By Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim
News of Mr Heng Swee Keat’s collapse during a cabinet meeting on May 12, 2016, was greeted with anxiety by Singaporeans. The reason for the heightened consternation lies in the fact that Mr Heng, who is currently Singapore’s finance minister, is one of six ministers tipped to succeed Mr Lee Hsien Loong as Prime Minister. Credential-wise, Mr Heng has an edge over the rest of the five for having held the key ministerial portfolios of education and later finance. Furthermore, he had also helmed the ‘Singapore Conversation’, a national conversation initiative first announced by Prime Minister Lee in 2012, on top of heading the Committee on the Future Economy in the present time. The good news is that Mr Heng made a spectacular recovery from the stroke and has since returned to work. However, his health fuelled uncertainty about his chances of future leadership succession. As a result, attention has somewhat shifted towards the other five potential candidates, Mr Chan Chun Sing, Mr Ng Chee Meng, Mr Ong Ye Kung, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin and Mr Lawrence Wong. At this crucial juncture, it is worth looking at the larger picture to gain an insight into the candidate’s future and collective thoughts.
Singapore is progressing towards a very critical stage of its economic, social and political trajectories. The outlook for the future in all these spheres is not very rosy. The ruling party was able to shore up people’s confidence in it because of Singapore’s phenomenal economic track record, which earned it global recognition as one of the Four Asian Tigers or Asian Dragons. Standards of living rose as household income increased and more families moved from a lower socioeconomic status to the middle-income category.
Singapore’s social policies are calibrated so as to perpetuate the values of self-reliance and resilience, while maintaining the incentive to work. Its social expenditure is considerably less compared to other developed nations. World Bank data, for example, showed that, in 2013, healthcare spending constituted only 4.6 per cent of Singapore’s total gross domestic product, compared to 17.1 per cent in the United States, 10.3 per cent in Japan and 9.1 per cent in the United Kingdom.
Nevertheless, Singapore is known to many as a model for social harmony and political stability. Despite having experienced a tumultuous merger with Malaysia – when racial tensions culminated in the race riots of 1964 – following separation, animosity between the Malays and the Chinese appeared to have dissipated and goodwill between races were promoted through national events like Racial Harmony Day. It is worth noting however that Section 3(1)(e) of the Sedition Act, which has often been exercised, is also a major factor in maintaining interracial harmony. When Singapore was a developing economy, policy missteps were often not immediately felt against a backdrop of remarkable economic progress. Voices of protest were not easily heard because platforms such as social media did not exist. The two-child family policy advocated in the 1970s as the government faced the formidable cost of providing education, health services and housing to a rapidly growing population had a significant impact, seeing birth rates plummeting to 17.7 per 1,000 population, below the targeted 18.0 births. With the two-child ideal firmly entrenched, the Singapore Family Planning and Population Board proceeded to focus its efforts on encouraging a wider interval between the two births, thus dissuading young couples from early marriage and parenthood. These efforts saw resounding success. However, by the late 1980s, it presented Singapore with one of its biggest policy
When Singapore was a developing economy, policy missteps were often not immediately felt against a backdrop of remarkable economic progress. Voices of protest were not easily heard because platforms such as social media did not exist. The two-child family policy advocated in the 1970s as the government faced the formidable cost of providing education, health services and housing to a rapidly growing population had a significant impact, seeing birth rates plummeting to 17.7 per 1,000 population, below the targeted 18.0 births. With the two-child ideal firmly entrenched, the Singapore Family Planning and Population Board proceeded to focus its efforts on encouraging a wider interval between the two births, thus dissuading young couples from early marriage and parenthood. These efforts saw resounding success. However, by the late 1980s, it presented Singapore with one of its biggest policy challenges when a slew of measures was announced by then-First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong to reverse the declining birth rate and the emerging trend of the young delaying marriage. Despite the numerous measures and incentives to encourage Singaporean parents to have more children and for the young to get hitched, the response has been lukewarm, forcing the government to turn to foreigners to make up the numbers, which in turn opened the floodgate for immigration and socially related policy challenges.
As the economy heads towards an advanced stage and, according to some analysts, already showing signs of heading for recession, problems such as poverty are far from resolved. The Progressive Wage Model, the debatable alternative to the minimum wage policy to mitigate the woes of the low-income, is fraught with problems, such as wages stagnating after an initial rise because of employers’ concerns over rising costs.
With the crescendo of voices scrutinising the electoral system and Singapore’s political history and landscape going through a revisionist reassessment, the next team of leaders face an unenviable task. Social media platforms and increasingly visible thought leaders pose new challenges for policymakers trying to get the majority buy-in. The 2013 Population White Paper and the upcoming debate on the Elected Presidency are cases in point. The economic, social and political terrains that the next set of leaders will have to negotiate are vastly different from those of their predecessors. Furthermore, there will be less room to manoeuvre around policy missteps due to the general slowdown in economic progress and amplification of protesting voices as people become increasingly connected to the online world. In light of this, what set of attributes should the future leadership have?
Singapore Perspectives 2016, dubbed the “beauty parade for future prime ministers” by one of the panellists, Banyan Tree founder and Chairman Mr Ho Kwon Ping, featured four of the six frontrunners for the premiership: Mr Heng, Mr Chan, Mr Ng and Mr Ong. Mr Tan and Mr Wong were conspicuously absent, which prompted speculations. Those present delivered speeches and engaged a diverse audience: intellectuals, diplomats and politicians, the young, and the minority groups.
While they cannot be evaluated vis-à-vis one another due to the differing topics the Ministers and their respective panels were assigned, the event still gave a glimpse of the prospective candidates’ thoughts on key issues and their abilities to tackle difficult questions posed by panellists and members of the audience alike. These issues included that on the future of the nation, governance, diversity among Singaporeans and (inclusive) growth model.
A common thread across the speeches of the Ministers was about the need for greater engagement with the people through a collaborative approach, which includes dialogues. This points to easing of the top-down approach that characterises the ruling party’s governing model. However, it is hard to predict how these ideas will play out in the future because, looking back, while there have been initiatives such as ‘Our Singapore Conversation’ and ‘Suara Musyawarah’, which suggest an increasing shift towards a bottom-up formula, it is difficult for the layperson to see how these have translated into policy changes. One gets reminded of how the ‘Population White Paper’ was endorsed in Parliament even though debates were raging over the government’s immigration policy and the infrastructure needed to accommodate a targeted population of 6.9 million. A more recent instance is the exemption of Singapore Pools and Turf Clubs from the online gambling ban despite protests. While the government argued that a complete ban would only drive remote gambling activities underground, critics responded that both operators have such a reach that virtually provides unbridled access to online gambling, which in no way mitigates the very reasons it was banned in the first place.
Another example is the exemption of Singapore Pools and Turf Clubs from the online gambling ban despite protests. While the government argued that a complete ban would only drive remote gambling activities underground, critics responded that both operators have such a reach that virtually provides unbridled access to online gambling, which in no way mitigates the very reasons it was banned in the first place.
A more recent instance is the Elected Presidency (EP). Opinions were divided among the Malay/Muslim community over whether the changes pertaining to it arose from hitherto subdued desire to see a head of state of its own race. Many worry that its perceived antithesis to meritocracy would further cast the community as one incapable of thriving on its own merits. Despite this, the bill to amend the Constitution to include the changes to the EP was passed.
One thing the Ministers seem certain about is that the increasing diversity in the Singaporean populace will challenge the set of core values that had helped Singapore achieve the consensus required to forge ahead as a nation. This point is underscored in Mr Heng’s remark that Singaporeans ought to remember the initial founding ideals of the nation. He touched on kinship and elaborated on it briefly but most Singaporeans have witnessed how the new diversity has left society relatively fragmented along the lines of common culture, subculture, nationality, race, religion, language, occupation and income level.
Mr Ng faced the task of addressing the relevance of the CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others) model, which is used to manage ethnic diversity but which, according to a panellist, may not be “capacious enough” to manage the new diversity in Singapore. Mr Ng’s response reflected the thinking held by current leaders and which is unlikely to change in the future. He asserted that, while some flexibility will be introduced – such as allowing inter-ethnic couples to choose the ethnicity they want their child to be identified with – CMIO safeguards the rights of minorities and has helped forge a strong national identity.
While more needs to be prised out of the candidates’ thoughts on issues, one can draw the preliminary conclusion that, as Singapore ventures into the uncertain future, its future leaders are likely to rely on tried and tested methods to address emerging challenges. However, it remains to be seen if future scenarios will force radical shifts in the government’s ideology and governance methods.
Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim is a Researcher / Projects Coordinator with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), the research subsidiary of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP). The views expressed in the article are his own.
This commentary was also published in Karyawan, January 2017, Volume 12, Issue 1.
Photo Source: Karyawan