SINGAPORE: Transitioning to a "New Normal" in a Post-Lee Kuan Yew Era

By Tan, Eugene K. B. | Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

SINGAPORE: Transitioning to a "New Normal" in a Post-Lee Kuan Yew Era


Tan, Eugene K. B., Southeast Asian Affairs


Politics in Singapore is generally marked by incremental change. When Singapore eventually becomes a two-party or multi-party democracy, the 20 1 1 general election is likely to be regarded as the starting point of the epochal political transition. It was a boisterous year politically where political excitement and consciousness went up several notches due to the 7 May general elections and the 27 August presidential elections, both of which produced keenly contested hustings and outcomes. The aftermath of the general elections also saw the retirement of former Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong from the Cabinet.

In President Tony Tan's first President's Address at the opening of the 12th Parliament, in October, he noted that Singapore's success "is defined not just by material progress but also by our values and ideals". The two elections unleashed passionate debates over what kind of society Singapore should be, given that the focus in the past was overwhelmingly on material well-being. But, for a maturing polity, material well-being alone cannot build a home, a future, a nation-state. Singapore's twelfth Parliament, in its first week of sittings, deliberated on whether the choice between GDP growth or gross national happiness was a false dichotomy. It is clear that the emphasis on growth cannot be the be-all and end-all. The year 2011 saw more attention given to social issues, the post-material concerns. Significantly, there was strong agreement and renewed commitment to helping the needy and disadvantaged.

In the lead-up to the 2011-12 Budget, many Singaporeans were expecting an "election budget". Unlike past Budget speeches, Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam first zeroed in on the non-economic dimension. With the themes of surplus sharing and growing the incomes of all Singaporeans as a rallying cry, less well-off Singaporeans were very much the focus of the Budget. Following the Prime Minister's assurance in his New Year's Day message several weeks earlier, the government reaffirmed its commitment to helping low-income Singaporeans cope with the cost of living, and making home ownership affordable to all. The centrepiece of the Budget was the $3.2 billion "Grow and Share" Package, a series of one-off measures "to share the fruits of the nation's growth with all Singaporeans". In addition, another $3.4 billion was committed for longerterm social investments to enhance Singapore's well-being, especially to support quality care for the elderly.1

In essence, Budget 2011 underlined the commitment to shared inclusive growth with a renewed focus on equity rather than equality. This recalibrating of the social compact has been the trend in recent years, with the government seeking to help low-income earners through a variety of schemes, such as Workfare, CPF top-ups, housing grants, and utility rebates.2 In 2010 these infusions of income constituted a massive 43.3 per cent (up from 41.4 per cent in 2009) of the annual incomes for HDB (Housing Development Board) one- and two-room resident households. This rebalancing of the social compact has clearly tilted in favour of lower-income Singaporeans. The fundamental basis of sharing the nation's wealth has transited from equality to equity. This is the crucial difference. Not every Singaporean will get the same quantum of rebates, subsidies, and tops-up. Less well-off Singaporeans will get more.

Watershed General Elections Heralding a "New Normal"

Politics very much dominated public discourse and imagination in 2011. The 2011 General Elections (GE2011) saw the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore uninterrupted since 1959, witness its worst electoral performance since independence. The PAP polled 60.14 per cent of the popular vote, winning 81 of the 87 parliamentary seats. Behind these headline figures, GE2011 also hinted at seeming broad swathes of unhappiness and dissatisfaction with the PAP government.3

Prior to Parliament's dissolution on 19 April, election fever was very much in the air, and the nine days of intensive campaigning generated much engagement, debate, and contestation. …

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