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CNY thought: PM Tharman, Opposition Leader Pritam and President Halimah

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah




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Two major but still not quite primary political leaders are in the news right now. Will the pair be heading the teams on both sides of Parliament soon? Will Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat be leading the People’s Action Party opposite Pritam Singh (Workers Party), Leader of the Opposition? Is the future with us already?

Whatever the case may be, pending internal party decisions, we are surely on the cusp of political changes.

Finance Minister Heng should be in his comfort zone delivering the Budget speech tomorrow (Feb 19).  He was managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore from 2005 to 2011. He has given two Budget speeches – in 2016 and 2017 – since he became Finance Minister in 2015.

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This year, all eyes will be on him for two more reasons.

His performance will attract greater attention, given all the talk about his being one of the 4G frontrunners to be the next Prime Minister. Many Singaporeans may have forgotten. Government/ruling PAP leadership transitions are not all that frequent or even always this public.

The changeovers from Lee Kuan Yew to Goh Chok Tong and then Lee Hsien Loong had been fairly smooth and almost non-news. The interlaps – where the senior leaders remained around – enabled planning for future handovers even as the most immediate changes were already taking place.

I think the 3G generation have had no such luxury.  Their learning and phasing in  curves seem shorter. These are also different times. Different challenges. Voters are more questioning and public scrutiny and demands are only a smartphone click away.

Heng Swee Keat will no longer be speaking as a mere specialist minister, like Hon Sui Sen (finance and economic development background) or Richard Hu (corporate management and investment). He is also a potential PM.

The second reason Heng Swee Keat’s Budget speech will be watched carefully is the expectation that he will announce an increase in the Goods And Services Tax.

Singapore introduced its GST in 1994, with a 3 per cent rate. This was raised to 4 per cent in 2003 and 5 per cent in 2004, then to 7 per cent in 2007.

Whatever the percentage rate hike this time, the GST’s impact is traditionally on the lower-income earners, those whose incomes are not in the main tax brackets but whose consumption will be disproportionately affected by any increase in such a broad-based source of revenue. The hike will be regarded as necessary but it will not be popular on the ground, though the Finance Minister will have his usually array of sweeteners (subsidies and rebates) to ease the pain.

On the ground, his potential opposite number in the political arena is being touted as the successor to Low Thia Khiang who has just surpassed Chiam See Tong as the longest-serving Opposition MP.

By all indications, all the current young top guns in the Workers Party are supporting Pritam Singh as their next secretary-general.

There is, generally, good vibes about his race being a non-factor (not quite the same for the PAP – check Tharman Shanmugaratnam), experience and ability to connect with heartlanders, good performance in Parliament and as a public speaker, general competence and willingness to tackle problems head-on, such as, for example, dealing with the AHTC administrative lapses.

Pritam Singh as the next WP leader and of the Opposition in Parliament will be a good testimony that Singaporeans will be race-blind where it matters –  in politics. We should refuse to get stuck in a race card game where the only winners are those playing the game.

An even better testimony is if we end up in the next few years with both the PM (Tharman) – Heng Swee Keat and other 4Gers nothwithstanding –  and Opposition Leader (Pritam) not belonging to the country’s majority race, and Halimah Yacob (half-Indian) still the President.

Just an incredible out-of-the-box thought for Chinese New Year. But not impossible whatsoever.

Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.

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