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Opinion
 
Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor

A roller coaster decade for Singapore PM Lee

Mr Lee Hsien Loong became prime minister 10 years ago today. How has his time in office shaped the lives of Singaporeans?

Published on Aug 15, 2014 11:37 AM
 

Mr Lee Hsien Loong's first decade as prime minister can be summed up in one word: Challenging.

It has been a roller coaster of a ride for Mr Lee, who became independent Singapore's third prime minister on Aug 12, 2004.

For one thing, there has been greater political contestation. Singapore saw two general elections in 2006 and 2011, and two by-elections, in Hougang (May 2012) and Punggol East (January last year).

The presidential election of 2005 saw incumbent S R Nathan, the sole candidate, returned unopposed.

But in 2011, a four- cornered fight between candidates surnamed Tan saw Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam triumph with just 7,382 more votes, or 0.3 per cent, over closest rival Tan Cheng Bock.

It was a decade of peaks and troughs. Just out of the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis, the economy went on to record robust growth of over 7.5 per cent a year until 2007, only to face the sharpest recession since independence during the global financial crisis. Growth plunged sharply to 1.8 per cent in 2008 and shrank 0.6 per cent in 2009.

The Government responded with a whopping $20.5 billion Resilience Package for Budget 2009 to guarantee bank deposits, and to fund the Jobs Credit wage subsidy. It did the unprecedented, getting then President Nathan's assent to dip into the reserves to fund the package. Crisis was averted. A year later, the economy rebounded, growing 15.2 per cent.

Leading Singapore relatively unscathed through the global financial crisis was cited by several observers as among Mr Lee's top achievements in the decade.

Annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaged 6.3 per cent from 2004 to last year, according to economist Tan Kong Yam in an essay in The Straits Times Opinion pages today. On a per person basis, GDP went up from $46,320 to $69,050 from 2004 to last year.

Vibrant, but mind the gap

BEFORE he became prime minister, Mr Lee gave The Straits Times an interview where he spoke about making Singapore a "dynamic economy" and building a vibrant, cohesive society.

Is Singapore today a dynamic economy? Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin thinks so. "PM Lee has made Singapore one of the most compelling global cities in the world. Like his father (former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew), he has permanently changed the course of Singapore. This is an extraordinary achievement especially for a country that was never meant to be."

Singapore has opened two integrated resorts, played host to the Formula One race and Youth Olympic Games, and created the dazzling Gardens by the Bay. An Economist Intelligence Unit survey in 2012 put Singapore sixth best globally in its "Where to be Born" index, and top in Asia.

But that global buzz also comes at a price - cohesiveness.

Mr Lee presided over a Singapore of rising income inequality. The Gini coefficient was 0.460 in 2004 and went up to a high of 0.482 in 2007. The Gini index is a number tracking income inequality from 0 to 1, with 0 representing perfect equality.

One of the signal achievements of Mr Lee's Government is the move to bridge inequality by raising the tranche of subsidies for the lower- and middle-income group in all areas: from an income supplement for low-wage workers to grants for housing to subsidies in health care and childcare.

Whereas subsidies were mainly targeted at the low-income before 2004, subsidies these days are aplenty for households with median incomes and higher. Long- term care subsidies are given to those with per capita household income of $3,100 a month - or up to the 70th percentile.

There is also more risk-pooling in health care. In 2004, the old MediShield health insurance scheme did not cover babies with birth defects. And once you reached 80 years of age, or hit claim limits of $30,000 a year and $120,000 for life, you were on your own.

This year, the new MediShield Life promises universal coverage for life with no claim limits. In one stroke, high hospitalisation costs are done away with as a major source of angst for Singaporeans. Mr Lee has also done much for the older generation, notably in the $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package of health-care subsidies.

By last year, the Gini coefficient was back down, to 0.463. After government transfers and assistance, it was 0.412.

Taken together, the social policies rolled out under Mr Lee, ably assisted by Deputy PM Tharman Shanmugaratnam, are reshaping the social climate in which Singaporeans live. The momentum of change increased after the 2011 General Election. But the shift towards higher social spending started way before that. Workfare, for example, began in 2005 and was institutionalised in 2007.

There is a major reordering of the social compact. The Government is not just taking care of the economy and leaving families to fend for themselves in the marketplace. It will help families and individuals fend off the excesses of the marketplace. Trouble is, many Singaporeans do not see it that way, as they grapple with rising housing costs and feel the heat of competition for jobs.

Angst over crowding

INSTEAD, anxieties on overcrowding abound. Over the past decade, the population went up too fast, before transport and housing infrastructure could cope.

The population in 2004 was 4,166,700. Last year, it was 5,399,200. That is a growth of 29.58 per cent over 10 years, or more than 1.2 million people - almost all foreigners, given Singapore's declining birth rate.

Housing supply failed to keep pace with population growth. Instead, traumatised by the huge surplus of 17,500 unsold new HDB flats in 2002, the Government slowed its building programme mid-decade. From an average of about 30,000 units a year, it built just 2,733, 5,063 and 3,154 units from 2006 to 2008, respectively.

Some observers consider this the greatest policy failure of the last decade. How did a government that prides itself on keeping close tabs on numbers allow an influx of foreigners beyond the housing and transport infrastructure's capacity to cope?

Individual ministers might have been more focused on meeting the aims of their own ministries, but the Government as a whole would be expected to oversee this collective effort. Mr Lee himself did not shirk this responsibility. In the heat of GE 2011, he surprised many when he apologised to the people of Singapore for the mistakes made, in an election rally at Boat Quay.

That public mea culpa and events after GE 2011 raised widespread expectations of political change. Days after the elections, former PMs Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, along with other ministers, retired from the Cabinet, to give PM Lee a clean slate to govern. A review later slashed ministerial salaries.

Change, but slowly

ON THE political front, Mr Lee has made a series of nips and tucks that appear minor, but which add up to something larger.

Take one example: Speakers' Corner, set up in 2000 as a free speech venue, was liberalised on his watch. He opened it up in 2004 to exhibitions and performances, not just speeches. In 2008, public protests were allowed. These are small changes. But Singaporeans took full advantage of the relaxed rules. Today, attending a protest at Hong Lim Park - against the White Paper on Population, for example - has become pretty commonplace.

But it is in what he stopped doing that Mr Lee has made the greatest political impact. He sought to be seen to be fair when he called for polls, reducing the surprise element in timing them. Nor were there wholesale changes to electoral boundaries. He stopped using estate upgrading as electoral carrots.

In GE 2011, opposition candidates' views, not their personal character, were attacked. In choosing fair election campaigns, and in refraining from browbeating opposition candidates, Mr Lee made it less risky for people to enter the opposition fray.

And they did. In 2006, 47 seats were contested. Two opposition MPs won. In 2011, 82 out of 87 seats were contested. The opposition won six.

But Mr Lee stopped short of fundamental reforms to the electoral system that some sought, ignoring calls for an independent election commission, for example.

His world view of politics for Singapore remains embedded in that of his predecessors: that of a Singapore governed by a dominant People's Action Party as stewards of the country's long- term interests. But it is not one that all Singaporeans share. Some hoping to see more fundamental political change under Mr Lee are disappointed.

Former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong, for one, had expected Mr Lee to usher in an era of political change after GE 2011. "But three years later, it's become clear, from incidents like the Population White Paper and the new (Media Development Authority) licensing regime, that the top- down/command-and-control approach remains very much alive in the PAP," he says.

Some say one of Mr Lee's strengths is his ability to listen to different views. But that has led to a view that he has tried to accommodate competing views to the point of the Government seeming populist at times.

He has a friendly and approachable image online and off, and is arguably the PAP's biggest political asset. At public events, he is often mobbed by those wanting to meet him, and take pictures or, these days, selfies with him.

But personal popularity has not translated into a long coat-tails effect for his party: The PAP's vote share fell from 66.6 per cent in 2006 to 60.1 per cent in 2011.

What is one to make overall of Mr Lee's roller-coaster decade?

One can take the optimistic view and say Singapore has weathered crises remarkably well and remained intact as a society, despite the train breakdowns, the Little India riot of last December, a bus drivers' strike, and the sex and corruption scandals. Critics might say there are signs of a ship that is cruising, or even adrift, tossed about by the global winds of change.

I would say that the truth as usual lies in between.

Singapore has done well on the economic front. There is a palpable buzz about the country.

On the social front, the incremental approach, where every small change adds up, has ushered in a Big Bang shift in social policy.

But whether the feel-the- way-forward approach is enough at a time when Singapore is undergoing rapid change remains to be seen. There is every risk that just as the last decade saw a gap widen in income equality, the next decade will see a rift widen in expectations in the political arena.

muihoong@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Tham Yuen-C and Charissa Yong


2004-2014: MILESTONES

2004

  • Aug 12: Mr Lee Hsien Loong, at age 52 and after 20 years of service in politics, is sworn in as Singapore's third prime minister, succeeding Mr Goh Chok Tong.

2005

  • Jan: The ComCare Fund is set up to provide financial assistance to needy families.
  • April 18: After a year-long debate, the Government decides Singapore will have casinos.

2006

  • Feb: Workfare Bonus is introduced to top up the pay of lower-wage workers, recognising that growth no longer delivers the same opportunities to all. It becomes permanent in 2007.
  • May 6: At PM Lee's first general election at the helm, the PAP is returned to power with 66.6 per cent of valid votes.

2007

  • Aug: Reforms to the Central Provident Fund scheme are announced, including mandatory annuities to cover old age, a later drawdown age of the Minimum Sum, and higher interest rates.

2008

  • Feb 27: Terror suspect Mas Selamat Kastari escapes, sparking a review of the Internal Security Department's operations.

2009

  • Jan: The Government dips into reserves to help finance a $20.5 billion stimulus package for Singapore to ride out the global financial crisis.
  • May 27: PM Lee raises the minimum number of opposition MPs from three to nine through the Non-Constituency MP scheme, trims the sizes of Group Representation Constituencies.

2010

  • Feb: The productivity push starts, with $2.5 billion set aside for continuing education and training and $2 billion for the National Productivity Fund.
  • April: Property cooling measures are introduced as property prices hit new heights.
  • May 24: PM Lee and his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak agree to move the Malayan Railway station in Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands, breaking a 20-year impasse on the issue.

2011

  • May 7: The watershed general election is held. PAP wins with 60.1 per cent of the vote share, but it sees the loss of Aljunied GRC to the Workers' Party (WP).

2012

  • Sept: The first phase of the Government's $1.1 billion plan to boost bus services is rolled out.
  • Nov: Parliament passes legislative changes to remove the mandatory death penalty for certain instances of murder and drug trafficking.
  • Nov 26: Singapore's 26-year strike-free record is broken as 171 SMRT bus drivers from China go on strike to protest against poor pay and living conditions.
  • Dec: Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer resigns over an extramarital affair. It triggers a by-election in Punggol East in January, which WP candidate Lee Li Lian wins with 54.5 per cent of valid votes. This follows the WP's win in the Hougang by-election in May 2012.

2013

  • Jan: A White Paper on Population sets out plans to accommodate up to 6.9 million people here by 2030, drawing backlash.
  • June: Websites that regularly report Singapore news and have significant reach are asked to put up a performance bond of $50,000 and be licensed under new licensing rules.
  • Aug: PM Lee announces plans for universal health insurance MediShield Life.
  • Dec 8: A riot breaks out in Little India.

2014

  • Feb: An $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package is launched to provide health-care subsidies for Singapore's pioneers.

Background story

WE ASKED political watchers how they would characterise Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's 10 years at the helm, in a word or a phrase. Here is what they said:

HANDLING NEW SITUATIONS

"Steering the ship of state through uncharted, hazardous waters."

- Sociologist Tan Ern Ser from the National University of Singapore

MANAGING CHANGES

"Challenging. I think the world has possibly changed as much in the last 10 years as it did in the 25 years when Mr Lee Kuan Yew was prime minister of an independent Singapore.

A number of the changes in the last 10 years had the effect of weakening the Government's control over Singapore, such as globalisation and the rise of the Internet and social media, which made PM's job that much harder."

- Corporate counsel and former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong

WELL-MEANING, BUT...

"Well-intentioned. A lot of what he's done and is doing is very far-sighted, but on the negative side it is also rather technocratic and very development-centred. It makes one feel that the ends of development justify everything else.

- Political scientist Reuben Wong from the National University of Singapore

INNOVATIVE LEADERSHIP

"A deeply challenging decade that's given the occasion for us to see some adaptive, innovative and responsive leadership, although some feel it has not been responsive enough."

- Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Gillian Koh