Home News Singapore Politics GE issues: A lookback at 2011 and 2015

GE issues: A lookback at 2011 and 2015

Our interns dig into the past to highlight continuing unease

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By Aretha Sawarin Chinnaphongse, Jillian Colombo, Misaki Tan and AJ Jennevieve

2011: A Watershed

For Singapore politics, 2011 was an interesting tipping point. That year’s General Election,

hailed widely as a watershed event, was noteworthy for being the first time the People’s

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Action Party (PAP), which has ruled the country since independence in 1965, conceded a

Group Representation Constituency (GRC) to the opposition.

In a GRC, the poll is contested by a team, not individuals, the aim being to ensure minority

representation in Parliament.

Though the PAP’s score was an overwhelming 81 out of 87 seats, the Workers’ Party (WP)

winning only six, the ruling party’s vote share was lowest since independence. It no doubt

suffered a dent, however small, in the hands of the WP. The polls’ overall signal was an

acknowledgement that the opposition had come of age and it could no longer be wished

away.

Another label the election secured was that it was Singapore’s first “social media election”,

with voters and candidates alike flocking to the social media to express their intentions. This

meant that candidates now had to adapt quickly to whatever new resources were available

to connect with voters, lest their campaign voices be drowned out.

The hot-button issues of this election were housing and immigration that caused disquiet

among many voters.

Housing

Affordability, supply and inclusivity were the concerns over housing. HDB mortgages are

usually paid off in 30 years, meaning that many HDB homeowners would have to be glued to

paying off their mortgages for years after purchasing a flat.

The Workers’ Party manifesto indicated that the party would change the pricings of HDB

flats to enable homeowners to pay off their mortgage in 20 years instead of 30. This would

be done by pegging the price of new HDB flats to the median income of households that

 

qualify to buy them, instead of the existing policy of pegging prices to resale market prices.

WP’s suggestion was intended to ease the financial burden of younger Singaporeans, but

risked devaluing existing flats.

On the issue of inclusivity, single men and women did not qualify for public housing until

they are 35. With the rise in the median age of marriage amongst women in Singapore, this

means that there are many working singles who face difficulties in buying housing and they

either purchase expensive private properties or continue to live with their parents.

This regulation on the purchase of public housing also poses a problem to homosexuals in

Singapore, a country that does not legally recognise the union of same-sex individuals.

 

Liberal immigration

Additionally, more and more Singaporeans had begun displaying their outright disapproval

of the government’s increasingly lenient immigration policies in the years leading up to the

2011 General Election. To boost economic growth, the government had come to rely heavily

on lax immigration laws, making it easier for more immigrants to come in against whom

locals had to compete for jobs.

According to a national survey by a media group, locals were finding it harder to secure

jobs. They also griped over overcrowding in buses and trains and blamed increasing costs of

necessities to rising demand from outsiders.

On the flip side, immigrants were raising their own concerns over their integration into

Singaporean society. Socially many existing immigrants were already facing varied levels of

subtle discrimination from Singaporeans and, economically, increasing living costs as well as

affordability of housing and healthcare.

Without much else to turn to, these immigrants were looking to the government to

safeguard their rights as well as alleviate the social discrimination they faced in their day- to-

day lives.

 

2015: A Landslide Victory

A memorable year for Singapore was 2015, with events that may have impacted the results

of the General Election that year.

The year saw the passing of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on March 23, triggering

more than 1.2 million people to flock to Parliament House to pay their respects to the

nation’s founding father. The week-long national mourning promoted a sense of solidarity

and patriotism, which may have garnered more votes for the PAP, with Lee Hsien Loong re-

iterating and linking the party’s past achievements under Lee Kuan Yew to the present PAP.

It was was also the year of SG50 celebrations, with the big red logo imprinted all around

Singapore to signify the 50th year of Singapore’s independence. The PAP’s initiatives with

all-year-round plans for SG50 festivities and holding of the biggest National Day Parade in

August definitely brought them some extra brownie points for the elections.

 

Apart from the Golden Jubilee that was 2015, the election during the year was also unique

because it was the first year since independence which saw all seats contested. The results

of the election saw the continued one-party reign of the PAP. It won 83 of 89 seats; the

remaining 6 seats went to the Workers Party.

 

Cost of Living And Wage Gap

Singaporeans considered the cost of living as the most pressing bread-and-butter issue in

  1. In a Blackbox Corp survey done on government satisfaction levels, Singaporeans were

least satisfied with the cost of living.

This was not a new concern. It has been a major complaint among Singaporeans for many

years. Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan attributed the high costs to the

PAP’s policies. Housing costs, competition over jobs and immigration were all factors that

Chee linked to public policies. Amid these concerns suggestions were churned out such as

introduction of a Minimum Wage (by the Workers Party) to protect low-income workers

 

Housing

Housing, seen generally as linked to the cost of living, was also another area of concern in

the elections. Since 2011 attempts have been made by the government to increase the

supply of houses and dampen property prices through cooling measures. However, some

Singaporeans still worried about HDB flat prices, complaining measures taken by the

government were not effective enough, others kept wondering if cooling measures could

affect their property values in the long run.

 

Economy

The threat of an economic downturn in 2015 was another election issue. In 2014, there was

great uncertainty in the global economic environment, which had an adverse effect on

Singapore’s open economy. It contracted by a sharp 4.6% on-quarter in the second quarter

of 2014, and only increased by 1.7% from the year-earlier period. The gloomy outlook for

the economy in 2015 was compounded by the fact that the GDP forecast for the year was a

mere 1.8%.

 

Transport

Transportation woes were on the rise in 2015. July 7 saw the breakdown of both North-

South and East-West MRT lines, which caused great inconvenience for more than 250,000

commuters. The number of major LRT breakdowns spiked in 2015 as well.

 

The issues over transportation led to the public questioning the government’s management

of the transportation systems. Lack of proper maintenance was blamed by some as a prime

factor for the breakdowns.

 

Healthcare costs

The government firmly resisted the Workers’ Party’s call for universal healthcare. As

mentioned by then Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in a speech, “There is

no way of giving something to everyone… without raising taxes on the middle-income

group.”

 

This is in line with the changes made to CPF LIFE, starting 1 Jul 2015, to improve the clarity,

flexibility and adequacy in the CPF scheme. One such change includes raising the interest

rates for the first $30,000 of CPF savings to 6%, and the next $30,000 at a rate of 5% and any

subsequent savings above $60,000 at a rate of 4%.

 

However, continuing concerns with CPF lay with the government’s move to increase the

minimum age from 55 to 65 for collecting funds, in line with an increase in life expectancy,

and to increase the “minimum sum” that must be set aside as an annuity.

CPF critic and blogger Roy Ngerng felt that the changes were superficial and did not address

what he considered to be fundamental problems with the CPF system, such as the lack of a

minimum wage and what people viewed as low rates of return on CPF savings (1-5%).

 

Immigration

The influx of foreigners into Singapore has always been a long-standing issue. Immigration

was seen as a core driving factor to other bread-and-butter issues such as higher costs of

living, rising property costs and lack of jobs.

 

Since the 2011 elections, the government had taken steps to address some concerns such as

tightening regulations on employing foreigners, and requirements that employers must

consider Singaporeans first before approving work passes.

 

However, protests followed the release of Population White Paper, which predicted that, by

2030, immigrants would make up nearly half the population. This ultimately led to

demonstrations against the PAP’s immigration policies. Foreigners remained a core concern

for the 2015 election that was used against PAP by the Workers’ Party in its manifesto to

maintain a “Singaporean core”.

 

Social mobility and education

Calls were made for schools to be less stressful and to have more equal resources

distributed among schools. The removal of the PSLE scoring system was done to reduce

“excessive competition.” As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in his National Day Rally

Speech in 2013, there will be “space to educate and develop students more holistically.”

Efforts to go on improving schools, underpinned by the catchphrase to make “every school

a good school’’ to emphasize equality were commended by many but many others said

this had done nothing for the removal of the fundamental belief among parents that schools

are ranked.

Similarly, calls were rife for more upward social mobility amongst the new working middle-

class. Worries surfaced regarding the compulsion to take care of medically uninsured elderly

parents. Fears of downward mobility remained a pressing concern as more and more

Singaporeans hoped to achieve the Singaporean Dream of not just doing materially well

but to grow in every way.

 

GE 2020: Potential issues

In general, one can expect that for this year’s General Election (GE), the usual bread-and-

butter issues and immigration will still predominate. What makes this year’s elections

different is that anxieties over these issues are exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19

pandemic.

Here’s a rundown of the issues one might expect in the forthcoming GE:

 

Economic outlook

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the central bank has stated that Singapore will definitely

enter into a recession amidst “significant uncertainty” over how long this downturn will last.

In the latest half-yearly review by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), Singapore’s

economic growth could drop below the forecast range of -4% to -1%.

Here is a quote from the 132-page report of MAS, “At this juncture, there remains

significant uncertainty over the severity of the downturn, as well as the eventual recovery.

The materialisation of downside risks, that largely depend on the course taken by the

pandemic and efficacy of policy responses around the world, could tip the outcome growth

in Singapore below the forecast range.”

 

The main concerns among the population involve job losses, on top of reduced workers’

salaries and no-pay leaves. The Government has taken measures, such as the Jobs Support

Scheme (JSS), to provide more sectors with higher wage subsidies for their local employees.

 

Steps have also been taken to boost job creation such as the SGUnited Jobs initiative, which

aims to create about 10,000 jobs over the next year.

Despite these measures, MAS is still pessimistic that the Singapore economy will likely see a

rise in “retrenchments and unemployment”.

Government accountability

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat rebutted a critical editorial in Zaobao by affirming,

“Singapore’s government has not gone slack”. This was in response to criticism over the

National Service training deaths, Singhealth cyberattack, HIV data leak, power failures,

misplaced mail and train breakdowns across 2018 and 2019.

 

On the recent issue with the foreign workers dormitories in the COVID-19 pandemic, the

Government has been accused of being “ignorant” and “blindsided” for not acting sooner to

prevent the major outbreak.

This is on top of a bleak financial outlook, where a total of SGD$60 billion will be drawn from

past reserves to help Singapore battle the economic fallout. Similarly, responding to

Workers’ Party secretary-general Pritam Singh, who asked “time and again” on the size of

Singapore’s reserves, Mr Heng has said that the total size of Singapore’s reserves is not

disclosed for the sake of its national security and strategic interests. He asserted the

reserves are “no different from SAF’s arsenal.”

The question for accountability thus lies in the Government’s ability to handle the COVID-19

situation, especially in addressing the recession and migrant foreign workers' state of living.

 

Civil liberties

Issues over civil liberties have also surfaced over recent years. Perhaps the most famous

would be the “Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill”, also known as the

“Fake News bill”. This bill is perceived as controversial because it provides the ministers

unprecedented powers to deem what is “true” or “false”. In essence, the bill is seen as an

overreaching act by the PAP to control public discourse online.

 

Academic freedom has also been questioned in recent years. An example for this would be

Yale-NUS College cancelling a weeklong course entitled “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore'',

two days before it was supposed to begin.

The course would have featured talks by anti-government individuals, visitation of Speaker’s

corner in Singapore and a documentary about Joshua Wong, a Hong Kong activist. Due to

the college’s fear that the students were at risk of breaking the law by discussing

contentious issues and criticising the government, the event was cancelled and protests

ensued over academic freedom.

 

The masses have become much more vocal in raising their demands over individual rights in

recent years, and one can expect these demands to be addressed in the coming elections.

 

Cybersecurity threats

Data Privacy issues have also risen since the “Internet age” in Singapore. This is especially so

with the state’s push for “Smart Nation”, where nationwide digitisation is seen as increasing

the risk of information being stolen.

A concrete example of concerns over data privacy was how 1.5 million SingHealth patient’s

personal data was stolen, with 160,000 of those who had dispensed medicines records

stolen as well.

Racial and religious harmony

Racial and religious harmony is a cornerstone of Singapore’s multicultural society. However,

the “Brown Face” controversy has shown that race relations are still vulnerable today.

There was a huge backlash because of darkening skin and portrayal of stereotypes of the

minority races. This controversy brought to light the superficial discourse Singapore has on

race and religious harmony, and that ethnic minorities are still not being treated equally and

respectfully.

Recent events in the US have also hit home in Singapore. As seen on social media,

comparisons between racism in the US and racism in Singapore have proliferated, triggering

a discourse on how one should not be outraged at the racism in the US without being

discontented with the same issue at home.

 

Issues over foreigners

This has remained a contentious issue throughout the previous two elections and a party’s

immigration policies could determine its popularity among the voters.

Singapore has seen an ever-increasing number of foreign talents and foreign workers, with

the numbers topping off at 2.15 million in 2019, according to the United Nations’

International Migrant Stock.

In a country with a population of 5.7 million as of 2019, the number of migrants account for

almost 40% of the people living and working in Singapore. A video of an Indian man shouting

at a security guard that went viral in October 2019 brought people’s sentiments regarding

the immigrant population to light online.

Many netizens commented that the man showed a blatant lack of respect by using

vulgarities on a security guard for asking him to pay for his guests’ parking and highlighting

that he had bought the property for $1.5 million. Moreover, this video sparked the raising of

other concerns regarding competition for jobs and salaries between citizens and the foreign

talents, in an economy where cost of living continues to rise.

 

More crucially, the COVID-19 situation in Singapore saw the issue of another group, the

foreign workers, being brought to the forefront.

Many Singaporeans view the spread of the coronavirus in foreign worker dormitories as a

failure of the current government as they did not enforce the Foreign Employee Dormitories

Act passed in 2015 to uphold certain standards in dormitories of the foreign workers, and

overlooked early warnings regarding hygiene and sanitation.

As a result, several calls have been made to slowly wean Singapore off its dependency on

foreign workers.

An inclusive society

Single parents still face many difficulties in securing housing as HDB flats give priorities to

married couples and single adults can only buy them after they are 35. Furthermore, single

parents do not qualify for the Parenthood tax rebate which can off-set a part of parents’

taxes once, and unwed mothers do not qualify for the Working Mothers’ Child Relief

(WMCR), a tax relief scheme.

Minister for National Development and Second Minister for Finance Larence Wong

emphasised that some of the schemes have “specific objectives'' (Parliament, Feb 28 2020)

and thus cannot be eligible for everybody.

As Singapore becomes increasingly liberal, support for single parents and unwed mothers

will become more important in ensuring that they receive the support that enables them to

raise their children should they choose to do so.

 

For the LGBTQ+ community, Article 377A of the penal code remains a clear sign that the

country is far from being inclusive and accepting them. Under the article, males are legally

prohibited from participating in any form of “gross indecency” with other males, a broad

term that encompasses almost every form of physical affection.

Moreover, the law still prohibits the “promotion or glamorisation of the homosexual

lifestyle”, banning any form of advertising relating to homosexuals. Despite Pink Dot SG

being held annually since 2009, same-sex marriages remain unrecognised. The most telling

sign of Singapore’s exclusive stance is that there is no legal protection specifically to protect

people in the LGBTQ+ community from discrimination.

 

Income inequality

Scientists and economists alike have long heralded the use of the Gini Coefficient as an

effective measure of income inequality present in countries worldwide. The greater the Gini

Coefficient, the higher the income inequality and vice versa.

In the Singaporean context, the Gini Coefficient hit its lowest in 2019, indicating a relatively

lower level of income disparity between the different classes. In fact, household income

inequality in SIngapore was reported to have hit its all-time low in almost two decades in

2019.

 

However, post COVID-19 may bring about an adverse effect on the diminishing gap between

incomes of the rich and the poor in Singapore.

According to an article by Asean Today, the COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on the

“cracks of inequity” in Singapore and arrowed wage inequality as the main cause for this

problem.

With the shrinking economy, falling wages and steadily heightening unemployment rate,

the gap between the rich and the poor is bound to widen and it will be hard for the

government to resolve this issue whilst assuaging growing fears for the future. While one

may argue that the government has taken concrete steps in taking care of Singaporeans

financially through the Resilience, Solidarity and Fortitude Budgets, many remain wary of

long-term uncertainty.

 

Cost of living

A recurring concern amongst Singaporeans following the COVID-19 pandemic has centred

on the increasing cost of living. After earning the global label of being the world’s most

expensive city to live in, people have begun airing their worries about their financial future,

especially after the economic shock brought about by the unprecedented pandemic.

According to NUS Associate Professor Lawrence Loh, the outbreak has affected jobs and led

to scarcity in personal and household items leading to price increases nationwide.

Additionally, the recent pay cuts brought about by the shrinking economy has exacerbated

these worries.

For the 2020 elections, the rising cost of living is definitely going to be a key issue the various

political parties will have to contend with.

The SGUnited initiative was effective in handling the short- term economic problems that

were bound to come around with a global pandemic but uncertainty over the long run

uncertain.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has already deemed the economic repercussions of the

COVID-19 pandemic to be more serious than the Global Financial crisis and to last well after

it blows over. Assuring Singaporeans of the government’s long run commitment to taking

care of their economic situation will be necessary to quell national concern over an almost inevitable recession.

 

 

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