Tuesday 31 December 2013

Goodbye, 2013... Hello, 2014

Surprising 2013? Time for a reality check
Eventful year may hold clues to ruling party's future approach to changing political landscape
By Han Fook Kwang, The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2013

2013 isn't an easy year to define.

Just when you thought you had it figured out, a riot broke out in December.

Welcome to the Singapore we no longer know as well as we thought we did.

The early signs in January should have been warning enough.

When the Government announced that a by-election would be held in Punggol East, most pundits expected it would face a close fight with the opposition Workers' Party (WP).

Instead, the People's Action Party (PAP) was roundly beaten, failing to hold a seat it had won comfortably barely two years before.

While the WP's victory might not have been unexpected - by-elections traditionally favour the opposition - the size of its winning margin was.

Singaporeans witnessed the unusual spectacle of WP leader Low Thia Khiang playing down the stunning win and saying nice things about the competence of the Government.

It was too early in the year for him to play hardball.

Reality check No. 1

THE desire for a stronger opposition presence in Singapore hasn't abated and will continue to define the political landscape in the coming years no matter what the ruling party does.

Indeed, 2013 was the year the PAP tested the waters in its search for an answer to this dilemma - the more it tries to appease voters' unhappiness over immigration, housing, transport and health care, the harder it will be to counter the argument that it is doing all this because it fears an electoral backlash.

The opposition will continue to hammer away at this point, and claim credit for successfully putting pressure on the PAP; and the PAP will continue to try to find a way to get voters to support not just the changes but also the political party making them.

The year provided many clues to what its approach is likely to be.

On the ideological front, the PAP said it was moving left of centre and closer towards its original democratic socialist leanings.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called it a strategic shift in his National Day Rally in August. Four months later, at the party's convention, it adopted a new resolution that promoted greater social mobility through an open and compassionate meritocracy, and pledged to moderate the excesses of the free market.

But the PAP has also shown that, on the tactical front, it hadn't forgotten how to play hardball with its political opponents.

Its skirmishes with the WP over the running of the opposition-held town council and a certain hawker centre had all the trappings of a forward probe ahead of the main battle. So too the recent attempts to control online websites, requiring some of them to be registered.

This was new territory. The way it handled the online site Breakfast Network, resulting in it being closed, was one bit of collateral damage that could have been avoided.

Critics saw these actions as signalling the end of the Government's "light touch" approach.

Are these moves part of a grand plan that is being put in place, with the whole becoming clearer in the years to come?

There is no doubt the PAP wants the Internet beast controlled. That much 2013 has made clear.

What's not evident is how it intends to do so, and more important, whether anything it does will be effective or reap the political benefits it desires.

Look out for more such experimentation in 2014.

Reality check No. 2

THE desire to seek control is still as strong in the ruling party, shaped by more than 50 years of being so dominant in Singapore.

But will it succeed in cyberspace the same way it had in the real world? Should it bring its enormous power to bear, or let the beast alone?

Best guess: It can't fight its DNA, so it will continue trying.

That DNA was at work when, so soon after the by-election defeat, it introduced a White Paper setting out its approach to managing a future population of almost seven million.

The public reacted with unprecedented intensity over what many saw as an overly liberal immigration policy. Until today, it isn't clear why the Government acted in such an unprepared manner.

Was it out of touch, failing to recognise how upset Singaporeans had become over the increased influx of foreigners into the country?

Perhaps it did know but believed this was the right policy in the country's long-term interest, and it was prepared to face public anger.

Whatever the reason, it conceded that it should have done better, especially in the way it communicated its policy intentions.

Reality check No. 3

IT ISN'T so easy for the Government to change its modus operandi.

The classic way of yore was: Get a White Paper done, discuss it in Parliament, have it accepted, and proceed from there. It had worked so many times in the past.

But in the so-called "new normal" of domestic politics, the people hijacked the plan even before it made its way to Parliament.

Increasingly, the Government will have to recognise that although its numerical advantage in the House enables it to pass any law it wants, popular sentiment can hold sway in a decisive way.

In the meantime, Singapore's immigration policy is far from settled.

How should it manage the issue, balancing the needs of the economy with rising popular resentment against the country having too many foreigners?

2013 saw the can being kicked down the road, as the issue was just too hot to handle. Don't hold your breath for it to become more clearly resolved in the coming year.

Do so only if the air suddenly turns dangerously unhealthy, as it did in June when thick haze descended from forest fires in Sumatra.

If anyone needed reminding how tiny this little red dot was, this was the perfect example.

Singapore is so small even minor shifts in the wind direction can result in that smoky, choking air disappearing as quickly as it appeared.

That was how one weather expert described why the Pollutant Standards Index was 40 one day and the sky turned blue, and 400 on another day when it smelt like a barbecue pit.

As it turned out, the burning stopped sooner than expected or the winds hightailed, and the reminder was short-lived.

Reality check No. 4

NOTHING has changed Singapore's smallness as a country and how its fortunes depend so much on the outside world, including the land-clearing actions of Indonesian farmers and the vagaries of the shifting winds.

Expect many more external surprises to come this way, 2014 included.

And so the year closed with images of burning police cars in Little India still fresh in the mind.

As a news event, it dwarfed everything that had happened in the year..

It was the mother of all reality checks, that a night can turn so violent, overturning not just police cars, but the very idea that is safe, peaceful Singapore.

So what can one look forward to in 2014?

If there are any lessons to be learnt, it is to expect the unexpected.In fact, there's only one certainty next year - it will be a year closer to the general election than this year.

This fact alone will make it completely different from 2013.

How different?

We will have an entire year to find out.

Happy New Year.

When Fortress S'pore lost its aura
A year of rude awakenings
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Sunday Times, 29 Dec 2013

If there is one word to sum up Singapore's experience this year, it would be Vulnerability.

2013 is the year the People's Action Party lost whatever it might have retained of the lustre of invincibility.

In January, it had already lost a seat in the Punggol East by-election and was trying to beat a dignified retreat from the backlash unleashed by the Population White Paper's conclusion about preparing for a population of 6.9 million.

By the end of the year, it wasn't just the PAP but the entire Singapore system of governance that had shown its vulnerability.

High-profile trials for corruption underscored the way an organisation can entrench an anti-graft culture, yet have its own leaders behave with immunity against it, trading favours for sex and material gains. Squeaky clean Singapore suddenly became tawdry.

A fire broke out in SingTel's infrastructure in October, disrupting broadband services for days.

The websites of the offices of the President and Prime Minister were hacked last month, exploiting a loophole called "cross-site scripting". IT experts said such hacking was "elementary". In other words, Singapore's IT fortress was found to have done the equivalent of forgetting to lock its gate even as it installed high-tech anti-burglary alarms all over its premises.

This month, hundreds of migrant workers rioted in Race Course Road, overturning and burning police cars. Orderly Singapore suddenly became dangerous.

Meanwhile, train delays and breakdowns have become such a common occurrence, they barely merit a spot as top news item of the day, or even a retweet.

Some Singaporeans are asking: What is happening? Is this the beginning of the decline of the Singapore state as we know it?

It's easy to be an armchair critic and venture theories and opinions.

One might say the recent episodes of failure are the result of decades of success. Having become accustomed to success, our institutions, systems and people are not used to picking up on signals of dysfunction and pre-empting problems, and are slow to react when things do go wrong.

Or we could put up a theory that we have become so reliant on systems and sophisticated technology, we have lost ground feel: the art of responding to what is here and now, of tackling today's problems to nip tomorrow's in the bud.

In the SingTel fire, a blowtorch used for maintenance that overheated materials was fingered as the cause.

On the Little India riot, residents had complained for years about rowdy, drunken behaviour by migrant workers.

That brought to my mind the July 2012 Committee of Inquiry report on the December 2011 MRT breakdown, which pointed to "a gaping disconnect between what was formally on record and what was happening on the ground" when it came to MRT maintenance.

At the risk of tarring the public sector with the same brush, I do wonder if Singapore is facing the problems of success. A generation of people who grew up in complacent plenty are now in leadership positions. Across the public service, and in the private sector too, men and women in their 30s and 40s are heading organisations. They are smart and may even have First World exposure, having been schooled and trained with the best in New York, London and Fontainebleau.

But are they schooled in the problems of the Third World? And more crucially, are they skilled in the ways of the street?

Increasingly, Singapore will have to deal not only with First World problems of success - managing income inequality, widening social safety nets, maintaining competitiveness - but also with Third World problems - overcrowding, preventing shanty slums (think slovenly dormitories), and maintaining basic law and order.

This is inevitable if Singapore is to continue its reliance on a large pool of migrant workers. Both First and Third Worlds are so densely packed into Singapore's tiny 716.1 sq km land area that they sometimes collide.

Officials need skills to handle First World issues, Third World issues, and the interplay of both.

This year of Vulnerability is full of teachable moments.

For the innocent full-time national serviceman, the riot must have been a baptism of fire. Did all those hours of seemingly pointless training come to his aid when he faced down hundreds of hostile workers?

For those watching on the sidelines, reading the voluminous online commentary, this is also a crucial year. Did we speak up and take a stand for what we think is right? Draw a line in the sand and say: that's enough? Or shrug off yet another insult, jibe, toxic comment?

For the many thousands of IT administrators, MRT maintenance staff, SingTel staff, and anyone remotely concerned with maintaining the computer, electrical, water, cable, or medical systems that make Singapore gel so wonderfully together, this year must be one of rude awakening.

The things that shouldn't happen, can and did happen. Law enforcement vehicles can be burned, as can IT networks. Prestigious websites can be defaced.

Fortress Singapore is no more.

For a generation used to yawning when Singapore wins yet another new accolade - best workforce, most competitive economy, best performer in international examinations - the notion of Singapore losing its sheen of super-achieving invincibility can be traumatic.

And yet it is also a necessary part of growing up, as a people and as a nation. We are not the citizens to whom things are done by a government. We the people are Singapore.

If Singapore is no more fortress, what must take its place?

For me, there is only one answer. As citizens, we have to see that Fortress Singapore is no citadel of stone and steel built and protected by "them", but a society of us, made of flesh and blood that can tear and bleed.

A year of maturation for S’pore
By Devadas Krishnadas, Published TODAY, 30 Dec 2013

This year has been an eventful year of maturation for Singapore. The first half of the year began with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) losing its second consecutive by-election in 12 months.

The introduction of the Population White Paper in February caused a national furore, and the ripple effects continue to make themselves felt.

A short but intense episode of extreme haze in the middle of the year came as a shock and served as a reminder of the country’s vulnerability to the actions of proximate neighbouring countries. We had further shocks in terms of knocks to the country’s reputation for integrity when several senior public officials were charged in court for corruption.

The second half of the year was also exciting. There was disquiet in social media when media regulations were amended to regulate the online news space. The National Day Rally in August then served as an occasion for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to bring the year-long Our Singapore Conversation to a close with signals of significant shifts in policy direction.

This month, the country experienced its first riot in four decades when a large group of intoxicated foreign workers briefly went amok. The economic performance for the year was mixed, with reasonable gross domestic product growth but negative productivity growth for the fourth consecutive year.

What do these events say about Singapore’s present and near future in political, social and economic terms?


Politically, 2013 represents a period where the PAP, in the wake of the results of the last general and presidential elections, undertook a deliberate effort to overhaul its popular image, its political approach and its policy tenets.

It initiated the Our Singapore Conversation to show Singaporeans that it could be a listening, not a lecturing, government. Its politicians began to showcase themselves aggressively on social media and were more diligent in their presence on the ground. In doing so, it wanted to demonstrate that it was still a party of and connected to the people.

It undertook reviews of its housing, healthcare and education policies — shifting to greater public expenditure on social issues and increasing the amount and reach of social assistance. It was reaching back to its democratic socialist roots, a direction affirmed by the PAP party resolution adopted this month, a resolution which was the work of the latest generation of PAP leaders.

There are three significant insights into this political process.

The first is that the PAP is attempting to adapt and not completely remake itself. This is not an exercise in reinvention as much as it is a major effort at political updating and refreshing, based on existing but now reinterpreted principles.

2014 is the midpoint between the last General Election and the coming one and, going forward, the electorate should expect to see fewer, if any, further major adjustments. The focus will be shifting towards execution and consolidation of the new policy directions and programmes.

Secondly, that it has had to do so is indicative of a significant change from the nature of its past relationship with the electorate. Historically, the PAP had been leading the changes in Singapore society — a role that protracted incumbency made it complacent about. Today, society is leading the PAP in its future direction.

This is an uncomfortable position for its leaders and their unease will continue to be a source of tension. How well they can manage this tension or, better still, find a way to reclaim the high moral ground, will be the story of the 24 months leading up to the next General Election.

Third, the PAP is in internal transition. Hidden behind the party walls, its front rank is readying themselves for the path towards and beyond the next election. The younger leaders have been given tremendous exposure and responsibilities since 2011, not only on national policy issues but internal party policy as well. It will be they who shape the political image and message from here on.

It is curious, then, that their rhetoric — whether the Lee Kuan Yew-like sabre-rattling of Minister Chan Chun Sing at the 2013 PAP Convention, or the language of the new resolution, which harks back to the simpler format and brevity of the party’s earliest manifestos and platforms — are lines thrown to the past and not forward into the future.

It remains to be seen whether this tactic of adapting to become more like they used to be, rather than something new, is the correct reading of the political message communicated by the electorate in recent elections.


Several thousand Singaporeans protested at Hong Lim Park against the Population White Paper. The social media became entrenched as the preferred medium to debate, dispute or simply comment on public issues.

The physical and virtual engagement by Singaporeans exhibited a spectrum of typology — with balanced views nearly drowned out at times by the dogmatism in specific groups’ views, be they supporters of the ruling party or those of the political opposition — and often, knee-jerk reactions which were too often vitriolic, occasionally xenophobic and sometimes utterly baseless.

Even so, it is undeniable that the social media has been a powerful platform for diverse voices, with virtually no barriers to entry. Social media has also served as a tool for Singaporeans to organise civic self-help initiatives, as was the case with SG Haze Rescue and other prominent grassroots efforts.

These strengths are likely to remain extant, despite the perception that the Government is tightening its grip on the Internet space through the use of the new Media Development Authority regulations. That they do is a net positive, if Singaporeans can learn to normalise diversity as a good thing rather than as divisive and disruptive.

Singaporeans need to adopt the mindset that, while we can differ on how to change or manage complexity, change and diversity are not in themselves enemies. Rather, they represent opportunities to renew, refresh and recharge our country in the face of mutating challenges.

Adopting such a mindset is not merely a choice of attitude; it also requires an investment of mental effort. Our challenges are neither simple to understand nor are they susceptible to simple or quick fixes. RSS feeds, headline-scanning, blog-surfing and Twitter hits are useful but insufficient preparation to really begin to grasp the issues.

Singaporeans need to do more to inform themselves and challenge their thinking. We need more public intellectuals to play visible roles as mass educators and as debaters of different perspectives on complex issues.

We are not short today of vehicles through which thinkers can play such roles or for the public to access good-quality information and debate — television shows such as VoicesTODAY, It Figures, Sg+ and Talking Point, this newspaper and the forums organised by the Institute of Policy Studies are just the more prominent examples.

An enlightened state is ultimately predicated upon an enlightened citizenry. It is up to the citizens to light their own candles of understanding from the flames of these many and varied lamps of learning.


Our economy has been on a restructuring path since 2009. However, its productivity is still poor. Ninety-nine per cent of firms are still small- and medium-sized enterprises which contribute only half of the annual GDP.

There is an intuitive link between these observations. The economy needs to see more consolidation, more capital investment in technology and smarter, rather than harder, ways of working. The current government policy initiatives have yet to make any noticeable impact on these dimensions of the economy.

It may be necessary for more invasive measures to force consolidation — an additional step the Government could take would be to work with trade and industry associations to consolidate supply chains, aggregate common services and co-invest in technology and innovation.

A more radical step would be to invert the current approach of providing incentives to encourage sectors and firms to make productivity changes, to one where incentives are provided only after firms show that desired improvements have been made.

This would reduce dead-weight loss in subsidies and create competitive pressure between those who made improvements and the laggards.

The Singaporean worker is, in general, hard-working, diligent and committed; these are universally well-regarded traits and have been a source of attraction for investors. However, he, as with a large number of indigenous firms, also prefers predictability and is risk averse. This has to change.

The economic environment is highly competitive and will only become more so with the eventual introduction of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the economic integration of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The Singaporean worker needs to retain the good qualities for which he has become well-regarded, but he and local firms also need to change other characteristics to become confident in dealing with economic change, more risk-seeking of opportunities and more able to cope with employment volatility.

This combination of old and the needed new qualities will position Singapore workers and businesses to prosper in the 21st-century labour market and economy.


Singapore is an evolving nation. It has achieved much in its nearly 50 years of independence.

It would be a mistake, and one that is too commonly made, to equate achievement with finding a settled point of nationhood. We will always be evolving. Not to do so is not a mark of success but of national suicide.

What we do have a choice about is the process and direction of our evolution. When we look back on 2013 in later years, we will perhaps see that it represented a period of maturation as we struggled with difficult issues.

What we will need to keep in mind is that we can differ without suffering divides and that we can have disagreements without incurring disputes. Most of all is the acceptance that even when we may have uncommon views as individuals or groups, we have a common destiny as a country.

Devadas Krishnadas is Managing Director of Future-Moves, a strategic risk consultancy. His new book, Sensing Singapore: Reflections in a Time of Change, will be released in January.

Sure political stride to 2014
After a shaky start to 2013, the Govt seized the initiative and is now primed for action
By Lydia Lim, The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2013


THINK of 2013 as a race, and an important one at that, because its finish line marks the mid-point of this Government's five- year term of office.

In this race, the Government got off to a rocky start.

Shortly after the gun went off in January, the People's Action Party lost the Punggol East by-election, its second such loss in eight months after Hougang in May last year.

Barely weeks later, the Government's Population White Paper got a decidedly negative reception over a single number that dominated headlines as it unveiled its population projections for the coming decades - 6.9 million people on this island by 2030.

The Government later explained that 6.9 million was the figure around which it would build infrastructure, and not a target it wished to hit. But by then, many Singaporeans bearing the brunt of the daily peak-hour crush on trains and buses, and anxious about a shortfall in affordable housing, were up in arms.

Over the next few months, there were loan curbs for car and home purchases, even as at the supply end, the Housing Board continued to ramp up its building of public housing.

By August, with the property market stabilising and public transport slowly getting back on track, the Government was ready to chart a new way forward.

This was the thrust and title of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's most important speech of the year - the National Day Rally (NDR).

It was "not the usual NDR", Mr Lee said, as Singapore was at a turning point.

He and his Cabinet colleagues had pondered the problems caused by global change and income inequality and taken in valuable input from the Our Singapore Conversation process.

They had decided on a new balance between individuals, community and the Government because those who are vulnerable can no longer make it through individual effort alone. "We must shift the balance. The community and the Government will have to do more to support individuals," he said.

It was his 10th rally speech, and some said it was his best yet.

He sought to impart hope for the future and give reassurance for the present. He spoke especially to the pioneer generation of Singaporeans who built the country but now worry about health care and other retirement costs; to younger folk anxious that their incomes have not kept pace with housing prices; and to families who wonder if the opportunities for their children to move up are narrowing.

He spoke from a position of strength, as the leader of a government with the means to boost help for all these groups.

And so it was that as the year entered its final quarter, the Government hit its stride.

But the single hardest part of taking Singapore down this new road is dealing with the pushback from those who benefit from the current status quo.

They have geared themselves and their families to take full advantage of the networks, rankings and reward systems in place today.

They have worked hard and strategised to succeed in the competitive meritocracy that has been in place for decades.

For them, the shift towards an open and compassionate meritocracy may well prove unsettling, as changes to settled structures upset their cherished plans for the future.

The move is one towards a more fair and just society but its beneficiaries are mainly those at risk of being left behind in today's Singapore.

And so the Government's big challenge in the year ahead is to actually put its words into action, and persuade a broad swathe of society, especially the higher income and more privileged, to come on board.

In education, for example, the coming change in the scoring of the Primary School Leaving Examination will open up debate on secondary school admissions.

Several ministers have signalled that the goal is to have more students from diverse backgrounds in sought-after, brand-name schools. But changes to realise that goal are likely to also result in a less transparent system where admission is not based purely on objective exam scores, but where school administrators and educators exercise discretion on the final mix of students to be admitted.

The onus will be on the Government to explain, argue for and defend the criteria and method it decides on, as an important way to ensure opportunities to move up remain open to all.

Another facet of a fair and just society is taking care of the pioneer generation, without whom there would be no modern Singapore. They had fewer chances to further their education and, for much of their lives, earned lower wages than the cohorts that followed. The Government has plans for a Pioneer Generation Package of measures that should be ready by the time it announces its Budget for next year.

These measures will complement the biggest reform in decades of the national health-care insurance scheme, Medi- Shield, so as to extend its coverage to every citizen for life.

Here again, the challenge will be managing expectations of how the costs and benefits are spread out, with the state and the working population having to foot the lion's share of the bill for improved coverage.

There are many challenges ahead as the Government continues shifting the balance in social support, in favour of the weak and vulnerable.

But in demarcating this new way forward, Mr Lee and his government have seized back the initiative after a shaky start to the year, when they were put on the defensive by their own miscalculations at the ballot box and in policy planning.

Many unknowns remain, including how the economy and property market will fare next year. But for now, the Government is leading from the front and is primed to set the agenda for action in the new year.

'Tipping point' year for property?
Less liquidity, higher wages will hit businesses hard, and property may disappoint
By Lee Su Shyan, The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2013


IDENTIFYING the big business themes every year is in itself big business for consultants and strategists advising companies on risks and investment decisions.

Many predictions invariably fall through with unforeseen events that derail earlier forecasts.

For example, the United States Federal Reserve's unexpected comments on imminent tapering of its bond purchases sent the Singapore stock market into a tailspin in May, with funds pulling out quickly.

Or the economists in early 2013 who were offering a cautious prognosis for the Singapore economy before the tide turned in the second quarter with a sharp uptick in growth.

For 2014, one event that will take centrestage for the business scene will be the US Fed's actions on tapering. It will slowly turn off the tap of easy money starting next month, although the pace after that has not been announced.

But the mix affecting business will be leavened with local flavour: the ongoing domestic debate on the inflow of foreigners and productivity measures.

As the US Fed eases the flow of cheap money, funds could recede from markets here. Despite the rally now, the slowdown in liquidity from next month will dim its shine.

The risk, as funds exit Singapore, as they did earlier in the year, is that listed companies will find it less attractive to raise funds to expand by tapping the stock market. Initial public offerings will dry up as the amounts raised will not tempt the owners. Expanding by mergers and acquisitions will be less likely as prices will not be attractive enough to tempt sellers.

Although the Fed is committed to keeping interest rates low - while easing off on bond buying - the market is still not entirely convinced that the balancing act is possible.

For businesses in Singapore, a rise in interest rates could translate to larger debt repayments, hurting those companies which wish to invest in equipment or want to expand overseas.

Together with the policy on reducing Singapore's dependence on foreign workers, companies will find that they are shelling out more for debt as well as still footing a hefty wage bill.

In 2014, companies will have to knuckle down and produce growth through increasing sales or being more productive and keeping costs lower.

As the Fed eases its bond purchases, the greenback strengthens. The impact on regional currencies like the Thai baht and the Indonesian rupiah has been swift. Even the Singdollar was not immune, it has now weakened to $1.27 against the US dollar.

On the plus side, the weaker Singdollar will boost exports. The currency decline may translate to more investment here and may make it more attractive for foreign companies to locate their staff and offices in Singapore.

On the flip side, a weak Singdollar means prices of imported goods will rise, fuelling inflation. But imported goods is only one driver of inflation here. In any case, inflation is probably last year's story.

For investors, the search for yield - the demand for a higher return - will continue to be the theme of 2014.

Real estate investment trusts (Reits), favoured for their regular payouts above the rate of inflation, are vulnerable to higher borrowing rates and may not be able to sustain their high distribution yields.

The Fed's tapering policies will also affect property, long a firm favorite with investors.

Property may now disappoint for the first time in many years as investors hold off due to the risk of rising interest rates and higher loan repayments while government policies dampen speculative demand.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore noted in its recent Financial Stability Review that the average quarter- on-quarter change in the private residential index was 0.67 per cent for the first three quarters of this year. That moderated from 0.7 per cent for last year and 1.43 per cent in 2011.

If 2014 is the year of the tipping point for the property market, the question is the scale of the adjustment. Will private home prices plunge by 10 or even 20 per cent as some analysts have predicted, or will it be a soft landing?

The strength of the job market makes a large fall unlikely. On the other hand, the number of foreigners into Singapore is starting to slow. Meanwhile upgrader demand has been curbed partly as the resale values of HDB flats ease while stricter borrowing requirements have been introduced. A large supply of HDB and private units is due to be completed in the next few years.

In relation to falling property prices and rising borrowing costs, household debt has been flagged as an issue but it is unlikely to hog the headlines next year.

There is a risk of households being over-leveraged - an earlier estimate put this at 10 to 15 per cent of households if interest rates rise by 3 percentage points - but that may not materialise, thanks to measures from the regulators to ensure that lending remains prudent while restricting the amount of debt buyers can take on.

Singapore's banks are unlikely to find themselves in any sweet spot, given these measures plus the compliance costs of stricter banking regulations on money laundering and other activities.

Higher interest rates and tighter manpower policies are being flagged as the issues to watch come the new year.

But lurking in the background are other threats. These could include the issue of cyber security.

One recent incident involving the theft of the bank statements of 647 of Standard Chartered Bank's private banking clients raises the spectre of the unknown world of cybercrime.

The capacity to understand and deal with cyber threats is still not well entrenched.

If cyber threats unfold on a large scale with a rash of incidents, banks will have to spend valuable management time and expense in beefing up security. Companies too will not be spared as they face risks such as keeping details of their customer databases secure.

At the same time, Singapore has to be mindful of developments in the region, such as Indonesia's upcoming elections next year and continuing political turmoil in Thailand.

China continues to wield immense influence. Its ongoing reforms and moves towards a market economy will all bear watching in the year ahead.

On a brighter note, there is far more optimism on the horizon than in the past few years.

The euro zone debt crisis and worries over the US debt ceiling have faded for now, with both Europe and the US showing signs of an economic revival.

At home, Singapore will continue to benefit from its safe-haven status and the recovering global economy will be an important contributor.

But the winding-down of easy money sets the stage for a somewhat painful weaning period.

Throw in a dose of rising foreign worker levies and higher business costs, and companies should still buckle up for a rough ride.

Fare structure, COE system set to be tweaked
Result of public transport fare review exercise expected by March
By Woo Sian Boon, TODAY, 31 Dec 2013

The next 12 months are shaping up to be a major year for land transport here, as changes to the public transport fare structure and tweaks to the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) system are set to be rolled out next year, said analysts and observers interviewed.

They felt that ensuring existing resources — such as new buses bought under the Government’s S$1.1 billion Bus Service Enhancement Programme — are utilised efficiently in the interim would be another area of focus, though the Government had in October laid out various improvements under its refreshed Land Transport Master Plan to meet Singapore’s needs up to 2030.

By the end of next year, 200 buses and 26 trains will be added to the public transport network, in an effort to ease congestion and reduce waiting times.

All eyes, however, will be on the results of the fare review exercise, which the Public Transport Council (PTC) is expected to announce by March. The review will be based on a new fare formula — which takes into account factors such as energy cost — that the Fare Review Mechanism Committee had proposed last month.

The committee’s proposals, which were fully accepted by the Government, included two new concession schemes for the poor and the disabled people, on top of enhancements to five existing schemes — to be cross-subsidised by full-fare-paying adults — that will cover children, polytechnic students, the elderly and heavy users of public transport.

Citing cost pressures, the two public-transport operators, SMRT and SBS Transit, had applied for fare adjustments, but declined to reveal how much of an increase they are seeking.

Member of Parliament (MP) Cedric Foo, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Transport, called for an early introduction of the concession fares for polytechnic students. “It will be good to see how the formula is put into practice and how the balance between the Government, public transport operators and commuters is struck,” Mr Foo said.

National University of Singapore transport researcher Lee Der Horng noted that Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew had urged the PTC to consider granting a fare increase that will not exceed the average national wage increase this year.

Dr Lee said: “By calling for this, the minister is releasing a very ‘pro-commuter’ message to put the needs of passengers first. At the same time, the committee had emphasised providing subsidies for the disabled and low-income. So even though fares will go up, the needy have not been ignored — that is a very positive move.”

Observers felt results of the one-year trial of free MRT rides for early-bird commuters to 16 stations in the city area, which will end on June 23, will also be closely watched.

MP Ang Hin Kee, who also sits on the GPC for transport, said: “The trial confirms that habits can be reshaped with the right incentives, but the challenge is that the number of commuters making this switch is not growing.”

Figures from the Land Transport Authority (LTA) showed a 20 per cent increase in commuters exiting 16 train stations from 7am to 8am between August and October, up from the 19 per cent increase in July, the first full month of the free-ride trial. Meanwhile, the decrease in commuters leaving stations in the city from 8am to 9am has remained stable at a monthly rate of 7 per cent between July and October.

Mr Ang felt that the push should be more towards encouraging workplaces to embrace flexible working hours for their employees, instead of extending the free rides to more stations or widening the free-travel time belt.

While this year saw the opening of the first six stations of the 41.9km-long Downtown Line, the 1km North-South Line Extension — which will serve new developments in Marina South — is scheduled to be opened next year.

Experts also felt more can be done to improve the efficiency of the bus network. Dr Lee suggested that the LTA implement more full-day bus lanes across the island, while transport researcher Alexander Erath from the Future Cities Laboratory felt the bus network should be reviewed to have “less overlapping of bus routes but more frequent services” to increase the reliability of bus services.

“For certain stretches of roads where there are currently seven to eight bus services, maybe we can cut to down to four, but these bus services (can) have increased frequencies. This will help even more in the reliability discussion,” he said.

Mr Ang felt more should be done to expand the pool of bus drivers. He said: “The challenge for the year ahead is less so on the buying of infrastructure, but more on expanding the pool of available bus drivers and maintaining those buses — we want to keep the system operating efficiently,”

Better street designs to encourage other means of commute

On private transport, the experts felt that tweaks to the COE system — which kick in on Feb 1 — will not have a dramatic effect on premiums in the long run, given an increasing population and an annual vehicle growth rate of 0.5 per cent.

“It won’t change the world. It will lower the prices of Category A (small cars) maybe by some thousands (of dollars), but it won’t change the story completely,” said Dr Erath.He pointed to car-sharing as a viable alternative, noting its popularity in developed cities such as Paris, Munich and Toronto.

“Car-sharing goes towards a more trip-based pricing system for users, rather than them being forced to come up with a huge amount of money at the beginning and then being forced to use the car to get their money’s worth,” Dr Erath said.

He felt more can be done by “creating visibility” to remind the public that such an option is available. “You can do this not only by campaigning, but also having the best parking lots — those closest to the elevator or entryways — being reserved for car sharing,” Dr Erath said. Mr Lui had said in a written parliamentary reply last month that car-sharing operators will be setting up 18 more stations — with two or three cars in each station — in the heartlands, where there is higher demand for car-sharing services “in the upcoming months”. Responding to TODAY’s queries, an LTA spokesperson said that details are still being worked out to identify the locations for these 18 stations.

But more significantly, the experts noted that the LTA’s plans to reduce reliance on cars and encouraging more to switch to public transport, walking and cycling dovetailed with those made in Urban Redevelopment Authority’s draft Master Plan 2013.

To further improve on the walkability of the city, Dr Erath suggested rethinking street designs for pedestrians to have “straighter walking journeys” and less detours. This includes incorporating more “frequent and well-designed pedestrian crossings” instead of having overhead bridges.

He explained: “Crossing overpasses for an average person compares almost to about 200m of walking on a straight path. If you are in a wheelchair, or with children, this (negative) perception will be higher, so I don’t think overpasses are real solutions to improve the walkability of a city.”

As for cycling - another aspect which was highlighted in both master plans- Mr Ang felt that it could be encouraged as a means of inter-modal transport rather than emphasising on it being a single mode of transport.

On the taxi conundrum, Dr Lee felt that the Government should step in to regulate the industry, given the mind-boggling range of fares rolled out by different companies recently.
He said: “The price mechanism has failed badly in the taxi industry such that it is operating like a perfect competition, whereby whenever one operator increase prices, the others will follow. If we are talking about luxury goods, it is their freedom to do so. But taxi industry’s position should be somewhere between public and private, so the Government cannot be blind to this.”

The experts also agreed that more can be done to improve the transparency of taxi fares – something which the authorities is currently reviewing. Said Mr Foo: “Flag-down fares and other ancillary charges should be displayed on taxi in a manner which allows the commuter to see them before he boards. LTA could also design one unified phone app that spell out such fares clearly.”

Govt fine-tuning of Internet rules to be ‘closely watched’
Analysts agree harassment, bullying laws needed, but see some others as crimping debate
By Amir Hussain, TODAY, 31 Dec 2013

With social media playing an increasingly influential role in Singaporeans’ lives, and more people wanting to air their views online, the Government’s continued fine-tuning of regulations governing the online sphere will come under the spotlight in 2014, say analysts and observers.

While some measures are deemed as necessary — such as the new laws to deal with cyber-harassment and bullying that the Government is expected to draw up early next year — several other regulations that have been rolled out so far have been perceived as crimping online debate.

For instance, the new licensing framework in June for 10 online news sites and the notification for current affairs and news website The Independent, as well as socio-political commentary site Breakfast Network to register under class licensing rules triggered vociferous debate among netizens. Moves the Government made against online voices, such as contempt proceedings against bloggers such as cartoonist Leslie Chew and Yawning Bread’s Alex Au, also sparked outcries.

Overall, analysts felt that regulating the vast online space — which they note is also constantly evolving — is something the Government seems to be still feeling its way about.

Referring to the new licensing framework for some online news sites, Singapore Management University Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan described the move as “counter-intuitive”.

“It’s a recalibration that reflects an ambivalence towards social media and highlights the authorities’ deep-seated concerns that the ‘light touch’ regulation may not be sufficiently robust,” he said. “The emphasis is on pre-emptive regulation ... to deal with potential issues before they even arise.”

In requiring socio-political website Breakfast Network to register under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification, the Media Development Authority (MDA) had maintained that the principle that foreign entities may not engage in Singapore politics is a long-standing one and the notice to the websites to register was to prevent local media platforms, which are “prime vehicles for political influence” from falling under foreign interests. The registration will not in any way affect what Breakfast Network can publish on its site, the media regulator had said.

Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Assistant Professor Liew Kai Khiun said: “Underlying the measures and concerns of the government over the online community is the assumption that the Internet can be or has been used systematically and deliberately by shady elements to undermine its authority.”

But he pointed out that much of the online buzz this year had been “generated spontaneously or ‘accidentally’ by otherwise unexpected offline, real events”, such as a Member of Parliament’s posting about food and the Little India riot.


Holding people accountable for what they say online, and widening cyberspace for constructive discourse and participation among Singaporeans — especially the silent majority — are goals the Government has set out to achieve.

Several Ministers had this year warned against misinformation on the Internet, with Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in August cautioning that DRUMS (Distortions, Rumours, Untruths, Misinformation and Smears) on the Internet can spread far and wide, weakening the country’s resolve and causing disunity.

He had also called on the authorities to have a quick response plan to online rumours, and urged Singaporeans to be more discerning about information on the Internet.

Last month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singaporeans should fight back against trolling, while noting that a framework has to be developed over time so as to take full advantage of the new media.

To demonstrate the Government’s will to tackle the problem, Mr Lee also announced the change requiring log-ins before one can leave comments on Reach, its feedback portal arm.

But analysts had mixed feelings about whether the move would indeed encourage more than just the vocal minority to speak up or for more perspectives to surface.

While some like SMU’s Assoc Prof Tan believe that the rule may indirectly make the “silent majority” feel that it is safer to speak up, others like NTU Professor Ang Peng Hwa felt it would lead to a drop, overall, in comments online. Just because people are using their real names also does not lead to an increase in credible comments, he added.

Agreeing, industry watcher Alfred Siew said people will still feel safer commenting anonymously. “I’m not sure this contributes to having credible voices, well-reasoned arguments in a marketplace of ideas,” he said.

Some analysts also noted that they have already noticed a shift in the tone of discussions.

Said Asst Prof Liew: “From what I have observed this year, the fault lines may no longer be between pro- and anti-government netizens. Rather, the online debates would be more theme-based, such as on welfare, immigration and sexual morality.”

For laws to deal with harassment and bullying in cyberspace, however, analysts were in agreement of the necessity.

While enforcing such laws may not be easy, Prof Ang said “it’s a question of political will and resources”. “Whatever laws that exist can be broken. It doesn’t mean that just because the laws can be broken that therefore there shouldn’t be the laws,” he added.

Politicians need to be ‘savvier’ with social media

What is clear is that more, politicians and activists alike, will try to harness the potential of social media, say analysts. Several Ministers already keep blogs or post on their Facebook pages about their thoughts on policy tweaks and reactions to developments, for instance.

While he noted that the medium favours dissenting voices, Assoc Prof Tan said social media is an important mode of communication and “increasingly a tool for influence and the moulding of opinion”.

Asst Prof Liew also said more politicians will learn to be savvier with social media. He cited the buzz generated when PM Lee posted a “selfie” with his Malaysian counterpart and a picture of a barn owl in the Istana.

More activists and regular Singaporeans could also take to social media to organise themselves for ground-up causes, they added, citing opposition towards developing part of Bukit Brown Cemetery and efforts during the haze episode and after the Little India riot.

Assoc Prof Tan felt that further growth of ground-up movements online — ranging from cultural, heritage, sports and the arts — is “inevitable and reflects development in active citizenship”.

Noting that social media is a “force multiplier”, he added that the growth of social media activism will also give impetus to the growth of civil society.

Seven reasons to watch the news
All eyes will be on major court cases, new policies and fresh surprises
By Ignatius Low, The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2013


THERE was a time when many people living here said the local news in the papers and on television was slow- paced and boring, dominated by government pronouncements. 2013 was proof again that this era has passed.

From Pollutant Standards Index readings of 400 to the Little India 400 (that was the initial rioter number estimate) and the cooling of everything from PSLE T-score fever to COEs and COVs, the country lurched madly from one talking point to another: the primary school leaving exam; then certificates of entitlement for cars; and cash-over-valuation for Housing Board resale flats.

In between, we've had bodies dragged under cars; run over by the wheels of buses and cement trucks; decapitated, de-limbed and thrown into rivers.

Meanwhile, a different sort of hacking was taking place in the non-physical world of the Internet, where a self-proclaimed "Messiah" and an anonymous legion of amateur vandals dared to deface websites like that of the Prime Minister's Office and stole personal details from museum goers and banking clients.

Sometimes it seemed all it took was a little spark - from an oversized blowtorch in a network utility room or a land-clearing farmer in Riau - to ignite random chaos and throw unsuspecting Singapore residents out of their comfort zones.

Given the circumstances, few would venture to give the local news scene next year a shape or form that corresponds to any pattern or theme. So, in television terms, think of 2014 as less documentary and more courtroom drama and variety show. And here are seven reasons to keep watching:


PEOPLE are dying to know just what was going through the mind of police officer Iskandar Rahmat when he killed 67-year-old car workshop owner Tan Boon Sin and his 42-year-old son Chee Heong, and then dragged the latter's body under a car for almost 1km.

Why did he do it? Why Mr Tan, and how did his son get to be involved?

The only clue: Iskandar was the officer the elder Tan dealt with when he reported a theft months earlier.


SO FAR, the trial of six former leaders of the church accused of misappropriating more than $50 million in church funds - to finance the singing career of church leader Kong Hee's wife Ho Yeow Sun - has been dry and full of difficult-to-follow corporate accounting details.

But things will become more interesting in 2014 if Kong, Ho and the very photogenic former finance director Serina Wee take the stand and explain the inner workings of one of Singapore's most controversially successful mega-churches. Whichever way the judge decides, the verdict that follows is poised to have huge ramifications.


THE courts will also decide the fate of James Raj Arokiasamy and other hackers who called themselves the "Anonymous collective" and were responsible for disrupting the websites of organisations like the Prime Minister's Office and the Ang Mo Kio Town Council in November.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has already promised that the hackers, who donned Guy Fawkes masks and threatened to bring down national infrastructure if the Government did not rethink its new rules on licensing online news sites, will face the "full extent of the law".

On the flip side, 2014 will be a busy year for government organisations and corporates scrambling to patch weak links in their IT systems exposed by these hacking incidents. Their customers and users will also be watching with worry to see if security breaches escalate and - as was the case with Standard Chartered Bank and the Singapore Art Museum this year - result in more confidential private data being stolen.


STILL in the digital realm, Law Minister K. Shanmugam has promised a new legal framework early next year that brings the penalties for online harassment in line with the laws governing harassment in the physical world. The new rules could radically change the nature of online discourse in Singapore and, depending on how strongly they are enforced, go a long way towards eliminating irresponsible hate speech or personal attacks on the Internet.

Meanwhile, 2014 should also see the cessation of another form of harassment: unwanted SMSes and phone calls.

New data protection laws kick in from January prohibiting marketeers from contacting anyone who has put his phone number in the national Do-Not-Call Registry. So far, tens of thousands have signed up.


BY THE middle of next year, the specially convened Committee of Inquiry looking into the causes of the Dec 8 riot will also have completed its work.

Focused not on assigning blame but taking a dispassionate look at why the riot happened and how it could have been handled better, the hope is that constructive proposals will emerge on the increasingly hot-button issue of how best to integrate the foreign low-cost labour so necessary for economic growth into the larger fabric of society.


2014 will see the implementation of the first of a series of reforms the Education Ministry is making to the school system to create a fairer admissions process and reduce the emphasis on competitive scores.

It's a relatively "mini" change that will see the number of places for children of school alumni reduced - a move that prevents certain popular schools from becoming, in the words of PM Lee, "closed circles" only for parents with all the right connections.

How parents react could give an insight into how larger changes in the pipeline - including the removal of T-scores at PSLE and the introduction of a less transparent assessment process for entry into Secondary 1 - will eventually play out.


NEXT year will also see the completion of another important review - this time of the key elements in Singapore's health-care financing framework.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong has already promised "fundamental shifts" in thinking, such as the Government increasing its spending to take on more of the burden of health-care costs.

MediShield, Singapore's national insurance scheme, is also being reworked to give better protection for large hospital bills and provide universal coverage - even for those with pre-existing conditions.

The question is at what cost, and the extent to which Singaporeans will agree to higher premiums in turn gives some clue as to how far society has come to accept the idea of paying more individually for the collective good.

Of course there are many other issues to look out for in 2014. As more buses are put on the roads and taxi availability requirements are tightened, will commuters see further tangible improvements in public transport? And as HDB flat prices continue to cool, can the Government engineer a soft landing for the public housing market?

Yet these are just the "known unknowns", and arguably the less interesting aspects of any news year. Time has a way of doling out surprises. Who would have thought, in January 2013, that the year would end with a riot?

So here's to the surprises that 2014 will bring, and the new insights they will offer into how life is quickly changing on this once "boring" and predictable isle.

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