Singapore: Looking back on 2013 (I)

by singaporearmchaircritic

The year started with much excitement as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called for a by-election in Punggol East for the seat vacated by PAP Member of Parliament Michael Palmer in December 2012. Set on 26 January, the Punggol East by-election was the second by-election to take place in eight months, after the May 2012 Hougang by-election in which Workers’ Party (WP) Png Eng Huat defeated PAP’s Desmond Choo to retain the WP stronghold.

Unlike the outcome of the Hougang by-election, Lee Li Lian’s win in Punggol East took many by surprise, not so much because the WP candidate emerged victor in a multi-cornered race contested by three other political parties, but because her vote share was a good 10.5% higher than that of PAP candidate Koh Poh Koon.

Any delusion PAP might have about the 2011 General Election outcome as a “freak election result” was shattered by its shocking defeat in Punggol East. It seemed apparent that the need for the party to change and to relook its policies was finally drummed into PAP leadership after that by-election.

Yet voters and Singaporeans who harbored such hopes were quickly disappointed. For a party that boasts uninterrupted and unchallenged rule over Singapore for close to five decades, the conviction that it “can do no wrong” is deeply ingrained and the internal resistance to change hard to surmount.

A review of this year’s policies and developments shows that while the elitist PAP knew very well that it must change to recover lost ground and prevent the party’s eclipse – party leaders, for one, had openly called for “compassionate meritocracy” – it was somewhat unsure and unwilling to do so. Instead the party had clung to its entrenched ways and made cosmetic adjustments, confirming critics’ suspicion about its lack of sincerity and alienating more Singaporeans along the way.

The first sign that the voices of disgruntled Singaporeans had again fallen on deaf ears was the unveiling of the controversial Population White Paper on 29 January – just three days after  Punggol East voters went to the polls – and how it was steamrollered through the PAP dominated parliament on 8 February.

That the National Conversation, touted as a public consultation exercise to engage Singaporeans, was ongoing at that time deepened existing skepticism over the whole purpose of holding a dialogue when the government was not interested in listening.

Angry Singaporeans first took to the Internet to vent their frustrations, then to Hong Lim Park on 16 February. Thousands turned up in the rain to express their opposition to the government’s plan to increase Singapore’s population from the current 5.3 million to 6.9 million by 2030 through immigration. A second protest on May Day drew an even bigger crowd.

The strong turnout at Hong Lim Park was largely met with silence by the PAP government. Its mouthpiece, however, reacted swiftly to discredit those who opposed the Population White Paper as “xenophobic”, in a bid to divert attention from the root of the problem – overly liberal immigration policies that had driven up property prices and strained the transport system.

Over the course of the year, however, the PAP government introduced a number of measures to appease unhappy Singaporeans and assuage their concerns over job security and escalating costs of living.

This year, HDB offered a record number of 33,568 flats for sale to meet the housing demand of citizens. Singles over the age of 35 could buy new HDB 2-room flats from July. New permanent residents must now wait for three years before they can buy resale flats.

In healthcare, the Medishield scheme is undergoing a review. When details are made public in six months’ time, all eyes shall be on the affordability of the premiums for lifetime and universal coverage under the reformed insurance scheme.

While new HDB policies are clear-cut and healthcare reforms have yet to crystallize, the policies addressing Singaporeans’ concerns over the job situation are piecemeal and symbolic.

In his Budget speech on 25 February, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced curbs on the foreigner influx through higher foreign workers levies, lower dependency ratio ceilings, and higher qualifying salary for S-pass holders.

In March, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin disclosed in parliament that the Manpower Ministry (MOM) was looking into complaints about foreign managers’ preference for hiring their fellow countrymen. For over a year, the government was also working with the financial sector, reputed to have one of the worst Singaporeans-to-foreigners ratio among its employees, to develop a “Singaporean core.”

From December 2012 to June 2013, the rate of foreign workers influx had fallen to 2.3% (see chart). Until MOM releases statistics for entire year, however, it is not known if the year-on-year influx has really slowed from last year’s 5.9%.

Furthermore, although the number of employment pass holders had declined slightly by 1,700 from last December to this June, there was a corresponding increase of 11,700 in S-passes holders over the same period.

In September came the announcement of the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF). With the new rules, employers must post job vacancies on a new government jobs bank for at least 14 days before they can apply to hire an employment pass holder for positions paying less than SGD12,000 a month.

All these measures unveiled since February, however, will take effect gradually over the next few years. The FCF, for example, will come into force only in August 2014.

In the meantime, there has been a rising trend of whistle-blowing on discriminatory hiring practices against Singaporeans (see here, here and here). Such disclosures often went viral on the Internet, in turn pressuring the government and errant employers into taking swift corrective action.

In the coming year, it can be envisaged that cyberactivism shall play an increasingly important role in exposing and reining in errant employers, more so than the government’s circumspect policy adjustments.

This heightened cyberactivism and the continued ascendance of the alternative media in 2013 had clearly disconcerted the PAP government, who had responded to its online critics in a customary manner: more rules, more repression.

(To be continued in Part II)

This blogpost first appeared on The Online Citizen