstream media, dwarfing the original question filed by the MP.
However, MPs are also given the chance to ask supplementary questions after the minister’s first reply, to seek clarification and probe further. The following is the exchange between Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim and Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan on 15 September 2010.
Ms Sylvia Lim asked the Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports (a) why is the final budget for the Youth Olympic Games more than triple the original estimate; (b) where were the additional funds drawn from; (c) whether any of his Ministry programmes were cut back for this purpose; and (d) what was the amount paid for the tickets purchased by the Ministry of Education and whether this was also part of the YOG budget.
(Minister’s reply already covered widely in the mainstream media.)
Ms Sylvia Lim (Non-Constituency Member): Thank you, Sir. I have three supplementary questions for the Minister. Sir, I would like to bring the Minister back to the original budget which was US$75.5 million or roughly S$110 million. I would like to ask for an elaboration of the due diligence that went into preparation of that original budget. Earlier, the Minister mentioned that there were two big items in the budget – technology which was S$97 million and sports and venues which were S$76 million. Together these two items already made up S$173 million and I would imagine that these items are foreseeable expenditures for the Games. So I would like the Minister to elaborate on why our original budget was so low when these two items were clearly big- ticket items. Secondly, the IOC Report in 2008, reported in the various cities bidding for the Games, showed that there were five bidders and we were actually fourth in terms of our budget, ie, the three other cities bid much higher to host the Games. I wonder if the Minister also noted that Moscow who was competing with us at the end, their budget was more than double of ours originally. So does the Minister actually agree with a comment by his Permanent Secretary that perhaps we were a bit naive in our initial estimates for the budget? And the last question is that now that the Games are over, there have been anecdotal evidence of events which were poorly attended, and so on. So I wonder if his Ministry has had a chance to do an assessment of wastage costs that were incurred during the YOG.
Dr Vivian Balakrishnan: Thank you for the questions. I am not in any position to defend our underestimate. The Member is quite right. When we compared ourselves to the other bidders and in particular, at the end when it came down to Moscow versus us, the Moscow budget was somehow on the dot. But Moscow has hosted many Olympic Games. It has hosted Olympic Games before. It has hosted Youth Games before. They have the facilities and they know what they are doing. In our case, if I ask Members, when was the last time we hosted an international multi-sport event before 2008; Members will scratch their heads and go back, I think, to 1993, the SEA Games. I am giving an explanation and not an excuse. We were plain wrong. She is quite right. If Members look just at the cost of feeding people, moving people, transport and logistics – that already was over $40 million. Then we take into account technology. Technology, we have a reason to underestimate because we did not think at that point in time that we were going to host the Games which were at world’s standard with world-class timing and information systems. So I have no excuse for getting it wrong the first time. But I instead am trying to focus on the relevant question which was put to me after it emerged what would it really cost, which is: “if you knew it was going to cost $387 million, would you bid for the Games?” and, second, “would you get $387 million worth of value from the Games?” And once I was convinced that the answer to both those questions was “yes”, I had to proceed. The other thing was to keep faith with Singaporeans, and that is why, as Ms Irene Ng recommended, I was transparent and I revealed these numbers to Singaporeans before the Games. So, yes, we took heat for that. But it is much better to take heat for being transparent rather than to present people with a fait accompli. Were there some events which were poorly attended? In the initial phase, the first couple of days, we had a very peculiar phenomenon when tickets were sold out and because I was there I could see that there were still seats available. That was due to a combination of rigidity in our sale system. We sold tickets for an entire session but people may only be interested in certain segments of that session. Secondly, like Parliament, some people come late, some people leave early, it is very hard to ensure that even Parliament has a full House all the time. I then had to break Olympic protocol and put my foot down and say, “No. I am going to sell extra tickets as long as there are seats in the house.” Yes, I am going to take the risk. When I do that, there will be legitimate ticket holders who would then show up and say, “I have a ticket. Where is my seat?” I decided to take that risk and I also stated without approval of the IOC that if that situation arose, these legitimate ticket holders will sit in the seats which had hitherto been reserved for officials and if need be, I would tell the officials, “I am sorry, we don’t have seats for you anymore.” I did this, as I said I broke rules, and may have stepped on some toes. But I did it because I did not want to deprive Singaporeans of an opportunity to watch these Games. By that point, it had also become very clear that my initial worries that the Games would not be of interest to Singaporeans were completely unfounded. In fact, I received more complaints from people who could not get into the Games than people who were not interested in the Games. So in a sense, this was a problem of success. There were some non-sporting events, for instance, nightly concerts at the Bay. All of us have done events at the grassroots level. Once you set up a stage, your marginal cost of leaving the stage there for each subsequent day is actually very low. We said, “Well, we might as well put a stage for the entire duration of the Games.”
On weekends and particularly when there were a few very ‘hot’ items, which were very popular among young people we had thousands of people, on seats or even standing around. On weekdays, or with groups which were less well-known, there would be empty seats.
I went down on a day that the site was relatively empty. I asked the organisers and then myself, “should I pack up the whole place? Since there was low demand on Tuesday, shall I cancel the entire thing? Or in fact, should I treat this as incremental marginal cost; allow the show to go on and know that there would be certain days and certain acts for which there would be a full house?” In the end, the site was not full on everyday, but there were certain weekends and certain performances in which all the seats were used. So I thought it was still money well spent.