Thursday 20 April 2023

The policy shifts and politics of rage in a contested Singapore: DPM Lawrence Wong

In his speech on the President’s Address, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong outlined five key shifts as part of a new social compact. What was equally important was what he said about politics and the role of the opposition.
By Grace Ho, Deputy News Editor, The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2023

A new approach on skills, social support, and caring for seniors.

A new definition of success.

A renewed commitment to one another.

These were the five key shifts Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong outlined on Monday as part of a new social compact, on which discussions are well under way with the nationwide engagement exercise Forward Singapore.

The ideas are not dramatically new, but reinforcing them ahead of the Forward SG report, due in the second half of 2023, will keep them fresh in the public consciousness.

More importantly, what the 4G leadership stands for is finally coming into sharper focus after 2018 when succession first became a hot-button issue, while not necessarily signalling a radical departure in policy.

Mr Wong himself took care to disabuse commentators of the view that the 4G team has shifted to the left. He pointed out that it is not a simple case of characterising positions along the traditional political spectrum of left and right, but appealing to a broad base instead of blindly copying models from other countries.

Take broadening meritocracy, for example. Mr Wong and others such as Education Minister Chan Chun Sing spoke on it during Monday’s and Tuesday’s debate on the President’s Address – and before that, Mr Wong at the launch of Forward SG in June 2022.

But even as far back as in 2013, then Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam was already speaking of a broader, “continuous meritocracy”, regardless of one’s academic background, in an interview with The Straits Times.

The proof is in the pudding. The raft of policy changes in the ensuing decade, from doing away with the PSLE T-score, to full subject-based banding and lifetime cohort participation rate, are the clearest realisation of this consistency and continuity in policy and messaging.

Ample hints have been given of other substantive changes in the works. These, too, have their early advocates.

Mr Wong’s mention of a targeted re-employment support scheme is something which labour MPs such as Mr Patrick Tay (Pioneer) have pushed for – the latter when he called for a more permanent scheme following the Covid-19 Recovery Grant, which provided temporary financial support for workers experiencing involuntary job loss and income loss during the pandemic.

More social support for vulnerable groups to ease the financial burden on parents of children attending special education schools and care centres, for example, have been prefaced by recent Budget announcements and championed by both sides of the House, including backbenchers.

“We intend to make this shift in our social strategy so every Singaporean can be confident: In this harsh, unpredictable world, we will have your back, and we will support you,” Mr Wong said on Monday.

Role of a responsible opposition

Amid the policy shifts announced, which have gathered broad support, however, the negativity in the Facebook comments on Mr Wong’s speech gives cause for concern.

Social media draws out the most misanthropic segments of the public. Yet, it is this loathing and distrust of anything the People’s Action Party (PAP) government says and does, displayed among some netizens, which I fear will become increasingly hard to stem.

It is what American political journalist Ezra Klein calls negative partisanship, or being driven not by positive feelings about what you support, but bad feelings towards the party you oppose.

Here, the opposition has a role to play. Mr Wong threw down a challenge on Monday when he said that instead of putting forth opportunistic or populist ideas that chip away at trust in the Government, the opposition should offer a serious alternative agenda and be upfront about the trade-offs and funding.

That might be a bridge too far to cross for politicians with little technocratic policy experience, but there are simple ways in which parliamentary debates can remain constructive and helpful.

Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai, recently elected chief of the Progress Singapore Party, and flag bearer of a particularly combative brand of politics which ignores parliamentary norms and rules, comes to mind.

But what can be equally corrosive aren’t the outright lies or half-truths, but the constant mention of individual lived experiences without verification – a key part of the opposition’s playbook – to cast aspersions on policies that might have worked well for the broad middle so far.

For example, in January 2022, Mr Leong alleged in Parliament that some school teachers here were practising vaccine-differentiated safe management measures.

When Education Minister Chan asked for details so that his ministry could follow up, not only was Mr Leong unable to provide them, but he pointed only to a Telegram chat group screenshot sent to him by a Facebook friend. After a terse exchange, he admitted that there was no mention of the school in the screenshot.

The omissions also matter. Take, for example, Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh’s speech in March, on the White Paper on Singapore’s response to Covid-19.

Mr Singh mentioned he had earlier reminded the Government that Singaporeans had a right to expect a thorough review and accounting of its response to the crisis, and suggested that a Commission of Inquiry be appointed, in his speech debating the Fortitude Budget in June 2020.

Mr Singh then pointed out that on May 9, 2022, in response to his parliamentary question, the House was informed that the former head of civil service, Mr Peter Ho, was overseeing the after-action review (AAR) process.

What Mr Singh failed to mention was that, in response to this very issue, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean had in fact first announced plans for an AAR an entire year earlier, in July 2021.

Such are the little omissions – intentional or otherwise – that make regular observers like myself do double takes when watching Parliament debates.

Perhaps the public doesn’t notice them. But if they do, these can plant the seeds of doubt in people’s minds and make them go: “Did the Government say that or did it not?”, or “Did it really delay its response for so long?”

On the other hand, not everything the opposition says should be automatically dismissed as opportunist or populist. As Workers’ Party (WP) MP Leon Perera said on Tuesday: “We should never treat differences of opinion as necessarily equivalent to polarisation... Disagreement and agreeing to disagree does not imply disrespect.”

One could disagree with WP MP Jamus Lim’s suggestion to have an official poverty line for two established reasons: First, it is too simplistic a measure to capture the complexity of individual households’ situations; and second, fear of the “cliff effect”, by which those just above such a line might not receive the help needed.

Yet, even here, Associate Professor Lim has a point: If so much flexibility is already being exercised by the authorities on a case-by-case basis, why do different schemes for lower-income households have different qualifying income thresholds? And therefore, is there some way to harmonise social assistance schemes without setting an official poverty line?

Prof Lim’s points on recipients’ age, and number of dependants to qualify for the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS), also raise useful questions.

As today’s pre-independence birth cohorts gradually age out of the workforce, and younger workers become more educated and able to fund their retirement, will there come a time when the reasoning behind older workers getting the highest WIS payments may have to be reviewed?

If the underpinning logic is that WIS quantums should be tiered to cater to different needs, should they be made more reflective of that individual’s household size and how many dependants he has?

Role of the media and the public

The media plays a part, too. Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) raised this on Monday, in relation to what he said during an earlier Parliament debate on the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill.

He had highlighted during the debate that while there were important differences between the views from both sides of the aisle, they were few compared with the substantive areas of agreement between them.

“I do not remember a single journalist covering this point in his or her article,” said Mr Murali.

“I’m not surprised. In my speech on building consensus in Parliament, I said that, and I quote, ‘agreement, collegiality, friendliness, all these make for poor headlines’.”

But, in all fairness, is Singapore’s media coverage driven just by exciting headlines and contestation instead of consensus?

If the media had indeed decided that education policy announcements were only half as newsworthy as car crashes, or conversely, that feisty debates in Parliament should take precedence over major policy announcements, the outcry would be immediate – and this newspaper’s coverage today would look very different.

The truth is this: There are no angels in this town, nor are there perfectly good answers or solutions. As Singapore inches closer to the next general election due by 2025, the stakes will get higher. The second-guessing of intentions, and the pressure faced by all parties, will ratchet up exponentially.

But if, like Mr Murali says, Singapore takes an undramatic approach to problem-solving, then one hopes that cooler heads will prevail, and that all parties have the good conscience not to lead the country down angry cul-de-sacs.

No doubt commentators will parse this week’s debates for the 4G team’s policy directions and Mr Wong’s leadership style.

But the points raised in Parliament so far have reminded me of a more subtle truth on display when I met Singapore voters ahead of the last general election in 2020.

I recall being hard-pressed to count on both hands the number of people who could articulate the Government’s policies clearly, or who understood the latest announcements in detail, as I went block to block, and hawker centre to hawker centre.

What these residents did know, however, was how they felt – and they weren’t afraid to offer their unvarnished opinion of what they believed to be the PAP government’s shortcomings.

So, while I appreciate the policy shifts announced – which will go a long way towards buffering Singaporeans against negative shocks and helping them better invest in their future – I also appreciate the fact that Mr Wong devoted a substantial part of his speech to politics and the role of the opposition.

And to fellow Singaporeans: Sometimes it’s worth being angry, sometimes it’s not.

It’s hard enough navigating this polarised climate. But if we don’t take time to know which is which, if we don’t audit our informational diet every now and then, and choose to focus only on the dramatic and political instead of keeping up with the more important issues, ideas and policies undergirding our country, we lose our ballast in our relationship with politics.

It’s not good for ourselves, it’s not good for politics, and ultimately, not good for Singapore.

No place for populism, political opportunism in Singapore: DPM Lawrence Wong
By Jean Iau, The Straits Times, 22 Apr 2023

Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong stressed – at the end of five days of debate in Parliament on the President’s Address – that there is no place for populism and political opportunism in Singapore.

He was responding to Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh, who agreed on the point made.

Earlier on Monday, Mr Wong had called on the opposition to offer a serious alternative agenda and be upfront about the trade-offs, instead of putting forth opportunistic or populist ideas that chip away at trust in the Government.

Responding on Friday, Mr Singh (Aljunied GRC) said that if all the Workers’ Party was doing was putting forward populist, unrealistic policies, the Government would not be considering variations of the WP’s ideas on issues such as anti-discrimination legislation, minimum wage and redundancy insurance.

Mr Wong replied that while he and Mr Singh may have to “agree to disagree” on how he characterised WP’s proposals, he had made a broader point on the evolution of Singapore’s democracy. This was because he was worried about how developed democracies abroad have become divided and polarised.

“If you look at many of these countries, populism has taken root and populism has damaged greatly their societies, divided and polarised their people,” he said, explaining that populism is politics that distorts the facts for political advantage and will damage Singapore in the long term.

He added that the Government rejects populism and upholds honesty and integrity in policymaking.

Should it fall short of these standards, he said, he expects the opposition to call it out. Likewise, if the opposition proposes ideas and policies that the Government feels are populist, it would highlight its concerns.

Mr Wong said: “Both sides of the House, we stand for a democracy that is maturing, a serious government and a serious opposition. We say ‘yes’ to all that. But we say ‘no’ to populism and political opportunism ever taking root in this House and in Singapore.”

Mr Singh agreed with DPM Wong that calling each other out ought to work both ways and accepted Mr Wong’s concerns about Singapore’s democracy, saying: “Certainly, the Workers’ Party, and I hope the opposition in general, will be mindful going forward and work towards the betterment of Singapore and Singaporeans.”

He added that he did not expect the DPM to use his speech on the President’s Address to “attack and accuse the Workers’ Party of advancing opportunistic or populist ideas to chip away, bit by bit, the trust in Government”.

“It is a most unfair charge levelled at the Workers’ Party which in reality, chips away at the integrity of our parliamentary democracy as an important platform for the exposition and contestation of ideas,” he said.

Mr Singh added: “Our manifestos have not been an amalgamation of broad statements of purpose and glossy pictures, but specific proposals, with a view to better the lives of Singaporeans.”

He listed some examples including the live-streaming of parliamentary debates, charging for the use of plastic bags and pairing families with general practitioners.

Mr Wong had also said on Monday that every election from now on will be about who forms the Government, and not just what percentage of the votes the People’s Action Party receives and how many seats the opposition wins.

Mr Singh said that on the issue of the WP displacing the PAP and forming the Government, the reality is that the WP has a long way to go.

Instead, he said, its medium-term goal is to occupy one-third of the seats in the House.

This is to ensure that the Constitution cannot be arbitrarily changed, he said, noting that amendments to the Constitution require a two-thirds majority, currently 63 MP votes.

He added that WP’s intention is not to block all the changes to the Constitution proposed by a PAP Government unless they are assessed to be detrimental to Singapore.

Singaporeans want an opposition to check the PAP because, he said, “we all know that ‘ownself check ownself’ is not realistic. The inherent nature of power makes it unrealistic.”

Mr Singh concluded by saying: “The opposition must be focused and continue to endeavour, work for and defend the interests of Singaporeans and Singapore, as equal and fellow Singaporeans – together in the same boat, rowing in the same direction – be it in or out of this House.”

Responding to him, Mr Wong pointed out that in politics, things can happen very quickly even if Mr Singh says “it takes time, you’re not ready to form the next Government, you take one step at a time, one-third”.

“So I’m glad Mr Singh is mindful that there is an important role for the opposition to play,” he said.

“And I think he should start thinking about how he and the WP can indeed, perhaps not sitting (on his) side of the aisle, but on this side of the aisle in future, down the road, what sort of agenda you would offer Singaporeans and what you would do if you were to form the Government.”

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