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President's Address raises questions of why Parliament was prorogued in the first place.

President’s Address: Regurgitating only the existing priorities

TOC Current Affairs Desk

When the session of the 11th parliament was prorogued on 13 April 2009, at the end of the day’s sitting, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the government has regularly prorogued Parliament midway through the term. This allows the government, when it reopens Parliament, to set out new priorities for the rest of the term of the government. 

Education

The second session of parliament was convened yesterday, with high anticipation of the President’s Address. He was to announce the priorities, policies and programmes of the government for the remainder of its current term of office.  The President’s Address, “Building Our Future Singapore in an Uncertain World” though, was a huge disappointment.  It spelled out no new programme/policies, neither did it set any new priority for the reconvened parliament. 

In his Address, the President rightly spoke about the education improvements that have occurred over the last few years. The recent change of moving away from primary 1 and 2 examinations is encouraging. It opens a new chapter for a new vibrant learning culture in schools. Of course, this does not mean that we have moved away from our overtly strong emphasis on academics, but it signifies some progression. 

The President’s promise to “especially ensure that children from vulnerable families enjoy every opportunity to reach their full potential in education” is highly commendable.  But one cannot but wonder if this is another case of pure rhetoric of “more help for the needy”, where “more help”, actually does not mean very much. 

A good case to highlight this is the new nationwide scheme spearheaded by the various race-based self-help groups, where a fund was set up to provide subsidised tuition at up to 90 per cent of the typical $50 to $90 fees, for about 1,000 children from needy families.  The combined fund for this programme was to be co-funded with the five community development councils, and it has a budget of $500,000 per annum.  But statistics from the Ministry of Education’s financial assistance scheme and school breakfast programme; and statistics from Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund and COMCARE financial assistance scheme, suggest that there are more than 1000 students who have to be helped through such tuition programmes. 

What one also needs to question is what concrete measure have been undertaken to strengthen higher education, given the dip in university rankings recently? Besides, the offering of more degrees does not stipulate a better education in any sense. In addition, the implementation of university town has not convinced many undergraduates of the improvements in the quality of our education. 

Jobs

The President in his Address also lauded the SPUR scheme, Jobs Credit scheme, and the Special Risk-Sharing Initiative as “decisive measures”. However, being decisive should not be confused with being effective. Has the outlay for the Job Credit scheme, that required the unprecedented withdrawal from the reserves, staved off retrenchments in the numbers that it was projected to do? What is the long-term viability of the SPUR scheme? Back-end and lower value-added jobs continue to be siphoned off by the low-cost and labour-intensive giants of India and China – so how much is the retraining effective in allowing the worker to be retained?

Social harmony

Noting that the influx of foreigners has been a prickly source of social discontent, the President urged citizens to “appreciate” their presence while asking the “newcomers … to adjust and integrate”. While the tensions of immigration are not peculiar to Singapore, the government has to address the disparity between male Singaporeans and the foreign counterparts – particularly in lieu of the latter’s National Service liabilities. While conceding that national defence is vital, disruptions attributed to military training can adversely affect the employment prospect of male Singaporeans. The government would do well then to ensure that the influx of cheaper and NS-free foreigners, who will similarly bask in the economic success of our nation, is not at the expense of male Singaporeans who have toiled for the defence of the nation.

Another familiar refrain of social harmony is heard when the President advised that Singapore go beyond being only “a collection of different communities”; which is a laudable goal, and one which the government itself can do much to advance. The “common Singaporean identity” will remain distant as long as the quasi-racial divide and rule policies is maintained – from the CMIO (Chinese, Malaya, Indian, Others) racial classification to the perpetuation of ethnic-based self-help groups and the unilateral appointments of minority MPs to become de facto ethnic community leaders.

Pertinent questions and issues not addressed

When the President spoke about “evolving our political system”, he seemed to favour a ‘one dominant party’ government for Singapore when he said, “Our political system encourages strong and effective government…in a more challenging and uncertain world, a sound political system and good leadership are all the more important”.  Even his call for self-renewal of political leadership seems especially aimed at the ruling party. 

The President passed up the chance to ask some pertinent questions of the government over some very visible failings.  For example, there is no mention of the losses by Temasek and the GIC, even though these amount to sums that are larger than our annual budget - the loss over the Bank of America alone is bigger than the Jobs Credit Scheme.  Should this necessitate that we adopt a more conservative manner of investing?  How about the manner in which the escape of Mas Selamat Kastari was handled?  It now appears that he slipped quite easily through our dragnet.

Who wrote the Address?

Perhaps, the President’s Address was true to the Westminster tradition; where the Queen’s Speech is not prepared by the monarch herself, but by the cabinet. This is reasonable, since the opening speech usually addresses the legislative agenda that the incumbent government wants to pursue.  But as Singapore has shed much of the Westminster tradition, it begs the asking, “Who prepared the President’s Address? Was it the President himself or the cabinet?” Whoever prepared the Address, there was an apparent and disappointing lack of effort to go beyond superficial and motherhood statements and question key assumptions.

Although the President spoke about various issues in his Address, his call for committing “ourselves to build on what we have achieved”, provides no new initiatives and in reality only regurgitates the ruling party’s programmes and policies over the decades; which leads one to ask, “What was the real reason for parliament to be prorogued because the President’s Address only emphasized and re-empasised the existing position and priorities of the current government?”    

It may be too early to jump the gun, however. Parliament reconvenes next week to debate the President’s Address. That deliberation is the one that should be judged. The newly reconstituted Government Parliamentary Committees, with many MPs from the class of 2006, may finally leave their mark.

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