Sunday 30 March 2014

Effective policies matter more than courting popularity: Shanmugam

By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 29 Mar 2014

SINGAPORE'S leaders need to do the right thing by their people in policy-making, said Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday, rather than get caught up in "the numbers game".

He made the point at a Foreign Correspondents Association (FCA) lunch, when asked for his sense of the level of support for the ruling People's Action Party.

"The last thing I want to do is to say that we want to have policies in order to get, from a purely political perspective, some numbers back. I think the moment you start doing that, the country will go down."

For instance, with a rapidly ageing population and concerns over health-care costs, the right thing to do was to introduce universal health-care coverage, said Mr Shanmugam, who is also the Law Minister. This will be in the form of the new MediShield Life, which will replace the national health insurance scheme next year and cover citizens for life.

Premiums are expected to be substantially higher than those for the current MediShield, but the Government has announced permanent subsidies for both low- and middle-income Singaporeans.

The pioneer generation, who are 65 years and older this year, will also receive hefty subsidies of between 40 and 60 per cent.

Many other countries have universal health coverage and the financial burden falls on future generations as the cost is funded by borrowing. But Singapore is careful not to take this path, Mr Shanmugam said.

So, the costs of funding premiums for those 65 and older is being drawn from this year's Budget that provides for an $8billion Pioneer Generation Package.

Health-care policy in this case was necessitated by population changes, Mr Shanmugam said, and Singapore could not be ideological about it. "Be honest and upfront. Explain the cost, explain the trade-offs... and on the whole you will be all right."

Doing the responsible thing also extended to how the Government responded to the Little India riot, he said. It took the "hard political calculation" - despite being politically costly - to put in place temporary measures to keep the peace in the heritage neighbourhood, even before a Committee of Inquiry (COI) had completed its investigations.

Alcohol sales were banned on weekends, for instance. The measures were to ensure there would be no repeat of the Dec 8 mayhem, he said, adding that this was the Government's responsibility to citizens.

"To leave it to the COI and refuse to do anything is an abdication of responsibility, which a lot of governments do," he added. "Then they cannot be criticised."

Last month, Parliament also passed a temporary Bill to curtail the authorities' powers in Little India. It had been relying, after the riots, on an emergency-type law that conferred wide-ranging powers - including the use of lethal force - to maintain order.

Mr Shanmugam took issue with a suggestion that foreign worker rights did not rank highly in Singapore. Workers choose to come, and want to stay here, he said.

"Do you think he (a worker) chooses to come to Singapore because we treat him worse than any other country that can take him?" he asked. "Many of the statements that have appeared in the international media don't bear a moment's scrutiny."

'Small tiffs but deep ties'
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 29 Mar 2014

ARGUMENTS may happen from day to day between neighbouring countries but Singapore will ride them out, Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

This is because underlying its relationships with Indonesia and Malaysia are strong links in trade, investment and people-to-people flows, he told the Foreign Correspondents Association, when asked to assess Singapore's state of relations with its closest neighbours.

"Day to day things may happen, there could be arguments, there could be kerfuffles, there could be some fights but...there are sensible people on all sides," he said.

He is confident Singapore will ride it out each time "because we know underlying it is a far more important relationship." The "fundamental relationship" with Indonesia and Malaysia is very good, he added.

Last month, Singapore had a spat with Indonesia over a warship being named after two of its soldiers who had bombed MacDonald House in 1965, during Konfrontasi.

And last week, two Indonesian marines posed as the bombers at an international defence event in Jakarta.

As for Malaysia, the issue was over water it sells to Singapore. Mr Shanmugam had said in Parliament on March 6 that Malaysia had no right to review the price of water unilaterally, and its government understood this.

A pact between the two countries provided for a review after 25 years, but Malaysia consciously chose not to review the price in 1987 as it benefited greatly from the pricing then, he added.


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