Seizing back the political initiative

The new Pioneer Generation Package will help people like Madam Mon Atan, 76, who does not have MediShield and Medisave. The retired cleaner, who has ischaemic heart disease and asthma, says getting more help with medical costs will give her peace of
The new Pioneer Generation Package will help people like Madam Mon Atan, 76, who does not have MediShield and Medisave. The retired cleaner, who has ischaemic heart disease and asthma, says getting more help with medical costs will give her peace of mind. -- ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Shift in governing philosophy from a tight fist to extending a helping hand

FOR the first time since the 2011 General Election, I got the sense yesterday that the Government is seizing back the political initiative.

After two years of relentless hammering from citizens on its immigration policy/population policy/elitist system/inability to listen/ad infinitum, it changed several key policies, like slowing down the influx of foreigners and speeding up the building of train networks and public housing flats. But it also appeared uncharacteristically diffident.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister delivered a remarkable speech that might be viewed by some as a new government agenda, a mid- term election pledge, or a lover's ardent promise of a fresh start.

It was Mr Lee Hsien Loong's 10th National Day Rally speech since he became Prime Minister in 2004 and his most assured. The venue was the Institute of Technical Education headquarters and College Central in Ang Mo Kio, a technical training institute for less academic students.

It was a good place to flesh out the new governing philosophy which can be summed up in a phrase: the shift is from a tight fist to a hand up - extending a helping hand to people in need.

For a long time, when anyone needed help, the welfare-allergic PAP has preached individual self- reliance; family support; the community's many helping hands. Only when all avenues have been exhausted, should people turn to the State. This "tough love" approach - some might say tough luck would sum it up better - meant a person could go bankrupt or an entire family lose their home when a breadwinner is out of work, falls very ill or goes to prison.

But the Government recognises that given the changes taking place in societies here and abroad, arising from technological change and globalisation, it can no longer be the helping hand of last resort, but must be proactive in offering citizens a hand up.

It is doing so by trying to level up the chances of poor children, via generous childcare subsidies so they can get ready to compete in school. More places in top schools will be kept for students who may not have top grades but excel in other areas, and students without connections to these schools.

The biggest proof of this new philosophy: MediShield will be revamped to cover everybody, including those with prior illnesses, and for life. Extending coverage to the most vulnerable - who have the biggest medical bills - means big jumps in premiums. Mr Lee pledged that the Government would pay premiums of those who can't afford it, thus removing a previously obdurate obstacle to expanding Shield coverage.

This is the biggest - and most welcome - change to MediShield since its inception in 1990. I, for one, had not expected the PAP to cross this ideological Rubicon so quickly.

Mr Lee summed up the shifts in his Government's approach thus: "One, to level up people; two, to share the risks, to make sure that whatever happens in life, you will not be alone. And three, to keep our system open, mobile so that if you have talent, you can rise."

This new government approach to policy, mid-term election pledge and lover's promise, all wrapped in one: You are not alone, the State (with all its resources) is by your side.

(Crucial proviso, which Mr Lee laid out: But the individual and the community must also step up.)

Fiscal conservatives will ask: Where's the money coming from?

Market believers will fret: Will this blunt the drive to excel?

Reassuringly, some things don't change: Fiscal sustainability remains a guiding principle. So MediShield "must break even"; Medisave can be used for more outpatient treatments, but contribution rates will have to rise. At some point, taxes will have to go up.

As for the drive to excel, meritocracy remains the organising principle of Singapore society. Academic standards remain rigorous. But whereas poor children might have been expected to run the schools race barefoot and on bread and plain water, (in a manner of speaking), now the Government will make sure they are properly shod and fed to compete against better-off peers. But they run the race on their own merit, with no handicap to aid their scores.

You can call it a move from competitive meritocracy to a more managed one, where effort goes to ensuring every generation gets a more equal chance to compete against those with accumulated wealth and privilege.

As in the past, ministers will flesh out details of the policy shifts in the next weeks.

But the outline of the new philosophy gleaned from Mr Lee's speech shows that the Government is now ready to chart a bold, new way forward. Mr Lee was right in calling his Government's policies not just plans, but acts of faith in Singapore. He spoke of a fresh start, and a new beginning.

But will Singaporeans buy that vision?

This is the second part of the equation, about which little can be predicted.

Today, a fractious, querulous electorate is accustomed to throwing stones at just about everything the Government does.

Liberal-minded Singaporeans will be disappointed that Mr Lee spoke about getting the politics right, but said nothing about political change. No concessions were made on issues liberals care about, such as Internet and media freedom or giving more space to dissenting voices. Opposition supporters will note that every sentence uttered by Mr Lee was predicated on the assumption that the PAP will remain the dominant party in Singapore.

As MP Yeo Guat Kwang reportedly did at an event with businessmen, the PAP is wooing voters with songs that have titles like: "Do You Know I Am Waiting For You?", and "I Am By Your Side".

Most pointedly: "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"

That is the 2016 question. Clearly, the wooing starts now.

muihoong@sph.com.sg