Friday, December 26, 2014

The next 50 years or Beyond 2015

Two writers offer their views on what needs to change for Singapore, 50 years after independence.

DEC 20, 2014

50 years on, still no clear political alternative


AT THE recent party conference of the People's Action Party (PAP), the possibility was raised of it not forming the government after the next general election.

This brings to mind former foreign minister George Yeo's two- word Facebook post after the ruling party lost the Punggol East by-election in January last year: "Whither Singapore?" This came after the May 2011 election when the PAP received its lowest votes in a general election since independence.

In this context, it appears intuitive that here is an opportunity for opposition parties to explain why they should run the country. Yet, none is making a claim for the leadership mantle other than trying to increase the parties' parliamentary presence.

But what if all seats are contested again in the next election, and a large collage of candidates from opposition parties are voted in?

How is the country to be governed if its fate pivots on a sizeable number of oppositionists, but none or few of them are ready to hold office? Singapore faces a peculiar phenomenon where there is talk of challenging the PAP but no party or candidate stands ready to take over the government or be prime minister.

Instead, the opposition is gingerly treading between assuaging those angry with an influx of foreigners and not straying too far from the PAP's way of trying to maintain economic growth and social stability. For the most we are presented with "PAP-lite" with some choice rhetoric thrown in.

It is not that the opposition does not offer alternative ideas that challenge the PAP's, but that the ideas need to come across as representing a countervailing force to the grip of market forces on the economy.

Within the PAP itself, some have recognised that fundamental change is needed. Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam stated that the Cabinet's centre of gravity has shifted to "left-of-centre". It may not be clear yet what this means exactly but there are forays in trying to soften the potential for a property bubble through increased stamp duties in buying residential property, and a Pioneer Generation Package in the form of subsidised health care and Central Provident Fund top-ups as recognition of the contributions of first-generation Singaporeans.

However, as Singapore approaches its 50th anniversary, no clear political alternative exists.

The PAP is right to start looking left politically, but what is surprising is that the opposition largely offers piecemeal policy alternatives - if any one of them attempts a vision it is a repetition of what they have been saying for years and is but a variation on a theme of Singapore's current capitalist paradigm.

Key aspects of what the opposition seem to offer include reduced defence expenditure (Singapore Democratic Party or SDP), tightening entry of foreigners into the labour force (Singaporeans First Party, National Solidarity Party), a minimum wage (SDP), encouraging smaller firms and private enterprise and attempts to dismantle government-linked corporations (Workers' Party to some extent, and SDP).

But voters want more insight into the ideas of the opposition.

Should military conscription be reduced even further or halted altogether and by what timeframe?

By how much should the intake of foreigners be curbed? What precisely is the ratio of foreigners to locals that firms should follow? What exactly should the minimum wage be and how is it to be adjusted for inflation? What happens when GLCs are dismantled and what good is this to us if ownership falls into foreign hands?

A comprehensive vision of moving the country to the left and thereby reassert socio-economic balance allows effective claims for a minimum wage, more government intervention in the economy, a sharper interest in the welfare of the needy and raising taxes upon the wealthy to help social expenditure: but the opposition presents a hodgepodge of ideas that may well force them to dip into the state's financial reserves to fund programmes - something that is anathema for the most part and for good reason. Without a hinterland and anything substantial to fall back on like natural resources, a principal resource for Singapore remains its accumulated reserves.

Then there is also the question of whether at some point Singapore may have to consider merging back with Malaysia to ensure its long-term sustainability.

The point is that there are no able leaders from the opposition who can unify it or provide a clear direction for the country. Neither is the opposition abundant in leaders honest enough to tell Singaporeans that whoever they vote for, there are challenging times ahead.

Voting the PAP out or trying to form a coalition is one thing - but what are the answers to a failing capitalist paradigm and the challenges of managing foreign policy issues in an increasingly difficult geopolitical environment?

It is undemanding to wax lyrical about freedom, democracy and whatnot, but it is quite another matter when the reins of government are in one's hands. Singapore needs leaders who can offer clarity of vision and genuine integrity of purpose, and who have the ability to make difficult decisions and, when needed, uncompromisingly tough moves.

The writer, a Singaporean, has worked in the navy and media, taught at tertiary institutions and is the editor of Philosophers For Change, an online journal dealing with alternative socioeconomic paradigms.

Vision for tomorrow must break out of yesterday's mould


AS WE move towards 2015 and our 50th year of Independence, there will be a flurry of books and articles recalling the challenges overcome since 1965 and the destiny which awaits Singapore. The bigger surprise has been the number of efforts at crystal-ball gazing, attempting to look 10, 25, and even 50 years into the future.

What is striking is how much our imaginations are prisoners of the present. Even though we want to look beyond today and aim to conceive of a world which will unfold in the years ahead, we are shaped by our experiences. Linear projections are common. We struggle to grapple with the possibility of discontinuities, of changes which break existing moulds.

At the same time, our natural optimism leads us to plot a future which highlights our role at or near the forefront of nation states, a beacon of economic development and political stability. When we discuss the possibility of changes, the tendency is to think in terms of incremental shifts.

But the possibility of paradigm shifts should not be ignored. The emergence of unexpected issues which become the focus of attention by policymakers can be seen in the current debate over the population challenge.

Singapore is an ageing society, with a total fertility rate of 1.19 last year, well below the replacement level of 2.1. In retrospect, high levels of economic growth over the past two decades resulted from increases in capital and foreign labour deployed, not from significant productivity increases. However, the unsustainable sharp influx of foreigners granted permanent residence, as well as employment permits, in recent years has resulted in a backlash, making the issue of immigration politically toxic.

It is not just younger Singaporeans concerned about competition for university places or preferred jobs. Older Singaporeans worry about the changing environment around them, as they have neighbours with alien languages and different lifestyles. While some welcome the influx of new ideas, different cuisines and fresh faces, others are concerned by the disappearance of comfort foods and familiar styles of behaviour.

Although ethnic ghettos in HDB estates have disappeared, as legislation has ensured an ethnic balance, condominiums are beginning to see such ghettos, as new immigrants and expatriates from certain nationalities congregate in preferred locations.

The past year has seen rising anti-immigration sentiment in Singapore. The views of the general public have been influenced by the pressure placed on Singapore's infrastructure because of the sharp increase in the number of people residing in Singapore. MRT trains are crowded, hospital beds always full, traffic jams occur frequently, once-quiet parks are filled with foreign workers on weekends. The rapid pace of the foreign influx resulted in growing criticism and an undercurrent of resentment reflected in social media sites.

The opposition to immigration has led to the tightening of government policy on foreign workers in recent months. Now that restaurants, offices and department stores, for example, cannot rely on cheap foreign labour, we see Singaporeans employed for such jobs. One wonders where these people were employed before the restrictions were imposed.

The ease with which foreign labour was recruited has resulted in depressed wages for a segment of our population with minimal educational qualifications, unskilled and often in their 50s and 60s. This has led to calls for the introduction of a minimum wage, a move resisted by the Government over the years.

But the reality is that immigration will continue and there will be more foreign labour employed, if low birth rates continue.

Attitudes need to change. We should welcome the presence of new Singaporeans and encourage their integration into Singapore society. We should revise our laws to permit dual citizenship, which benefits some who are permanent residents but do not wish to give up the citizenship of their land of birth. It would also allow the growing numbers of Singaporeans working abroad to retain their links with Singapore.

We should be prepared to adopt a minimum wage policy to protect vulnerable groups in our workforce and to ensure that cheap foreign labour does not displace Singaporeans in their twilight years eking out a living.

The pace of change over the past 50 years has left us with a pioneer generation lacking the education and skills to benefit from the transformation that has taken place in Singapore. Ensuring a basic living wage will do more to retain their pride and sense of purpose than handouts as part of a pioneer generation package.

At the same time, despite the growing reliance on foreign labour to do menial jobs, Internet chatter suggests that many in our community are unwilling to recognise that even temporary workers have rights and should be protected. Do we retain Third World attitudes towards manual labour even as we proclaim ourselves a First World society?

The Little India riots last December highlighted the risk of outbreaks of social unrest. A minor dispute in Geylang or Beach Road on weekend nights involving Singaporeans and foreign workers could easily turn nasty. As large self-contained dormitories are built, dissatisfaction on trivial issues could spark a destabilising wave of riots and public commotion.

The litany of issues arising from Singapore's population challenge suggests that even as we want to focus on big ideas and grand plans for reimagining Singapore, reality will intrude.

Dealing with such challenges should not be seen as a distraction, but as part of the core test in remaking Singapore to meet the needs of the next generation.

The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Bakrie Professor of South-east Asia Policy at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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