Saturday, December 19, 2009

A year of trials and triumphs

Dec 19, 2009

If you imagine the Singapore scene as a boxing ring, what would you say were the biggest matches to enthrall, excite and exasperate Singaporeans this year? Today, we review 2009 - in five bouts. Enjoy.
By Nur Dianah Suhaimi



NO DOUBT about it, this was the bout that hogged the headlines - Singapore pitted against Recession, the fearsome superheavyweight that threatened to deliver the sucker punch.

Even before the fight started, some pundits had predicted that this was a match that would floor Singapore. After all, the opponent was billed as the biggest recession to hit mankind since the Great Depression of 1929.

The first few blows seemed to bear out the prophecies of doom. Sour investments linked to Lehman Brothers, mass retrenchments, rising unemployment, falling gross domestic product - the unrelenting spate of bad news all pointed to a knockout punch.

How could a little red dot absorb the merciless pummelling? If an economic Goliath like the United States could be badly battered by widespread bankruptcy, terrible credit crunch and unimaginable joblessness, how could the economic Davids even hope to be spared?

Pushed into a corner, Singapore Government leaders had to stay nimble and alert while figuring out how to bob and weave and keep this monster recession at bay. In true Singapore tradition, its counter-punch came in a 'package'.

The Resilience Package came in two jabs. The first was the Jobs Credit scheme to help employers by subsidising the wages of local workers. The second, known as Spur, provided hefty subsidies for workers' skills upgrading.

It was a breathtaking but expensive strategy with a price tag of $20.5 billion.

For the first time ever, the Government had to seek permission to dip into the nation's sacred reserves, accumulated over several decades and never touched before.

The reserves' gatekeeper and keyholder, President SR Nathan, needed time to deliberate. The Government waited for 11 days. It was only at the 11th hour - just a day before the announcement of the Budget - that the President gave his nod.

As Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam later said in Parliament, getting the President's approval to dip into the reserves was a comprehensive process, not a 'wayang' ('show' in Malay).

If there were any critics of the Resilience Package, they were soon silenced when the Jobs Credit and Spur schemes worked their way through the system to keep retrenchment and jobless rates down.

Employers saw Jobs Credit as an essential lifeline when their finances floundered. Employees who became redundant were sent packing, not to their homes, but to training centres under the Spur scheme.

As a result, the spectre of recession faded as confidence replaced fear. Happily employed Singaporeans continued with their shopping binges at newly opened malls. Snaking queues formed outside luxury boutiques in town, and IT and travel fairs saw crowds like never before. New private properties were snapped up like hot cakes and housing prices went through the roof.

Of course, the lower-income segment of the population did bear the brunt of the hard times and its pain and anguish were reflected in the Meet-the-People sessions and growing demand for relief and handouts.

By the middle of the year, the number of retrenchments had dropped sharply and by the third quarter, the economy had started to bounce back.

The economy surged in double digits in the second and third quarters this year - by 22 per cent and 14.9 per cent quarter-on-quarter respectively. Total employment for the third quarter grew by 14,000, offsetting the combined losses of 13,900 in the first two quarters.

Economists are expecting more positive figures ahead and a cheerier 2010.

Verdict: The bout is still not over but Singapore has won the rounds so far.



A BARE-KNUCKLE match, with the gloves off, embroiling the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) seemed to materialise from out of nowhere.

After all, who would have expected a no-holds-barred leadership tussle in an advocacy group which championed women's rights and served battered and disadvantaged women?

When a group of new members came from out of the blue to seize power at the group's annual general meeting in March, the veterans had no idea what struck them.

First, their loyal supporters found themselves dismissed or sidelined by the new guard. Then, they found themselves locked out of the group's Dover Crescent headquarters because the locks had been changed.

But they recovered quickly to mobilise their forces and stage a counterattack. The battle moved to the media as the public reaction came fast and furious. Ordinary people usually indifferent to women's causes began to take sides.

There was a public backlash against the new leaders. Among other things, they received death threats in anonymous letters and suspicious powdery substances.

The match took a dramatic turn when 71-year-old senior lawyer and former law faculty dean Thio Su Mien burst into the ring, declaring herself the 'feminist mentor' of several women in the association's new leadership.

It soon became apparent that the new team of staunch Christians was strongly opposed to homosexuality, a topic covered by Aware's sexual education programme. The old guard was accused of having a 'gay agenda' while the new guard was derided as 'non-inclusive'.

In the end, it all came down to one final round: an extraordinary general meeting in which Aware members had to decide once and for all which group they wanted at the helm.

This round proved to be a barnburner, a close fight till the very end. Some 3,000 women - all but 300 of whom were new members - turned up that day to cast their votes.

Conviviality and tranquillity quickly gave way to frayed emotions once proceedings began. Angry women told one another off. Racial slurs, religious insults, screams and taunts all came pouring out.

Even the men were not spared. Former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong was sternly ordered to sit in the men's corner.

As day turned into night, the votes were counted and, after seven long hours, the results were finally announced. The veterans had won by a 30 per cent margin.

Verdict: Both sides go the distance but the old guard wins by a knockout.



IF YOU listen to the growing cacophony of complaints from Singaporeans this year, you would think they are spoiling for a fight, placing themselves in one corner and pushing the immigrants into the other.

They blame the newcomers for anything and everything - taking away jobs and places in schools and universities, jacking up prices of HDB resale flats, crowding MRT trains and hawker centres and littering the neighbourhood.

Concerned with the them-and-us attitude, the Government had to play the role of umpire cautioning Singaporeans to play fair and counselling immigrants to adapt to the rules.

Leaders had to explain repeatedly the imperative of ensuring a flow of immigrants to create more jobs for locals and sustain the country's economic growth. With birth rates at historic lows and a fast-ageing society, they stressed, immigrants were needed.

The latest population count shows 4.99 million people, of whom 3.2 million are Singapore citizens. Permanent residents number 533,000 while transients make up 1.25 million.

To bridge the divide, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports this year came up with a slew of initiatives to help immigrants and citizens forge stronger bonds.

Cultural gatherings and social outings are organised to enhance interaction. New immigrants need to attend English courses and a special orientation programme to learn more about Singapore's history and heritage.

Verdict: It is time to blow the whistle, call off the match and hang up the gloves.



THIS was one match that Singapore was most prepared for. Way before The Bug started its attack, Singapore entered the ring complete with face masks, thermometers, hand sanitisers and, most importantly, a highly vigilant population.

After all, The Bug (also known by its scientific name 'Influenza A (H1N1) virus' or its unglamorous other name 'swine flu') has shown no mercy elsewhere.

From the pueblos of Mexico to the cities of South Korea, it had infected thousands of victims with a vengeance that sent shock waves throughout the world.

The Bug dealt Singapore its first strike in May when a 22-year-old undergraduate returned home from New York, unaware that she had been infected during her trip.

After that, the hits just kept coming, with one Singaporean after another contracting the dreaded virus.

Those who fell ill or came in contact with the infected were quickly quarantined. Yet panic struck when it was reported that some patients, not realising they were ill, had mingled with the crowds in public places.

A young man stricken by H1N1 had taken the MRT train to see his general practitioner while a similarly afflicted German researcher had allegedly gone shopping and attended a concert.

By then, hospitals, offices, schools and even nightspots were meticulously taking people's temperatures before allowing them entry. Those with the slightest signs of fever were turned away.

The first fatal blow came in July when a 49-year-old man, who was already suffering from various chronic ailments, died from a heart attack after being infected.

Several more H1N1 victims died in the following weeks but, like the first victim to die, most of them had underlying health problems.

By August, the worst appeared to be over. The Bug showed signs of slowing down. To keep it at bay, the Ministry of Health brought in one million doses of the H1N1 vaccine.

Verdict: Match is still in progress but Singapore is in the lead - on points.



IT WAS a match that saw agitated First-Time Buyers facing off Rising HDB Prices and complaining of being hit below the belt.

They argued that the lack of new HDB flats had pushed up the prices of resale flats as well as newly built ones. Despite numerous tries, they claimed they could not get a home.

Knowing the Government's concern about the low birth rate, they said that they would have to postpone marriage or put off having children as they could not get a home.

To address the mounting complaints, the Government did its own investigations and discovered that some of these claims were not entirely truthful.

Apparently, some buyers had offered exaggerated accounts of their failed attempts to get a new flat, it said.

As National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan put it, it was 'not a matter of buyers getting a flat; it's a matter of them getting it and not selecting it, for one reason or another'.

These reasons included wanting to live only in 'established' estates, refusing flats on lower floors and avoiding flats with uninspiring views of the neighbourhood rubbish centre.

But the Government was not oblivious to their concerns. Turning on the supply tap, it launched thousands of new flats and reserved 95 per cent of them for the First-Time Home Buyers.

Despite these changes, HDB flat prices continued to climb relentlessly, refusing to ease even during the recession.

Last month, when economic recovery was still an uncertainty, a four-room Queenstown flat made the news when it was sold for a staggering $653,000.

Verdict: Match is still on but the First-Time Home Buyer is clearly on the ropes.

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