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Workers' Party sec gen touches on the economy, society and political changes.

MP Low Thia Khiang’s speech on the Presidential Address

Translation by Donaldson Tan / Head, TOC International / London

This is a non-verbatim translation of the original Mandarin speech. The videos of Mr Low's speech can be viewed here. You can find the Mandarin Transcript here.

Mr Speaker Sir,

For the past few decades, the USA has been in the driver's seat of the World's economic engine. Under Consumerism-led Demand and American Capitalism, the production of consumer goods has not only stimulated value-added growth but also established itself as the heart of global economy.

As a small island-state, Singapore lacks natural resources and a robust domestic market. Hence, the only rational economic strategy is to attract Multi-National Companies (MNC) to set-up their bases in Singapore. This allows the Singapore Economy to leverage on the MNCs' access to global markets for the sale and marketing of products made in Singapore.

This economic strategy has coupled the Singapore Economy to the Global Economy. While the trajectory of the USA and the World Economies stabilised in the past few decades, Singapore built a strong economic foundation at the same time. Singapore has been fortunate on 4 counts:

·         Singapore is home to a hardworking population.

·         The Government has pursued sound economic policies.

·         The People and the Government are united in the pursuit of economic growth.

·         The long-term relative stability of the world economy allowed Singapore to undergo rapid modernisation while sustaining development and accumulating substantial reserves.

Singapore successfully capitalised on the global economic opportunities in the past. This is why we now have the necessary capability and conditions to overcome the current bleak outlook of the global economy. I am confident that Singapore can overcome current and future economic challenges.

Singapore's Economic Model

I am of the view that our economic policies for attracting foreign investment, encouraging enterprises to compete in free market and expand abroad, liberalising domestic market have led to the coupling of the Singapore Economy to the Global Economy. Although these policies caused Singapore to be particularly sensitive to the global economic climate, the same economic polices are also responsible for the success of the Singapore Economy. I believe as soon as the Global Economic Crisis blows over, Singapore will continue its road towards progress and prosperity. The model of the Singapore Economic System is fundamentally correct.

However, given the rise of protectionism and slowing global economic growth, we should tweak the current economic strategy to meet the challenges of an evolving global economy. Singapore has been particularly reliant on MNCs for employment in the manufacturing sector and the marketing of products manufactured in Singapore. Escalating business and labour costs in Singapore is further exacerbated by the rise of India and China to the point that Singapore can no longer compete with low-cost countries as a commercial hub.

In view of the Global Economic Crisis, slow economic growth and drop in global demand, many MNCs have been damaged substantially, with notable exception to highly specialised sector such as the Pharmaceutical Industry and the High-Tech Industry. Singapore should focus on local SMEs in its economic strategy, especially knowledge-based and creativity-based enterprises which will be tomorrow's stars of the Singapore Business Community. The Government should be bold in the investment of these high-potential enterprises, just as it did in the investment of Life Science R&D, and the assistance of these enterprises to target international markets.

In addition, business cost in Singapore grows exponentially during good economic times but does not adjust itself rapidly during bad economic times. Although the main problem now is that there is a sudden substantial drop in global demand and not high business cost, the survival of the private sector depends on the enterprise's ability to contain its business cost. Budget 2009 is a step in the right direction in reducing business cost, but we should not stop short of exploring  long-term solutions such as the adoption of macro-and micro-economic control mechanisms to cap business cost during good economic times and facilitate timely adjustment of business cost during bad economic times. In this way, enterprises are less likely to collapse during bad economic times.

Protect the Jobs and Livelihood of the Singaporean Worker

President Nathan said, “New arrivals and foreign workers may cause concern because of our unfamiliarity with their different accents and habits, and because of competition in workplaces.” I disagree because the situation is further complicated by our national identity. National Service (NS) has instilled a sense of nationality among male Singaporeans who were born after WWII. Every Singaporean understands the importance of NS and the need to make sacrifices for the defence of Singapore.

In the process of nation-building and economic development, every Singaporean contributed without a word of complaint. Yet when the Singaporean ages and is unable to contribute to the economy efficiently, he finds himself only to be compared to foreign workers, ridiculed for being unable to endure hardship and very picky about job opportunities. The impression that the Government gives to the People is that the pastures is always greener on the other side and that foreign talent is an elevated status. This resulted in many people pondering whether it remains meaningful to be Singaporeans. In order to prevent foreign workers and new immigrants to become a future hot-button issue, the Government must clearly prioritise the principle of protecting the Singaporean worker in its policy.

Singapore's Economic Model, in adapting to changes in the international markets, has marginalised middle- and lower- tier workers to the point that they are unable to cope with the pace of development. While they are just as willing to work, employment opportunities available either offer salaries that cannot meeting the national standard of living or prefer young workers. The Government must tackle this challenge in revising the Singapore's Economic Model.

It is unfair and unrealistic to compare Singaporean workers to foreign workers. Many foreign workers come to Singapore to make money and return home after making enough money. Their family members are not in Singapore. They can accept working conditions that contravenes the Employment Act, working 12h a day 7 days a week as long as they deem the salary adequate. On the other hand, Singaporean workers need to support their family and require space and time for their personal lives and leisure. The needs of both categories of workers are vastly different.

Therefore, I think the Government should consider the Public Utilities Board (PUB) to approve special licenses for jobs such as safety management, crane operators, excavation machine operators to only Singaporeans. Such a move protects both the jobs and livelihood of Singaporeans.

In the face of rapid economic development, if human resource shortage results in employers unable to find workers, nobody will fault the Government for relaxing its restrictions on foreign workers. However, in the face of faltering global economic outlook the Government should re-consider different policies that on one hand maintain the competitiveness of the competent Singaporean workers and on the other hand ensure lower tier workers have acceptable jobs.

Although SPUR and other skills training program has eased the unemployment wave, they remain inadequate to solve the unemployment problem. Employers are still not employing. I was informed about a group of retrenched foreign workers still remained jobless for a long time despite received few weeks of training under SPUR. The government ought to focus on getting retrenched workers, who were retrained under SPUR, re-employed so as to minimise the resource wastage of SPUR.

Building a Caring Society, Strengthening Social Cohesion

Singapore is neither an enterprise nor a commercial entity. As a small country, prioritising economic development is still no reason to overlook other elements that contribute to survival and long-term sustainable growth. Social cohesion is one such element.

I had highlighted the growing income gap between the Rich and the Poor in my speech on the 2006 Presidential Address. Although the implementation of income assistance and employment support programs have narrowed the gap between Rich and Poor to a limited extent, it remains unlikely for the income of the poor to catch up as the international market values certain jobs very highly while some other jobs will always be valued lowly. Society thus becomes M-shaped while the middle-class social buffer disappears. Managing social cohesion will be an emerging challenge for the Government.

I believe that Society's values are the pillars of social cohesion that also support the continued development of Society. The Government's agenda should include how to build a caring society. The Government's policy cannot put the economy first by measuring the value of individuals according to their economic contribution. As the population ages, the increase in medical and social welfare spending is inevitable. Hailing the increase in such expenditure as Silver Tsunami speaks volume of the Government's attitude towards the elderly.

The Government refuses to increase the subsidy of tertiary education by citing that the income of university graduates will be higher, while whitewashing tertiary education as affordable by providing bank loans and allowing students to use their parents' CPF money for tuition fees. Tertiary students assuming debt burden prior to graduation also propagates the misconception among young people that it is okay to take out a loan. In view of the current economic climate, is it still right for the Government to assume that a college graduate will have a high pay job waiting for him? Is this assumption still correct? Perhaps it is time for Parliament to debate the real affordability of tertiary education for Singaporeans.

We cannot rely solely on the Government and publicity to cultivate a caring society. Everyone should play a role in our daily lives by displaying civic conscience and engaging in open discussion of what values Society should embrace. This is one area where New Media can play an active role.

People-Oriented Political System                    

I had previously mentioned that Singapore is a nation, not an enterprise or a commercial entity. It is essentially different from the structure of a company, of which shares is the fundamental unit. The most well-off naturally becomes a major shareholder, while the major shareholder is very likely to become a Board member or the Chairman who deputises the running of the company to the managerial staff headed by the CEO. No modern citizens of the 21st century will accept that the nation's leaders own a big part of the country in the same fashion major shareholders own a big part of the company.

Every citizen has an equal stake in this country. Every citizen has equal rights in this country. Under the premise that the political system serves the People, political leadership is born to reflect and exercise the will of the People. Moreover, there should be checks and balances in the political system to ensure political leaders to respect public opinion and the People's will and to prevent political leaders from monopolising power and amending the political system to entrench their positions. Parliament should consist of a Ruling Party and Opposition, while the exercise of power is separated into 3 branches – the executive, the judiciary and the administrative service. This is the design and the concept of the  political system installed by the British at the time of Singapore's independence.

Singapore's parliamentary democracy  has undergone a lot of modifications since Independence , including fundamental changes such as the Elected Presidency and the Group Representative Constituency (GRC). I implore Singaporeans to review these fundamental changes while taking account of the background and the history of our parliamentary democracy. This is in line with one of the the President's policy objectives – the political system must adapt to social change.

President Nathan said, “Our political system encourages strong and effective government, worthy of Singaporeans, and responsive to the people’s needs and aspirations.” These are also the proud words of the ruling party on its re-affirmation of the current political system. Although the ruling party won 67% of votes in the last General Election. I would like to point out that our political system can only be effective if it is People-oriented and not solely through oversight and a series of checks and balances to ensure the effectiveness of governance.

Singapore has transitioned peacefully during the twice replacement of the Prime Minister. This process is an internal PAP matter, just like how China renews its central leadership. PAP's filibuster-proof majority in Parliament gives it extensive legislative power to the point that not only it can amend the Constitution any time, but also full control of the state machinery and its resources. There is no separation of powers in Singapore today. If the ruling party abuses power one day, tramples on civil rights, or becomes corrupt, who can stand up against the atrocity? Up to now, our political system has yet to stand up against a real test. I am unsure whether the political system will remain viable after the overnight collapse of government as seen in the cases of Indonesia and Philippines.

Some people think that the PAP has foresight, it constantly renews itself and that its leaders are honest and credible. Yet who can guarantee the PAP's ministers and political leaders will never be free from corruption? Can honesty really be paid for? Perhaps the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) can be useful in this aspect, but it is also under the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister's Office - how can it suppress corruption?

Some even thinks this is an undue cause because the PAP has internal monitor mechanism and that is impossible for all PAP MPs and cadres to be corrupt. If corruption leads to the secession of half of the talent that would still be ruling the country, Singapore remains a damaged good. The best policy is still external monitoring, supplemented by checks and balances to prevent this.

Although Opposition Parties by design provides parliamentary supervision and checks and balances to ensure the effectiveness of the political system, there are no Opposition Parties in Singapore that has the strength to play this role. The Opposition does not even have the resources to send a sufficient number of candidates for the General Election so that all Singapore citizens can exercise their voting rights. Therefore our parliamentary democracy is no more than a lame duck.

PAP says it has no responsibility to make things difficult for themselves by supporting the Opposition. This is reflective of PAP's winner-takes-all attitude but this is not solely PAP's fault. Every citizen should be concerned of the political system because it is the foundation of this country. While citizens have voted PAP into Government, it does not mean that PAP is given mandate to invoke fundamental changes to the Constitution and the Electoral System such that the PAP monopolises the People's trust, resulting in today's situation. Who is to be blamed?

Some people blame the Opposition for its lack of talent and failing to live up to expectation. Perhaps, but if individuals with lofty ideals face practical barriers to participate in Opposition politics, where can the Opposition find people? Even PAP faces difficulty in recruiting political talent. Even when the Opposition finds ambitious people willing to run for General Elections on its platform, these people may not necessarily enjoy support.

Some people think that is okay for an unelected Opposition candidate to become a NCMP as long as he can speak up and reflect public sentiment in Parliament. However, the role of Opposition also includes the responsibility to ensure the sound operation of the democracy. To do this, the Opposition candidate must enter Parliament on the basis of public opinion. This also enhances the political capital of the Opposition party the candidate comes from. Without the backing of constituency, a NCMP does not have the space to expand the network and enhance the strength of his political party.

In addition, an elected MP is required to not only hold a weekly audience with his constituents, but also petition the government departments to more accurately grasp the ground-level issues that affect the livelihood of ordinary people while building a comprehensive understanding of Government's policy and its administration. Such grass-roots exercise not only contributes to the political standing of a political party but also develops a rational and responsible Political Opposition in Singapore.

It takes time and space to develop an effective political opposition under a democratic political system. A good time to do it is when there is political stability in the country.

Conclusion

Singapore is a small country that exists in the delicate geopolitical balance of Southeast Asia. Its survival depends on its ability to play a significant role in regional economic development and to export military technological prowess to assist the strengthening neighbouring military forces. But such roles are only hardware. It has to be complemented by software components such as social cohesion, national identity and national solidarity. The interoperability between hardware and software will depend on the effectiveness of the parliamentary democracy as the operating system.