Sunday 30 December 2012

2013: A new consensus

The Straits Times, 29 Dec 2012

IF THE year 2012 could be characterised by a single symbol, it would be an exclamation mark.

From a string of sex scandals to the first strike in 26 years, there seemed to be no end to the number of surprises being sprung on the population.

In contrast, 2013 would probably be characterised by a big question mark.

Next year could see a host of questions asked and answered, as the Government tries to consolidate its position after a year of surprises, and rebuild cohesion among an increasingly divided populace.

For a start, the national conversation will be wrapping up - hopefully, with answers to the question about what kind of future Singaporeans want to see for their country.

Its organisers have set out three main themes - Hope, Heart and Home - that could very well undergird the Government's plans for 2013.

In meeting aspirations (hope), it will attempt to chart a new direction for Singapore that includes a more inclusive society (heart) and an increased sense of belonging for citizens (home).

Will the Government be able to achieve this?

That may depend on whether it can reconsolidate its position as a government that can deliver the goods, following an erosion of support as witnessed at last year's general election.

In practical terms, this will mean key infrastructural upgrades in housing and transport - moves that have already started, and some of which will come to fruition next year.

But the bigger question remains - of whether playing Mr Fix-It is enough for the People's Action Party to win back voters.

At the same time, the Government will also have to try to forge a new broad consensus, as the nation hunkers down to tackle challenges such as a slowdown in economic growth and an ageing population.

That will be just as challenging, especially as a by-election in Punggol East - which could distract the public from the national agenda - seems all but certain.

What would it take for the Government to successfully pull off these two feats? TESSA WONG takes a look at what's at stake next year.

2013 could be year Govt gets its grip on housing, transport issues

THERE was the issue of Housing Board flats: not enough of them, to be precise.

There was the issue of buses: too crowded, too slow, and too few.

And as for the trains, same thing - when they don't break down, that is.

Over the past year or so, these lapses in infrastructure were not only a source of much unhappiness for ordinary Singaporeans, but they also cost the People's Action Party (PAP) precious votes at last year's general election - enough, perhaps, to lose a group representation constituency for the first time.

The ruling party, however, has been quick to act. Next year, it has promised, among other things, more flats, more buses and more trains.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, the next year could thus be framed as one of consolidation, as the Government tries to get its grip on the country's housing and transport issues.

Dampening discontent...

THE next year will see several long-promised infrastructural upgrades come to fruition.

Under a $1.1 billion bus services enhancement plan, more buses and new routes will be rolled out, feeding more buses into the transport network and giving new estates better links to town.

Fares may also be calculated differently, following a review of fare structures that will announce recommendations early in the year. A government-appointed committee has already hinted that it will call for the existing formula to be refined to "better reflect the operators' cost structure".

On top of this is an update to the land transport masterplan, which will likely result in the announcement of new train lines and measures to improve service.

On the housing front, more than 16,000 new HDB flat owners will be getting their keys next year - a prelude to the bumper crop of 26,800 flats that are expected to be completed in 2014.

This will soak up demand from first-time buyers and, hopefully, moderate prices in the resale market - and stop the upward spiral of property prices.

All these moves are expected to ease anxieties over housing and transport, say observers, which will help dampen the simmering discontent that has characterised much of government-citizen relations this year.

...And looking long-term

BUT the consolidation plans for 2013 extend beyond solving the problems of the past few years.

Building more flats is just one part of a larger plan to encourage Singaporeans to marry earlier and have more children - something that the nation needs urgently if it is to avoid seeing its citizen population shrink over the next 10 years or so.

In the next few months, Singaporeans will get to see the first of long-term plans the Government has to raise birth rates, in the form of a marriage and parenthood package expected to be announced in the coming weeks.

It is expected to include pro-family policies. The measures studied for the package include giving housing priority to couples with young children, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in August.

Beyond this package is a White Paper on Singapore's population growth, which could lay out the challenges the country faces and the strategies it needs to pursue to raise its birth rate, while addressing thorny issues such as immigration and the integration of newcomers.

Parliament is expected to debate the paper in the third week of January.

The paper, said migration expert Leong Chan Hoong at the Institute of Policy Studies, will shed some much-needed light on where Singapore is headed in terms of population size and demography - issues that have worried citizens and businesses alike.

Observers are already guessing that the White Paper will not include one recommendation: bringing in more foreign workers.

While this is what employers facing labour shortages have been calling for, ordinary Singaporeans have continued to be uneasy about the size of the inflow and the integration of foreigners.

"The recent tightening of restrictions on foreign labour will be a permanent part of the landscape," predicted Dr Leong.

Of black swans...

AS IF fixing the nation's problems will not be enough of a task, the Government will also have to keep a sharp lookout for unexpected, high-impact events - or what futurists call "black swan" events.

Such events typically look predictable in hindsight - and are certain to draw the question: "Why didn't the Government avoid this?"

The year 2012 has seen several black swan moments.

One was the strike by SMRT bus drivers, which focused attention on the plight of foreign workers and Singapore's reliance on foreigners in essential services. Another was the series of MRT breakdowns that continued from the end of last year. Both episodes have drawn the public transport operators much flak.

Then there was the rash of sex and corruption scandals involving top civil servants and teachers, and the shock resignation of a PAP Member of Parliament over an extramarital affair. Hardly black swan events, but they proved discomfiting for the Government.

Such lapses, noted former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin, were seen by some "as a sign of a less effective government compared to the previous generation of leadership".

...And sacred cows

WITH so many shocks to the body politic, the year 2013 could see more questions arise over the fundamentals of Singapore's infrastructure and governance models.

Already, some are questioning the much-touted recruitment standards set for leaders and civil servants. Others are asking if public transport should be run by private companies.

To be sure, the Government has made moves to relook or tweak policies. Many of these were not prompted by events or negative public reaction. Last month, it introduced competition into the bus sector by holding an open tender for a new bus route. It has also said that restrictions on the purchase of HDB flats by singles will be tweaked next year.

But observers expect more scrutiny and questioning on bigger issues to come.

Political scientist Reuben Wong at the National University of Singapore named the taxation system and minimum wage as two key issues he believes need to be relooked. "The unexpected spanners in the works, like the SMRT strike, are indicators that relying on foreign workers has its trade-offs, and it's not just about depressing wages. If we don't want to have so many foreign workers, does this mean we must have minimum wages so that more Singaporeans take up jobs?"

One of the biggest difficulties that the Government is likely to face as it consolidates its position is that expectations of what it can and should do have changed.

Singapore's rulers will have to go beyond ensuring social and economic progress, and "recalibrate" its social compact with its people, said Mr Zulkifli. "It needs to establish a new ideology that will take into account the slower economic growth prospects and the demographic changes, as we are ageing rapidly," he added.

Indeed, today's Government will no longer just have to worry about providing good infrastructure and ensuring a thriving economy. As it attempts to show that it can still "deliver the goods", it will also have to cater to the diverse range of needs and wants of a maturing populace, whether it is a happier society or a less kiasu national mentality.

Said Dr Wong: "The 'goods' used to mean economic growth. But now, it's being redefined in different ways: happiness, peace of mind, inclusiveness."

Coming together as a people as Singapore charts its way forward

BY THIS time next year, the biggest public consultation exercise Singapore has held in recent years would have reached its conclusion.

Tens of thousands of Singaporeans would have voiced their hopes and fears for the nation, in the national conversation that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had first called for in his National Day message in August.

Whether they heed his call for unity, however, will not be known until Our Singapore Conversation is finally wrapped up.

That call is significant, because the country's electorate has never been so exercised - or divided - over political issues.

In the space of just 13 months, Singapore has seen an unprecedented three elections - last year's general and presidential elections and this year's by-election in Hougang.

It was probably one of the myriad factors behind the genesis of the national conversation, which aims to get Singaporeans to come together and decide what direction their country should take as it heads into the future.

And there are many questions and challenges that they will have to determine an answer to.

One is what kind of economic growth to pursue and how to manage any potential fallout from a slowdown, which already looks like a reality, given the Government's reluctance to inject fiscal stimulus - for fear of fuelling inflation - and a labour shortage caused in part by the tightening of inflows of foreign workers.

Another is dealing and coping with the impact of a rapidly ageing population. The Government has repeatedly sounded warnings about what an ageing and shrinking population could mean for Singapore, even as it tries to address the unhappiness over overcrowding and immigration.

These issues will be addressed in a White Paper on population and a marriage and parenthood package of policies that are due to be announced in January and February respectively. Both are expected to chart a direction that Singapore can take to ensure a sustainable, thriving population.

Diversity and trade-offs

BUT the Government could face an uphill task in getting Singaporeans behind these policies.

This is because there is a greater diversity of views, say observers, and an increasingly sophisticated and mature electorate that has also signalled its desire for a more pluralistic government - as evidenced by a record 40 per cent voting for the opposition at the last general election.

It is clear that "society is not monolithic", said political scientist Reuben Wong of the National University of Singapore.

When Singapore was still developing, he noted, the populace was in a "crisis mentality", which helped make governing easier.

"But now we no longer have the politics of survival," he said.

Institute of Southeast Asian Studies research fellow Terence Chong went one step further, arguing: "Cohesion and unity are not the norm and only come about during national celebratory events or natural disasters."

He pointed to what he sees as divisions in Singapore society.

"The reality is that multiple fault-lines have been forming over the years," he said.

These fault-lines include social and class divisions resulting from a widening income gap, divisions between immigrants and natural-born citizens and a political divide caused by diverging views.

While the PAP has been able to occupy and win over the middle ground for decades because of its pragmatic policies that appealed to the broadest spectrum of people, it now has to grapple with a more diverse electorate with different aspirations and demands.

And with the new, more complex issues facing the country, from slow growth to an ageing population, getting people to broadly agree on the way forward will be a key challenge.

Some observers note that while the Government has sought to map out the trade-offs in some policy decisions like transport and in the White Paper on population over the past year, not everyone will be won over this way.

For many, the issue may still boil down to whom they trust and whom they find more persuasive.

Observers suggest one way for the nation's leaders to stress the immediacy of these problems without turning people off is to be more open and tolerant in accepting different views instead of just prescribing antidotes.

Otherwise, warned Dr Wong, "this talk of unification will turn some people off, as it assumes there's only one right way to go, and there's one higher vision that everybody should rally around".

By-election fever

ANOTHER pressing challenge is the prospect of yet another by-election. It not only threatens to cause more political division, but may also divert attention away from the Government's agenda of building cohesion in an increasingly diverse society.

The resignation of Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer over an extramarital affair has left his single-seat ward of Punggol East vacant - and focused attention on whether and when a by-election will be called.

PM Lee recently made it clear he has yet to decide on whether he will hold one, but many believe it is inevitable, and are even guessing the date.

"The residents will demand to have their own MP elected by them," said veteran MP Inderjit Singh. "Calling it after the Budget would be appropriate because we need to get on and focus on the long term."

Fierce speculation has already started circulating on who the PAP may field in the ward. There is some talk that it might try to reinstate Mr Ong Ye Kung, a high-flying civil servant who was earmarked for ministerial duties but lost his chance to enter Parliament when his PAP team lost Aljunied GRC to the Workers' Party.

Others believe the People's Action Party will field a younger unknown candidate as part of its efforts to continue party renewal.

Speculation has been equally rife on the other side. There are even signs of a multi-cornered fight emerging, as the WP, Singapore Democratic Party, Reform Party and the Singapore Democratic Alliance have all said they are ready to contest the seat.

Former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong believes that the stakes will be higher this time for the PAP compared to the Hougang by-election, as Punggol East is considered PAP turf.

"In many ways, Hougang did not carry any downside risk for the PAP. But for Punggol East, the PAP stands to lose a seat to the opposition," he said.

Not only that, a PAP loss could also signal a loss of confidence in the party's much-touted whiter-than-white reputation and candidate selection process.

Thus, how the PAP conducts its campaign in the by-election will matter a great deal, say observers.

Mr Singh said he hoped his party had "learnt its lesson" from the Hougang by-election, when it drew fire for questioning the viability of WP's winning candidate Png Eng Huat.

"I think the best way for us is to remain humble, not be arrogant, and don't indulge in personal attacks," said Mr Singh.

Either way, Punggol East is likely to not only be an unwelcome distraction to the Government, but also a source of division.

If it fails to pull the nation together again following the by-election, the drive to set the national agenda in the first three months next year - with the population White Paper and Budget measures - could lose steam and reviving the process would take up time.

That would be most unfortunate, say observers, as a stronger sense of cohesion among Singaporeans is needed not just for its own sake, but to ensure the country can tackle the host of pressing challenges it faces as it gears up for the next decade.

Said former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin: "We have far bigger issues to deal with which will very much determine our future."


No comments:

Post a Comment