Political highlights of 2017

National service recruits celebrating after their Basic Military Training passing-out parade. They are among generations of Singaporean men who have gone through the NS rite of passage since 1967.
National service recruits celebrating after their Basic Military Training passing-out parade. They are among generations of Singaporean men who have gone through the NS rite of passage since 1967.PHOTO: ST FILE

From the 50th anniversary of NS to the Committee on the Future Economy releasing its report, here are the key events to look out for.

Anniversaries

One of Singapore's key institutions will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year.

National service was made compulsory for all 18-year-old males on March 14, 1967, after the National Service (Amendment) Bill was passed in Parliament.

The law enabled the Republic to form a conscript army, which is a main plank of its defence policy.

Events and initiatives are being planned to mark the milestone, and to recognise the contributions of national servicemen.

The Government announced several goodies for national servicemen last year, in appreciation of their efforts. For instance, those who get married or have children will now receive $100 worth of vouchers as a celebratory gift.

Safra, a network of recreational clubs targeting national servicemen and their families, will celebrate its 45th anniversary this year.

A new Safra clubhouse in the north-western part of Singapore is in the works, while the Tampines clubhouse will be upgraded.

Other initiatives to celebrate the anniversaries of NS and Safra include the Safra Singapore Bay Run & Army Half Marathon, a charity swim event, and a celebration dinner to recognise Safra's volunteers and partners.

This year also marks the 75th anniversary of Singapore's fall to the Japanese in World War II.

British Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival led the British surrender party to sign documents at the Ford Motor Factory in Upper Bukit Timah Road on Feb 15, 1942, marking the start of the Japanese Occupation in Singapore.

The Japanese held a victory parade the next day, and renamed Singapore to Syonan-to. Two days later, on Feb 18, the Japanese military police started an exercise to purge anti-Japanese elements. Tens of thousands of Chinese Singaporeans were massacred in the operation.

Last month, President Tony Tan Keng Yam told graduating officer cadets that the 75th anniversary of the fall "is a poignant reminder" of why it is critical to have an army that is always ready and capable of defending Singapore's sovereignty.

"When Singapore first gained its independence, nobody thought we could defend ourselves. Now, nobody doubts that we can, and will."

To mark the event, the National Heritage Board will organise World War II guided tours at significant sites, such as the Former Command House near Bukit Timah Road, and Bukit Brown and Sime Road.

The National Archives of Singapore will also reopen its museum at the old Ford Motor Factory next month after a year-long revamp.

The gallery will showcase the events leading up to the British surrender, life in Singapore under Japanese rule, and the return of the British administration.

Said Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin: "We are still a nation in the making, and NS reminds us that the buck stops with us. It is our responsibility to defend our country with our lives."

He added: "The 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore is a reminder that independence is fragile and precious. It reminds us not to let our guard down."

Singapore's currency would also have been in circulation for 50 years in June.

The Board of Commissioners of Currency, the sole currency-issuing authority, was established in June 1967.

The first set of notes in circulation was of the Orchid series, featuring a spray of orchids alongside the Singapore coat of arms, a watermark of the symbol of a lion's head, and the signature of Singapore's first Finance Minister Lim Kim San.


CFE report

A high-level committee tasked with planning the next phase of economic development will unveil this month its strategies to keep Singapore competitive.

The report of the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) is expected to address the impact of technological disruptions and the rapidly changing global environment on companies and workers.

The recommendations will revolve around five themes: digital economy, jobs and skills for the future, Singapore as a connected city, innovation, and governance.

Businesses hit by the global slowdown, and workers spooked by job cuts, will no doubt be hoping for a fillip to the economy.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, who co-chairs the 30-member committee together with Trade and Industry (Industry) Minister S. Iswaran, highlighted in an interview with The Straits Times last month several key priorities identified by the task force.

They include skills training for workers to help them switch industries and remain relevant, investments in research and development to keep companies innovative, and a closer and better partnership between the Government and businesses.

The Budget will likely respond to some of the committee's recommendations, and will also touch on challenges such as restructuring, he said.

The group has taken more than a year to come up with its plans, holding more than 80 discussions during which they heard from more than 1,000 students, educators, parents, union members, business leaders and academics.

More than 20 panel discussions, seminars and conferences were also held, at which committee members reached out to more than 6,000 people.

OCBC economist Selina Ling said the recommendations will "depend on how the Government views the current downturn".

She believes there may be measures to help companies cope with business costs and manpower issues in the short run, given the hazy outlook.

A Singapore Business Federation survey last week found that companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), are uncertain about the Government's transformation push in the face of slowing growth and disruptions caused by technology.

More than one-third of the companies polled felt the focus of near- to mid-term policies should be on support measures to help them ride out the downturn.

Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Saktiandi Supaat, a member of the CFE whose work in the committee focuses on SMEs, acknowledged the squeeze on such companies.

He suggested that the solution to managing costs lies in "enhancing certain processes, perhaps through automation and innovation".

He added that business owners too need to shift their mindset.

"It's not all about what the Government can do to help. Business owners have to think about how to grow their company, such as by going international," he said.

The committee has been encouraging companies to venture abroad. Some, like the Timbre Group's managing director, Mr Edward Chia, agree that an economic downturn presents opportunities for companies.

Mr Chia, who is also on the task force, said: "As people's expectations on salaries are moderated, it could be a good time to invest in human capital."

But he added that the ability to establish an overseas presence depends on a company having a stable foothold at home.

"I need a good team at home to run the existing business before I can think of going abroad," he said.

Of particular interest will be the Government's approach to digital technologies.

While these technologies have disrupted existing jobs, leading to workers being displaced in some cases, the trend towards digitisation also presents opportunities for businesses and employees, industry players said.

The digital economy is seen as a growth area for Singapore, and efforts have begun to grab the opportunities available.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing, who is deputy chairman of the CFE, had said that Singapore was well-placed to become a cyber-security or e-commerce hub in the region and also a key player in providing digital services, such as in the area of travel and fintech.

Singapore Infocomm Technology Federation secretary Jeremy Tan, who runs mobile payment platform Liquid Group, said: "Disruption will hurt, but the idea is that the disruptor will create better ways of doing things, which should lead to better-paying jobs."


Diplomacy

It will be a busy year for Singapore's diplomats, as the nation deepens bilateral and multilateral ties. 

Singapore and its closest neighbour, Malaysia, are in what some observers recently described as the "golden years" of bilateral ties, having overcome a rocky past to ink a historic deal last month to build an ambitious high-speed rail (HSR) line by 2026.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the two countries had some unresolved issues, including the 1990 Points of Agreement (POA) to move the Malayan Railways station in Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands. 

The POA was resolved after 20 years, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak made a landmark swop deal in 2010. 

In the years since, the relationship between the two countries has visibly warmed.

For the year ahead, they must draft tender documents for the HSR, and call an international tender for an assets company to design, build, finance and maintain the line's rail assets and trains. They will also look to sign a bilateral agreement on a separate rapid transit system link, which will connect the Thomson-East Coast MRT line to Johor Baru. 

But Singapore must continue to monitor political developments in Malaysia that could pose an obstacle, said Mr David Han, a research analyst with the Malaysia programme at the  S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"There have been voices within Malaysia, such as opposition groups, that have questioned the viability of the HSR agreement," he said.

"If they gain prominence, we might expect domestic contestation. Singapore should actively see to it that the project is started earnestly in 2017, and find ways to overcome delays expediently."

As Asean celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Singapore - which will be the Asean-China coordinator until the middle of next year - will take the lead in ensuring the conclusion of a meaningful code of conduct, to lay down the rules of engagement in the South China Sea.

It must do so even as China appears to be irked by what nationalist Chinese newspaper The Global Times said in November were Singapore's "far from neutral" views on the matter. 

Most observers think that a viable code of conduct would be difficult to realise. "One of the reasons China is putting diplomatic pressure on Singapore is that Singapore has taken over the Asean-China coordinator role from Thailand, which managed this role in a way that China found favourable," said Dr William Cook, a senior fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. "A code of conduct that is legally binding or that will manifestly change China's approach to its unlawful claims in the South China Sea is very unlikely."

With the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) all but dead - United States President-elect Donald Trump said he would scrap the trade deal - Singapore is set to turn its focus to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which excludes the US. 

The Asean-led trade pact involves the 10 Asean members and the six countries that the grouping has free-trade agreements with - Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, South Korea and India. Negotiations are expected to be substantially completed by the end of the year. 

Said  ISEAS - Yusof Ishak fellow Norshahril Saat: "Judging from statements made by some TPP signatories, they already have a backup plan, which means more effort will be placed into realising the RCEP. So Singapore will push for it regardless of what happens to the TPP."

Singapore will continue to strengthen other diplomatic ties as well. 

The Republic celebrates its 50th anniversary of bilateral relations with Indonesia this year.

Before President Tony Tan Keng Yam's term ends in August, he is expected to visit several countries - including  Cambodia and Laos - later this month.

And Germany has invited Singapore to the Group of 20 Summit in July.


Elections

Singaporeans will have their first Malay president in 47 years in 2017.

The upcoming presidential election, due by end-August, will be reserved for candidates from the Malay community, after changes to the Constitution were passed last year. Among the amendments was a clause that ensures members of minority groups are elected from time to time.

Next up, the Presidential Elections Act will be amended in January to legislate the date for the reserved election to kick in. The Republic's last and only Malay president, Mr Yusof Ishak, died in office in 1970. Who the future president could be, and whether there would even be a contest, are questions likely to dominate discussions in the run-up to the election.

Some names have already been thrown up as potential successors to President Tony Tan Keng Yam.

Possible candidates from the public sector - who must have spent at least three years in key public offices - include Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob and former Cabinet minister Abdullah Tarmugi, who was Speaker from 2002 to 2011.

Potential candidates from the private sector include Mr Po'ad Mattar, a former managing partner at Deloitte & Touche who sits on the Council of Presidential Advisers, and Mr Bahren Shaari, Bank of Singapore's chief executive.

Even as speculation on candidates continues, some people wonder if they would see a repeat of the four-way contest in the 2011 presidential election.

CHOSEN BY ALL SINGAPOREANS
 

The future president isn't somebody chosen by just 15 per cent of the population, but all Singaporeans. It'll be good if they feel that they are making a choice.

MR ABDUL HALIM KADER, president of Taman Bacaan, or the Singapore Malay Youth Library, on the upcoming presidential election.

Then, President Tan faced off against three others: former People's Action Party MP Tan Cheng Bock, former senior civil servant Tan Jee Say and former chief executive of NTUC Income Tan Kin Lian. President Tan won with 745,693 votes, which was 0.35 percentage point higher than his closest competitor, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who got 738,311 votes.

Ms Nazhath Faheema, 31, a branding and marketing manager, feels that such closely-fought contests can end up being divisive.

She said: "Unless the candidates are equally good, I don't need a contest. Things can turn ugly when people take sides."

But Mr Abdul Halim Kader, president of Taman Bacaan, or the Singapore Malay Youth Library, reckons a contest would send a strong signal that the Malay community is not short on talent.

He said: "The future president isn't somebody chosen by just 15 per cent of the population, but all Singaporeans. It'll be good if they feel that they are making a choice."

To that end, he hopes the Presidential Elections Committee would consider private-sector candidates who do not automatically qualify under the new requirement of helming a company with at least $500 million in shareholders' equity.

There is a "deliberative track" for such candidates, and the committee has the flexibility to decide who qualifies.

Regardless of who eventually assumes office, the presidential election is set to be a game changer.

Ms Faheema believes a Malay head of state would inspire youth from the community to aim for higher-level positions.

But some in the Malay community fear that as long as a reserved race is invoked, Singapore is still far from being truly united.

"That some of us still see ourselves as 'Malay Singaporean' or 'Chinese Singaporean' shows some racial segregation is still present, and that we are not yet a 'Singaporean Singapore'," said Mr Suhaimi Salleh, president of the Prophet Muhammad's Birthday Memorial Scholarship Fund (LBKM).

This year will also see elections abroad. Neighbouring Malaysia is expected to hold its general election, amid the controversy created by international investigations into the government-owned 1Malaysia Development Berhad.

Hong Kong will choose its next chief executive on March 26. The person in the hot seat, typically a candidate approved by Beijing, will have to win over the semi-autonomous city's public - no easy task as evidenced by the rise of pro-independence politicians.

In Europe, France and Germany will have general elections.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, widely seen as crucial to the functioning of the European Union, is up for re-election amid renewed terrorism fears, concerns about immigration and a slowing global economy.

And while Mr Francois Fillon, a former prime minister of France, is expected to win the French presidential election, shock results in the United Kingdom's Brexit referendum and the US' presidential election signal that anti-immigrant National Front leader Marine Le Pen cannot be discounted.


Bills

Proposed legislation to be debated in Parliament this year give an interesting roadmap of what lies ahead for Singaporeans.

Four Bills, in particular, signpost the directions the country will take as new modes of transport gain popularity, computer networks spread into almost every industry, the management of town councils requires greater transparency and the elected presidency is tweaked to ensure multiracial representation.

For many, the Active Mobility Bill will be the most visible as it would have a direct impact on their daily movements .

It sets out what cyclists and users of personal mobility devices (PMDs) need to do when sharing public paths with pedestrians.

The Cybersecurity Bill, on the other hand, will function behind the scenes as it further fortifies the country's computer networks against hackers, who are out to steal personal data and cripple essential online systems.

For Housing Board dwellers, the move by the Ministry of National Development (MND) to tighten the laws governing town councils will improve how their estates' finances are managed, as well as governance.

The amending of the Presidential Elections Act this month will introduce racial provisions, which will reserve the next presidential election for Malay candidates.

The Active Mobility Bill will help prevent conflict between commuters and pedestrians because each group moves at different speeds.

But more importantly for cyclists and PMDs users is that the Bill, in drawing up a framework for them to use public paths, will help to expand the public spaces available to them.

"If we can legalise pavements for cycling, we will have about 3,000km of existing infrastructure for cyclists and PMD users," said Mr Francis Chu, co-founder of cycling group Love Cycling SG.

Mr Chu sits on the Active Mobility Advisory Panel that made recommendations for the proposed law.

The Bill will also make roads safe for all as Singapore takes a step closer to being a car-lite country.

It will introduce stiffer penalties for PMD users who flout road rules, like speeding beyond 25kmh, or using souped-up PMDs weighing more than 20kg, which is illegal.

Education and enforcement are vital for making riders and pedestrians abide by the rules, said Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan, who sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport.

"We have to educate people on how to use shared spaces safely and on respecting other users."

And it is important to enforce the rules, he added. "People will not heed the rules if they know they can get away with it."

The aim of the Cybersecurity Bill is to ensure Singapore stays one step ahead of hackers, who are getting faster, bolder and trickier.

Besides building a strong protective shield around Singapore's computer systems, the Bill seeks to impose stiff punishments to further discourage attackers.

Details have yet to be disclosed.

For operators of Singapore's vital information systems, the Bill requires them to actively secure the systems and report all incidents.

It will also empower the Cybersecurity Agency to manage such incidents and raise standards of these security providers in Singapore.

Almost every industry uses large and complex data sets and systems, and coupled with Singapore's goal to be a Smart Nation, the need for a powerful defence against hackers is all-important, said Frost & Sullivan cybersecurity analyst Charles Lim.

One area of concern he pinpointed is the healthcare sector.

It needs to boost its security, as medical machines that store confidential data of patients are often linked to the organisation's main computer system and, sometimes, even to the Internet.

Another area to keep a watchful eye on is the Internet of Things (IOT), which refers to devices being embedded with sensors and, as a result, can collect and exchange data.

Often, IOT items are vulnerable and, when hacked, the attacker can access other systems linked to the devices, like the popular exercise band people use to track their fitness efforts.

Said Mr Lim: "IOT device manufacturers can sell them freely in Singapore.

"Perhaps, the items need to meet specified cybersecurity standards before they can be sold here."

The proposed law for town councils will give MND greater regulatory oversight of what they do.

The roles of the town councils will be spelt out more clearly and they must follow a code of governance and internal controls.

They must also inform the ministry and residents of people in key appointments, such as the chairman and town councillors.

A fund will be set up specifically for replacing lifts and critical lift parts.

MND can also direct town councils to prepare for crises such as terror attacks and disease outbreaks.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 01, 2017, with the headline ' Anniversaries'. Print Edition | Subscribe