YEARENDER | POLITICS/POLICIES

Look back 2018: Year of transition for politics, policies

PHOTOS: ARIFFIN JAMAR, MARK CHEONG, ST FILE, GOV.SG

The leadership transition in the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) was a major headliner in an eventful year for domestic politics. Issues such as decriminalising gay sex and the multimillion-dollar civil lawsuits against three Workers' Party MPs also dominated the national discourse.

In foreign relations, leaders from Asean and its key partners gathered here for their summit, as Singapore chaired Asean this year. But the meeting that drew world attention was the June summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

As 2018 comes to a close, a maritime dispute has erupted between Singapore and Malaysia. The two neighbours will meet in the second week of next month to discuss the matter, which observers note is not likely to be resolved any time soon.

The Straits Times takes a look at eight events that made the news.


1 CLARITY ON 4G LEADERSHIP


Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat was elected by party cadres to be the first assistant secretary-general of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP)... Next in line is Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, 49, who was named second assistant secretary-general and Mr Heng's deputy, which puts him on track to take on a higher profile when Cabinet is reshuffled next year. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Talk about who will succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong came to an end on Nov 23 when Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat was elected by party cadres to be the first assistant secretary-general of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).

The post indicates that Mr Heng, 57, will lead the party's fourth-generation (4G) team, and in turn signals that he is set to be Singapore's next prime minister.

 

Next in line is Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, 49, who was named second assistant secretary-general and Mr Heng's deputy, which puts him on track to take on a higher profile when Cabinet is reshuffled next year.

Following the changes to the party's central executive committee, PM Lee had said the Cabinet will be reshuffled after the next Budget debate, typically held in March, to put younger 4G ministers in key posts in 2019.


2 STRETCHING THE YOUNGER LEADERS

The biggest Cabinet shake-up in recent years took place in April when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made leadership changes in all ministries, except one - Environment and Water Resources.

It resulted in the younger 4G leaders helming 10 out of the 16 ministries, two more than before.

Meanwhile, three veterans retired from the Cabinet: Minister for Trade and Industry (Trade) Lim Hng Kiang, 64; Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say, 63; and Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim, 62.

Their successors are, respectively, Mr Chan Chun Sing, Mrs Josephine Teo and Mr S. Iswaran.

PM Lee said that to stretch the younger leaders, many were given two ministries and extra responsibilities so that they can progressively shoulder more in the governing of Singapore.


3 QUESTION OF DOING AWAY WITH 377A

To repeal or not to repeal?

The 377A law that criminalises gay sex hit the headlines after India's Supreme Court abolished its own law on it in September.

Among those who argued that Singapore should do the same was Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh, a former law professor.

Professor Koh said: "I would encourage our gay community to bring a class action to challenge the constitutionality of Section 377A."

Disc jockey Johnson Ong Ming, 43, subsequently filed a High Court suit, which is pending.

Several government ministers have since said that it is up to the Singapore society to decide which direction it wants to go on the issue.


A Singapore Police Coast Guard vessel passing a Malaysian government vessel (far left) in Singapore's territorial waters off Tuas on Dec 6.
A Singapore Police Coast Guard vessel passing a Malaysian government vessel (left) in Singapore's territorial waters off Tuas on Dec 6. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

4 SPOTLIGHT ON WATER AND JOHOR BARU PORT LIMITS

Water returned to the national spotlight in June when newly elected Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad criticised the deal with Singapore, saying the price at which water is sold to the Republic is "ridiculous".

A 1962 agreement with Malaysia allows Singapore to draw up to 250 million gallons of raw water from Johor daily at three sen per 1,000 gallons.

Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told Parliament in July that Malaysia lost its right to review the water price when it failed to do so in 1987. Also, neither Singapore nor Malaysia can unilaterally change the terms of the deal, he added.

This month, another dispute erupted between the two neighbours. It was over Malaysia expanding the Johor Baru port limits, so much so that they encroach into Singapore's territorial waters.

Malaysia also sent its government vessels into these waters.


In June, global attention was on Singapore as it hosted the summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
In June, global attention was on Singapore as it hosted the summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. ST FILE PHOTO

5 SINGAPORE TAKES ON HIGH-PROFILE ROLES

Singapore played high-profile roles in the international arena this year, as Asean chair and host of the landmark summit between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

In Asean, it spearheaded efforts like the Asean Smart Cities Network, which connects selected cities with private sector partners to co-develop solutions for sustainable urbanisation. It also held a week-long Asean summit last month, when leaders of regional countries and other nations, such as the US, Russia, China and Canada, gathered here to discuss issues such as free trade and cooperation on defence.

Earlier in June, global attention was on Singapore as it hosted the Trump-Kim summit.

Last month, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told Parliament the summit showed that even though Singapore is a small country, it can deliver when the occasion demands it.


6 WORKERS' PARTY ELECTS NEW CHIEF

After 17 years of being led by Mr Low Thia Khiang, the Workers' Party (WP) has a new chief. Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh was elected unopposed as its secretary-general in April.

Mr Low said the passing of the baton completes the WP's current phase of leadership renewal. Its next step is to attract Singaporeans in their 30s to join the party.

Mr Singh had said that his immediate task as party chief is to reach out to WP members for their views and vision for the party.

It is also important for the newly elected central executive committee to move forward as a team, he added.

There had been uncertainty over whether Aljunied GRC MP Chen Show Mao would challenge Mr Singh for the post, given that he unsuccessfully stood against Mr Low in 2016. However, a contest did not materialise

Social media was also astir last month when former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock and Mr Lee Hsien Yang, the younger brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, were seen having breakfast together at a hawker centre in West Coast.



Historian Thum Ping Tjin was among those who faced lengthy grilling by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods during the hearings. PHOTO: GOV.SG

7 HARD LOOK AT TACKLING FAKE NEWS SCOURGE

Fake news going viral online is such a grave threat to social cohesion and national security that it prompted the Government to set up a parliamentary committee to look at how to tackle the scourge.

In March, the 10-member Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods held public hearings over eight days, with some tense moments when a few individuals were grilled for several hours.

In September, the panel released a 176-page report, with 22 recommendations.

These include enacting laws, urging tech companies to take proactive steps to tackle fake content and creating a national framework to guide public education on falsehoods.

It also proposes targeting the coffers of those who spread fake news by having laws that cut off their digital advertising revenue.

In serious cases, like when falsehoods cause public disorder or interfere in elections, it suggests imposing criminal sanctions.


8 WORKERS' PARTY LEADERS FACE MAJOR LAWSUITS

For 17 days, three Workers' Party MPs and five others defended themselves against multimillion-dollar civil lawsuits that, among other things, accused the politicians of breaching their fiduciary duties in the running of Aljunied-Hougang Town Council.

But WP chairman Sylvia Lim, former WP chief Low Thia Khiang and WP secretary-general Pritam Singh as well as two town councillors argued that they acted in good faith and in the best interest of residents.

 

Amid defending themselves in thecivil lawsuits, the three MPs told Singaporeans that they needed money for their legal bills. They had already spent close to $600,000.

The trio launched an online crowdsourcing appeal on their blog, In Good Faith, and raised about $1 million in four days.

The cases will continue next year, with both sides scheduled to give their closing statements in March. But no date has been given on when Justice Kannan Ramesh will deliver his verdict.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2018, with the headline 'Politics: Year of transition'. Print Edition | Subscribe