Singapore’s elephant in the room

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For the naysayers and soothsayers, the clearest indication that Singapore’ centre of gravity  is shifting to the left came when President Tony Tan opened the second session of the country’s 12th Parliament with a rare promise to his people: You will have enough money for your golden years.

Even more unusual was the President’s use of the phrase, “peace of mind,” to describe the intended goal of his government’s social policies, especially for the vulnerable and elderly.

“We will enhance retirement adequacy to give greater assurance and peace of mind to all Singaporeans,’’ Tan said, in trying to allay the biggest fear of many Singaporeans – that their august years will become dreadful ones.

It just shows how far the government has come from a culture that preached a “nothing-is-for-free” philosophy to one that is beginning to display its heart on its sleeve.

The focus is on older citizens – a growing and powerful vote bank, to be sure. The government is addressing their biggest fear – that dying is cheaper than getting sick – by putting money into their medical accounts to help pay their bills. And a day after the president’s speech, the government announced that older citizen will also get a subsidy to pay their doctor’s bills. Other plans in the pipeline include finding more ways to unlock the value of Singaporeans’ homes and making their money in the Central Provident Fund to work better for their retirement needs.

Former Prime Minister Goh Tok Chong said these left-leaning efforts show the government is playing catch-up, because there is still more to be done. “I am heartened that the government will focus more on people, on you and your family, as opposed to the constant drone of statistics of growth and physical development,” he said in a Facebook post.

A missing element in Tan’s speech was any reference to the political changes that Singapore needs as it confronts a highly-wired population that wants a freer media, a level playing field in electoral contests and more open discussion on how politics should be conducted in a city-state that has hardly moved the political goal posts since Independence. In fact, the goal posts have only been narrowed.

Instead, the President warned of divisive politics destroying the fabric of society. He must have been  referring to the robust debate in the online world as compared to the civil discussions in Parliament, where the opposition has its largest number of members since 1965. Even the Speaker of Parliament, Halimah Yacob, has acknowledged the Workers’ Party performance.

Nominated MP Eugene Tan said in an interview: “The emphasis on constructive politics reflects a concern that what happens in Parliament is vastly different from the tone of political engagement and contestation outside the House, particularly in the online sphere.”

This is the elephant in the room. With the government not in the mood to give an inch on the political front – a signature of the leadership style of the PAP – and with the online world baying for blood, a confrontation is in the works.

Yet another blogger has been served with a letter by the PM’s lawyer calling on him to take down a post and apologise for his accusation that Singaporeans are getting a raw deal from their forced savings in the Central Provident Fund. In a rather unusual turn of events, the case is now going to court.

And the government has already given notice that it is reviewing the broadcasting act, which can only mean further tightening of the screws on the Internet.

Even respected figures like Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee, whose incisive research into the PAP style of politics is a must read for those who study political science, are calling for change.
“Increasingly, Singaporeans, young and old, are looking for more from their political leaders. They want to know that politicians too share their joys and sorrows, and indeed, even feel their pain,’’ she wrote in a commentary in The Straits Times.

In short, what is needed is the politics of love, she said.  But there are no signs that the PAP government is in the mood for love.

This article appeared first in The Edge Review