2014 in Review: People and Policies

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean speaking in October at the launch of the reprint of Battle For Merger, which features 12 radio talks Mr Lee Kuan Yew gave in 1961 to convince Singaporeans of the need for merger. MDA banned a film with interviews o
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean speaking in October at the launch of the reprint of Battle For Merger, which features 12 radio talks Mr Lee Kuan Yew gave in 1961 to convince Singaporeans of the need for merger. MDA banned a film with interviews of political exiles by Ms Tan Pin Pin (left).ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean speaking in October at the launch of the reprint of Battle For Merger, which features 12 radio talks Mr Lee Kuan Yew gave in 1961 to convince Singaporeans of the need for merger. MDA banned a film with interviews o
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean speaking in October at the launch of the reprint of Battle For Merger, which features 12 radio talks Mr Lee Kuan Yew gave in 1961 to convince Singaporeans of the need for merger. MDA banned a film with interviews of political exiles by Ms Tan Pin Pin (left).ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong was the first wheelchair-using parliamentarian in the House.
Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong was the first wheelchair-using parliamentarian in the House.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
A mother reading And Tango Makes Three during the Let's Read Together event on July 13. The event was held in response to the NLB's decision to pulp three children's books featuring same-sex parents and attracted 400 people, including children.
A mother reading And Tango Makes Three during the Let's Read Together event on July 13. The event was held in response to the NLB's decision to pulp three children's books featuring same-sex parents and attracted 400 people, including children.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
In May, PM Lee and WP chief Low crossed swords over "constructive politics". Last month, AHPETC's poor report card came under scrutiny.
In May, PM Lee and WP chief Low crossed swords over "constructive politics". Last month, AHPETC's poor report card came under scrutiny.PHOTOS: TV GRAB, DESMOND WEE
In May, PM Lee and WP chief Low crossed swords over "constructive politics". Last month, AHPETC's poor report card came under scrutiny.
In May, PM Lee and WP chief Low crossed swords over "constructive politics". Last month, AHPETC's poor report card came under scrutiny.PHOTOS: TV GRAB, DESMOND WEE
The Pioneer Generation Package gives generous medical subsidies to older Singaporeans.
The Pioneer Generation Package gives generous medical subsidies to older Singaporeans.ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

From paradigm shifts in policymaking to protests in Hong Lim Park, there was plenty for politicians, analysts and residents alike to chew on in Singapore's political scene in 2014. Charissa Yong peers at five Ps of political peaks for the year.

1 Policy shifts

Longstanding policies were paved over with new paths as the Government pushed on with its "new way forward" to a more compassionate and inclusive society.

One pathway was particularly noteworthy: easing the anxiety of elderly Singaporeans about their medical bills.

The unprecedented $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package, unveiled in February's Budget, gives generous medical subsidies to about 450,000 older Singaporeans for the rest of their lives.

Another move to assuage medical worries was MediShield Life, a groundbreaking universal health insurance programme that will give coverage to all Singaporeans and permanent residents for life.

It was endorsed in Parliament in July and will start next year.

But the issue that roused robust debates, as well as shrill protests by some in Hong Lim Park, was the Central Provident Fund (CPF) scheme.

There were Singaporeans who wanted an assurance that they could withdraw a lump sum when they retire.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised them in August that the issue would be looked into, even as a group of experts is studying ways to make the scheme more flexible.

They will give their recommendations next year, when the fund will turn 60.

In the meantime, the rigid focus on grades in education is passe, the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (Aspire) committee said.

Intent on dispelling the notion that a university degree is the only path to success, it wanted people to plot a new passage for their future by developing relevant skills for the workplace and not be caught up in the belief that paper qualifications are all that matter.

000633455014e0005

2 Politics

In April, Parliament House was enveloped in silence as lawmakers took a break midway through the Government's term of office to refresh themselves.

On returning in May, President Tony Tan Keng Yam set out the Government's key priorities for the rest of its term.

In the ensuing five-day debate, one standout was the fiery exchange between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang, who crossed swords over the issue of "constructive politics".

Mr Low argued that "however politics is described and coloured, it is still politics" and "what is important is the outcome of the political process".

PM Lee countered that this was "breathtakingly cynical": Politics is what one believes in and wants to achieve for Singapore, he said.

He highlighted effective policies, integrity and people rallying round a common cause as some traits of constructive politics.

The clash set the stage for recurring face-offs between the WP and the Government and ruling party. Office-holders and MPs from the People's Action Party (PAP) took the WP to task on several fronts, such as its apparently lacking a vision for the country and the tardy way its town council deals with arrears in residents' service and conservancy charges.

In February, the accounts of the WP-run Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) failed to get a clean bill of health for the second year running, from auditors it engaged.

The Auditor-General's Office stepped in to audit them a week later.

Last month, the annual report card for town councils gave AHPETC a poor grade for corporate governance and overdue fees from residents. It sparked a spirited - and often sarcastic - back-and-forth between PAP office-holders and WP leaders.

One remark pointed to WP's "sound of silence" for failing to explain fully the reasons for the arrears. The WP reiterated it would give a full response in due course.

AHPETC also ran afoul of the law by holding a Chinese New Year event without a permit. Having been found guilty, it will know its sentence on Christmas Eve.

0000233455014e0001

3 Public debates

Civil society activism grew as more Singaporeans spoke up for causes, be it lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights, pro-family norms or concerns about the Central Provident Fund (CPF) and retirement adequacy.

A record 26,000 pink-clad LGBT supporters attended the annual Pink Dot picnic in Hong Lim Park in June. In a pushback, Christian and Muslim groups held a campaign the same weekend, urging followers to "wear white" in support of family values while at religious services.

The so-called "culture wars" also veered into the realm of children's literature. In July, the National Library Board (NLB) said it would pull from its shelves and destroy three children's titles featuring same-sex parents after complaints that the books did not promote family values. The decision made headlines around the world.

In protest, some local writers boycotted NLB events, while 400 people, including children, attended an event at which the banned books were read out.

Noting the deepening fault lines between different segments of society, political leaders like Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cautioned against society becoming polarised, and advocated moderation instead.

At Hong Lim Park, a series of protests against the CPF scheme, each attracting a few hundred people, ended in September when unruly conduct by some disrupted an adjacent charity carnival.

Six people were taken to court for being a public nuisance. Two among them each face an additional charge of organising a demonstration without approval.

Last month, blogger Roy Ngerng was found by the courts to have defamed PM Lee by suggesting, in a blog post, that he misappropriated CPF savings. The court ruling was a first here on a defamation suit by a political leader over online remarks.

0000433455014e0003

4 Politicians

Eight fresh faces brought a whiff of new expectations to Parliament this year. And for the first time, a wheelchair-using parliamentarian rolled into the House in September when corporate lawyer Chia Yong Yong was sworn in, with eight others, as a Nominated MP.

Ms Chia, 52, caused a stir last month when she suggested an amendment to a clause in the Pioneer Generation Fund Bill. The clause implied pioneers could be subjected to means-testing, she said.

Although Parliament passed the Bill without change, the Government later said it accepted her suggested amendment, which would be tabled at an opportune time.

New roles were also given to some familiar faces. Significant among these were the promotions of Mr Tan Chuan-Jin and Mr Lawrence Wong to full ministers, a move that made the core of the fourth-generation political leadership clearer.

Mr Tan is Manpower Minister while Mr Wong is Minister for Culture, Community and Youth.

Also moving up were Senior Parliamentary Secretary Sam Tan and backbencher Lam Pin Min.

Mr Tan was made Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office and tasked to focus on social policies, while Dr Lam became Minister of State for Health. These moves to strengthen the Government's social and health teams were in keeping with its push to strengthen social safety nets and cater to the health- care needs of an ageing population. Backbenchers Low Yen Ling and Denise Phua were also named mayors.

Meanwhile, a new political party, Singaporeans First, made its debut in May, in an otherwise quiet year on the opposition front. It is led by former presidential candidate Tan Jee Say.

0000333455014e0002

5 The past

History was far from buried in the past as the Government and some groups differed over the portrayal of events, especially the fight with communists, in Singapore's formative years.

In September, the Media Development Authority's (MDA) decision not to allow public screenings of To Singapore, With Love, a documentary featuring interviews with political exiles, touched a nerve in many.

The MDA said the film by Ms Tan Pin Pin gave a distorted account of history that glossed over the communists' use of violence.

Activists, however, panned the decision as censorship. The debate took to sociopolitical websites as some political exiles gave their accounts of events, which the Government rebutted.

The PAP Government's fight against the communists in the 1950s and 1960s was also revisited in a reprinted book, Battle For Merger. It featured 12 radio talks that former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew gave in 1961 explaining what the fight against the communists was about, and why there was a need for merger with Malaya.

There were yet more reflections on the past and its bearing on present-day Singapore as anniversaries were celebrated. The PAP marked its 60th year with a series of events, including a celebration last month at the Victoria Concert Hall, the birthplace of the party in 1954.

Key episodes in Singapore's early years were commemorated too, as the nation turns 50 next year.

A marker at the Esplanade Park this month honours the 8,000 people killed or wounded in Malaysia and Singapore in the fight against communists, while a memorial will be erected on Dhoby Ghaut Lawn, opposite MacDonald House in Orchard Road.

It will honour the three people killed and more than 30 wounded in 1965 when the building was bombed by Indonesian saboteurs.