The Online Citizen

Singapore Policy Approach: The search for a new sensible

April 02
17:08 2012

~ By Eugene Lim ~

I was decked out in my Saturday’s best and heading to the launch of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) National Health Care Plan at Peninsula-Excelsior Hotel. As I arrived at the Orchid Room, I could not help but feel disappointed. The audience was sparse. There were no signs of flashing cameras, eager reporters armed with recorders or the reception you would expect for a high-key event. There were no fanciful video cameras (just a small one that probably belonged to a volunteer) and there was only one microphone shared across the panel of ten people.

I saw the microphone passed left and right several times before Dr Gomez paused the panel discussion to ask SDP’s treasurer, Vincent Wijeysingha to say a few words. It was apparent that the treasurer's main goal was to ask for financial support for SDP’s operations. He passed around a fish bowl, in which people started to put in some contributions. These monetary contributions were like water that poured into an empty fish bowl because they would help to keep the fish alive.

Why am I relating this experience? I am not a supporter of the opposition (or any party, in fact). I am simply trying to point out the situation in which our opposition party (or parties) is in. To put it in crude terms, they are quite literally broke. Unlike their counterparts in advanced liberal democracies, opposition parties find it hard to gain access to substantial funding or institutions such as think-tanks, the statistics boards, or the ministries when they are carrying out their research.

Some people may say that I am probably generalising the whole picture since in GE2011, it was apparent that some opposition parties such as the Workers' Party (WP) have shown a high level of organisation structure and utilised an admirable amount of resources. Yet it is undisputable that the unlevel playing field between the ruling party and the opposition parties will continue to be a significant feature in the short- mid term outlook of Singapore’s political scene.

Good for business economy, bad for civil society

Not giving enough support to the opposition and civil society may be a wise choice under economic considerations. But the question here is – is it a good socio-political decision? Discussions with civil society may affect the speed of development but it ensures that all stakeholders play a part in decisions that affect them. Lack of open public discourse prompt ordinary Singaporeans to express their views on online forums/blogs and social media.

This creates a society filled with frustration and members who lash out with criticisms (sometimes unreasonable ones that lack objectivity) at almost everything the incumbent does. People need space to express. Wouldn’t a free speech arena for public discourse be healthier not just for the opposition and civil society, but also for the incumbent?

When the various NGOs were upset that they were not given the capacity to properly discuss the issue of Bukit Brown, the one in-charge attributed it to a ‘mismatch in expectation’. Yet, it is this very mismatch that creates a need for discussion. The objective of the NGOs was to advocate for not building a road. If the agencies had already decided to build a road, there really was no point in holding a discussion. Is efficiency and development that important? What happens to heritage and nature?

The case of healthcare

Our healthcare financing model (with the 3M: Medisave, Medishield, Medifund) may be applauded by the rest of the world but only those under the system can be the final judge. The 3M framework is confusing and forces Singaporeans to fork out more of their rising healthcare cost from their own pocket and the coverage is limited. The construct of our current healthcare system may discriminate between the rich and the poor but diseases do not. It is easy to overplay the principle of self-reliance.

How far should individual responsibility go as the government relinquishes its share of responsibility in healthcare provision? Should we have a system that is all-encompassing but inevitably suffer some instances of abuse – or one that has an extremely high success rate but allows some to fall through the cracks? These tradeoffs are hard to weigh. Yet, one thing that is for sure – it is efficiency versus social justice; and so far, efficiency prevails.

One has to queue for hospital beds when our hospitals are ‘occasionally oversubscribed’. Public hospitals are renting beds from private hospitals to handle the bed crunch. Let us not forget death is a single occurence and if all it takes is for a sick person to make a drastic downturn to lose his life, then it is nothing more than basic negligence and poor care.

Trains, jams and unaffordable 'affordable homes'

When our public trains broke down, the whole nation practically panicked. Fares have been going up but the standard of services has not. When cars broke down on the Central Expressway, it created massive jams – highlighting the fragility of the transport system that is so economically ‘lean’ that any margin of error is devastating.

In light of soaring demand and sticking closely to the idea of build-to-order (BTO), the ballpark figure for a public housing flat today is close to half a million dollars. Read again. Public housing; half a million dollars. Something that would send newspaper headlines screaming in other countries, but something that is slowly becoming a norm in Singapore.

Economic growth achieved on the back of importing labour has created a backlash. As the ratio of Singaporeans to foreigners falls, so does the popularity of the ruling party. Now that this problem has finally been recognised, what is the least painful way for businesses that are addicted to importing labour? To go cold-turkey? Frankly, there is none. A sectoral approach is simply not going to work out because it will be highly distortionary to the labour force. Not to mention, it will be administratively hard to manage. Companies, especially SMEs, are going to suffer because of the cleaning-up work of a lax policy.

Should we really just pursue our policies blindly in the most economically efficient manner? Shouldn’t we leave some room for the important societal considerations? Should equity and social justice always be sacrficed for efficiency? Shouldn't we also provide more help to those struggling with healthcare, transportation, housing or even just trying to make ends meet? It is obvious that we, as a society, need a new, sensible way of thinking through our policies.

Headline photo courtesy of AlterNate Art


  • lim

    The thing about Singapore opposition politics is that some parties oppose for the sake of opposing. An example would be healthcare. Some parties complain the 3M system is broken. But they fail to recognise that it was never meant to cover all healthcare cost. Seen in that light, the author of this article's basis is already misleading.
    Getting the Government to bear the cost = citizens don't pay is incorrect. Government gets its money from taxes. Citizens ultimately pay for everything that the Gahmen spends on (or the Gahmen ends up borrowing). Nothing is free in this world.
    If one desires that, no need to change the entire medical system. Just buy private medical insurance. That will save everyone the trouble of paying the government to administer yet another insurance scheme.

  • BK

    PAP is a very greedy party with no hearts for the people. Those scholars in the civil service are only called upon to come up with various schemes to squeeze the people. And ministers pay also include a myriad of components that can add several months to their already highest salary in the whole universe remuneration. And the PM will be paid double the bonus since he loses out for not having perfomance bonus, what a sacrifice. I think too much selfish deeds and incompetencies on the part of the PAP have been said and made known to the people. I doubt they can change or will change due largely to greed and selfishness. That leaves only one possibility for change to happen ; the long suffering citizens.

  • Libran

    I hate to say this, but Singapore is going to the dogs. If the PAP persists with its population Ponzi scheme (just to achieve fleeting short term GDP growth), there is no future in Singapore. The PAP must take drastic actions now to right the wrongs as mentioned by the writer. Oherwise, our future will be ruined forever, and Singaporeans, if there would still be such an identity left, would curse and swear at Lee Kuan Yew and his son forever. Instead of cherishing Lee Kuan Yew's memory, future generations would be cursing at him! 

  • zero

    I am amazed at the quality of the thesis put forth in the document (the alternative Health Plan) written by panel of doctors/academics. It is a very well researched document running 40 pages and there are many many issues that surely deserve some thought.  It is very disappointing that no singapore academic or think-tank equivalents would want to even study such an enlightening piece of work by professionals in the field. What a waste, i feel so sad for the panel of doctors who mush have sacrificed so much of their time for nothing.
    One of the sadest things in life is haveing a good book or good document, but no one reads.
    Just because it is a document sponsored by someone who had his reputation badly maligned for many years by the incumbent.
    I guess that if Workers Party came out with the same document, there might be some media attention.  Singaporeans just dont know how to think objectively, thanks to the way the incumbent had indoctrinated and brainwashed the masses for 50 years.
    I think a lot of the points mentioned in the alternative Health plan are better than the current system of healthcare in my opinion.

  • Sgcynic

    "If one desires that, no need to change the entire medical system. Just buy private medical insurance. That will save everyone the trouble of paying the government to administer yet another insurance scheme."
    Aren't we back to square one? If those that fall though the cracks can afford any or more private insurance, there wouldn't be a need for the government to step up and do its job, would it?
    A country can be run through policies that targets the mind. A nation requires policies that come from the heart too. A heartless leader loses his followers who reciprocates with the same pragmatic mindset.

  • fantasia

    what a thoughtful article. it drives home the need for not rushing through policies. for looking at them from different angles. it also underlines that delays in policies due to  discussion and argument are not as bad as is constantly pointed out, but has benefits.
    spore has been over-reacting to events. it has gone from 15,000 spare HDB flats to hardly any built. from cutting back on births to importing foreigners – in very large numbers over a very short period of time, etc etc.
    the actions in the last 5 years have been poorly thought thru. these have resulted in crushes on public transport, over-priced and shrinking homes, insufficient medical facilities, a falling standard of living, a growing social unrest, and so on.
    the wonder of it is that those in charge have managed to so easily convince their colleagues in the past that their poor decisions and faulty thinking were correct, even as the people affected have raised all their unhappiness over many issues. worse, it is still happening.
    the question now is how brave is this country over biting the bullet now, to try and undo what's happened in the last 5 or so years. the current thinking is to keep on going with little tweaks. the problem is, the more the shit piles up, the stronger the stench. clearing it up is getting to be a bigger and bigger task. just as sporeans have a habit of abandoning a home becos it needs repairs long ignored, abandoning the country will seem easier to fixing things.
    it is a bit like the hougang by-election. apparently the PM is weighing being highly embarrassed by possible results, instead of facing up to the situation by simply having that vote, taking the blow if any and moving forward. 
    so how long before we admit that the foreigner policy is untenable? after all, one will always need more people to support those who get older. how high can property prices go?
    at the end, it would seem we fear fear more than anything else. and as many know, when one faces up to one's fears, they can often be unfounded. how many ogres will we really meet? here too, face is also more important than doing the right thing. and god forbid that we ever admit we were ever wrong.
    the irony is that even as the govt sneers at so-called populist measures, it seems to have no hesitation in going that route.  

  • black_dot

    We must get rid of the suppressive and oppressive nature of our present political system. Unless the people feels that their jobs and family are not threatened they will avoid showing their faces but will vote for the opposition.
    The system must change and this is in the hands of the people!

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  • eremarf

    Wow – great article, and wonderful insights in the comments. TOC is growing from strength to strength. I can't contribute today but I did enjoy reading your thoughts (they made me think). Keep them coming! :-)

  • looes74

         The real purpose is that they knew that government would ultimately bear the cost if NHS scheme is used instead. And this NHS scheme which is costing british taxpayars a bomb would sink Singapore faster than you think
        The folks have never stayed in UK before. They don't dare to mention the long waiting list patients got to bear with

  • getyourfactsright

    I think it is very important to understand the systems and how they operate before we actually lay out our comments. We should not see healthcare provision as a zero-sum game between not paying anything like the NHS and one which require huge out-of-pocket spendings like the 3M (up to 70% of healthcare spending). There are schemes that are in-between and there are evidence that shows that they are much more equitable and at the same time, does not compromise quality.

    Surveys have show that Singaporeans felt the the quality of healthcare has been dropping. the above arguments brought out about the dangerous road spiralling to ballooning debt has almost zero basis. 

  • Big Splash

    The 3M is like the symbolic umbrella as seen in the above picture.
    If the driver would care to help why couldnt he reduce his speed. That the medical bills are speeding up at a rate which is becoming more unbearable to the man in the street, the government is not looking back at the bad impact it has left behind, as depicted by the sheer arrogance of the driver in the car. This elite driver is fast approaching his fate at the end of the road not too far from now. Happy motoring you silly driver!

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  • Big Splash

    And people are cursing you day and night for what you have been doing unto them. You well deserve it.

  • georgia tong

    Thanks for the insightful analysis. Great article

  • http://Website(optional) iworkhardsometimes

    Governing using equations is like playing a computer game, everything you build, every robot, every drone has a predictable output 24/7 and does not require maintenance.

    if a drone’s output rating is 1000 resources/sec, it can build a 500000 resource building in 500seconds.

    since there is no margin of error, it only works in a virtual world.

  • looes74

    Sure Gets, then tell us the in between scheme then
    SDP & Reform folks don't realise that by wholesale copying ang mo scheme would lead to total disaster.
    Especially I am riled by SDP scheme of reducing defence budget
    It makes Najib, TOC admired leader, very very happy
    Frankly, I would prefer civil society groups unlike TOC take lead on this
    Lets do away with this political party schemes. We have seen worse in ang mo land. Countries such as PIGS going down the hill & over here we are sucking ang mo ahem……Blame it on SPGs la weh


    what policies except those that screw up thr lives of good and honest rare breed of singaporeans.
    the miws think they can 'remake' singaporeans?
    they are just dreaming.
    it took us 40 odd years to becoming a NATION.
    it will take another 50 years to rebuild what the miws destroyed in the last ten years.
    thanks to pM LEE.

  • son of s

    It is something to do with the mighty pay these office holders are getting. 
    They dare not open their mouths to say something in Parliament or anywhere things that the top
    men have not said before. Look at how they speak in parliament. Not intersting at all.
    Compare with even the malaysian parliament. Each speaker is his own man. He is seen to think as he speaks.
    Eighty odd people are castrated . They see no evil and speak no evil.
    No wonder we lurch from crisi to crisis. After Goh Keng swee there are no geniune attempts to plan .
    No can anyone one plan. Each one looks up to the great planner. if that thing has not crossed his mind,
    don't say it.

  • son of s

    What a waste of taxpayers' money to shut up 80 odd parliamentarians and use the brains of only the aging one and the younger off-shoot.

  • son of s

    The Brains of 80 officeholders , struck dumb and shut out from  contributing to the planning the economic and social wellbeing of the citizenry. No wonder the best and only plan of this Governement  is to bring in shiploads after shiploads of foreigners and still not enough.
    Why are 80 brains locked? because the salary is too good to be true. Cannot risk its loss. Work elsewhere , get nothing near such wonderful sums of money.
    So we the office holders, see no evil and speak no evil. We leave it to the PM to hear and speak as he wills.

  • son of s

    In search of the New Sensible, even the fierce military junta of Myanmar has found it wise to let the water find its own level and allowed Aung San Su Kyi her turn at governing the country. Almost all seats were won by her party in the  elections carried out yesterday.
    Will the Myanmar military junta unleash their version of the ISD or their defamation lawyers on Aung? Time will tell. The Ruling Elite in Singapore should not brush aside what is taking place in the Arab Springs and now in Myanmar. A new sensible in indeed on the horizon which is life bearing and sustainable for the long years of the 21 st Century.

  • votethemOUT

    60.1% gave mandate last GE and the gov now has "FREE HANDS" to continue their screw. PM promised reduce influx and affordable housing. But look, 30% increase in foreigners in 2011 and 3-room HDB is now price close to half a milion.
    This is a river of no return, they will continue to massive import and raise prices and make changes to CPF scheme.
    Complain for what? Majority of SG happy with them and allow them to do whatever they want to do. I think there is breaking point of how much Singaporeans can take but it looks like Singaporeans can take pain easily, just like frogs being boiled alive.

  • Robert Teh

    Netizens are the defenders of justice, fair-play and truths. They are united by the common shared values of Singaporeanism, standing for togetherness, loyalty to Singapore, bravery to fight for fellow countrymen’s freedoms and rights, without selfishness or condition, passion and persistence to voice their views and opinions on government’s policies and commitment so that they will mature as a democracy and to stay active in social media posting at least once a month, tirelessly even if government deliberately refuses to acknowledge or heed them because of their commitment to the spirit of Singaporeanism.

  • son of s

    What to do but take the pain. The Ruling  Party has aligned all the State Institutions against us. Voting them out is the only action. Even this with such a high proportion of new citizens will be not feasible. Like the countries  before they enacted  the Arab Spring, we have just to hold our heads in our heads and bear it.

  • Oppositin

    I am not a pap supporter. But sometimes, rather than just bashing the pap, we should also appreciate the things that they have done. For example, in terms of hospital beds, think if go across the border or other countries, u can sometimes wait for months before an op cos no bed or doc. And traffic jams, although there are some in singapore during peak hours, how abt other places whereby everyday going to work can be like stuck in jam for few hours.
    Nevertheless, I am not a pap supporter and I am still not happy by the way they run the country where things are just becoming too expensive for the general population while they themselves are paid millions and always think that they are the best and have serious attitude problem and always ram down policies down our throat.  And also the fact that they lock up our cpf. And the fact that they open the floodgate to foreigners resulting in a loss of identity of singaporeans and overcrowding .
    On conclusion, I urge all non pap supporter to always sometimes appreciate what they have done.
    Pap is getting from bad to worse but we do not need to agree that everything that they do is wrong. 

  • Robert Teh

    If PM Lee truly believed that he has changed in his approaches to people, he should answer honestly the following questions:-
    (1) What made him apologize to Singaporeans in GE 2011.
    (2) What are the mistakes he promised to address and change?
    What has he done about (1) and (2)? Are the mistakes admitted corrected such as the rising costs of living and housing, influx of foreigners that cause problems in employments of many of our own citizens who remain unemployed?
    If the answers to (1) and (2) are full of hypocrisy and denial, or excuses blaming on the people, then there is clearly no change.
    What people want to see is real change, not cosmetic change. There is no need for long speeches, just answer yes/no to (1) and (2).


  • Cosmetic Change

    If PAP can reform the political system and economy system to free market. Then I will believe their sincerity. Otherwise it just cosmetic change as they only change the ingredients but did not change the soup. 

  • The Pariah

    Indeed, opposition politics is an UPHILL task in Singapore, partly made so by the ruling PAP Party but partly due to a potpourri of other reasons. 
    Hence, it is a test of one's Commitment, Passion and Courage to step into opposition politics – as did so many who stepped up to the plate in the last GE 2012 and prior elections. 
    Will they continue to do so in future?  Will they have the Strength of Character to bid their time and to choose their fights strategically? 
    How?  By putting People over Party or over Self.  NOT by their opportunism and pettiness which – in the end – made the PAP's day?