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Delivered with apparent sincerity - but too much rhetoric. Tng Ying Hui / Andrew Loh.

SDP ND Message – More substantive argument needed

Tng Ying Hui / Andrew Loh

The Singapore Democratic Party’s national day message  was as usual more hardhitting than those of the other opposition parties.

The party’s message this year was delivered by four neatly-dressed “women democrats”, in the four national languages, via a rather well-produced video which was posted on its party website and on Youtube.

Ms Chee Siok Chin, a member of the party’s Central Executive Committee, started off by suggesting that Singaporeans “should take stock of our progress as a nation”. She then took aim at the ruling People’s Action Party. “Now, more than ever, Singaporeans are beginning to realise that the ruling party is making life more and more difficult for us,” she said.  She turned to the income gap between the “wealthy and ordinary people”, saying that this gap “has widened to an unhealthy degree”. She blamed this on the “ruling circle, made up of elites, [caring] mainly for the rich and powerful, most of whom are foreigners.”

While Ms Chee’s message may appeal viscerally to Singaporeans, one wonders if it would have any substantive effect. By and large, Singaporeans do accept and realise that the income gap is partly caused by globalisation, which most country experience. To pin the blame on the “rich and powerful” alone is not very convincing.

While the income gap indeed has widened, it is also true that the government has tried to address the disparity. And it has done so through many schemes in the last few years, such as the Progress Package, U-Save, S&CC rebates, CPF top-ups, New Singapore Shares and now the Jobs Credit Scheme.

As a result, Singapore’s income gap – as measured by the Gini Coefficient – narrowed for the first time in 10 years last year. It fell from 0.489 in 2007 to 0.481 in 2008. If government help is taken into account, the figure drops further - from 0.479 to 0.462.

As globalisation spans the whole globe, disparity of income has to be acknowledged. Perhaps it is too simplistic for the SDP to pin the entire blame on the government – and to particularly charge it for “[caring] mainly for the rich and powerful, most of whom are foreigners”, without any substantiation of facts. We’ll come back to this later.

Nonetheless, globalisation  is not an excuse for the  government to ignore the seriousness of the income gap problem.

Perhaps what the SDP should have highlighted is Singapore’s high dependency on international trade which will enhance its vulnerability vis a vis  the ills of globalisation. As statistics have shown, the “incomes among the bottom 30 percent of households had actually fallen since 2000” (New York Times). The inequality between the wealthy and the lower income should be more urgently addressed by  policymakers. With our falling GDP (Singapore’s real GDP in 2008 was 7.7 per cent, a fall from the previous year of 7.9 per cent) and with the economic crisis still in our midst, the smaller Gini Coefficient attained last year is in danger of being widened again.

Ms Chee’s claim that the government “cares mainly for the rich and powerful, most of whom are foreigners” is oversimplified and biased. The government has created schemes that aim to tide many through the economic crisis, such as the jobs credit scheme. They have also repeatedly emphasized that narrowing the income gap is their top priority. Perhaps, what the SDP should have focused on is the   the effectiveness and results  of the schemes, instead of using rhetoric to score political points.

HDB and citizenship

Another example  raised in the SDP message was the issue of elderly having to “toil for a living”  because their CPF contributions have been used to pay for ever-rising HDB prices which are controlled by the Government, said Jaslyn Go. She also accused the government of “[reneging] on its promise” but she did not specify what this promise was. Nonetheless, because of this broken promise by the government, “more and more Singaporeans, young and old, are losing the roof over their heads”, she said. Ms Go attributed this to the government turning public housing into a ‘profit-making” venture and the rules requiring buyers of HDB flats to obtain loans from the banks.

Ms Go’s assertion that escalating HDB prices was as a sign of profit making by the government may be pure speculation, but the lack of transparency and whimsical rhetoric by the government regarding this issue is unsettling.

Nonetheless, Ms Go did not provide any statistics or examples to better substantiate her points. While it may be true that some Singaporeans are finding it hard to pay their mortgages, it may be convenient  to attribute this solely to an inability to pay the banks’ housing loans or that the government is “profit-making” from it. The problem of lapsed payment is manifold, and the causes are varied.

Ms Go’s point that “in a year, 1,000 Singaporeans renounce their citizenship” is not accurate. Perhaps she is using the number mentioned by MM Lee, when he spoke about Singapore’s brain drain problem. The 1,000 Singaporeans emigrants MM Lee was referring to were the “top brains”. Thus, the total number of Singaporeans leaving is much higher, supposedly.

Foreign talents

The SDP’s views on the issue of immigrants, delivered in Malay by Ms Surayah Akbar, was the most hard-hitting. She suggested that the government should think of other ways to resolve the economic problems instead of “allowing the unfettered flow of foreigners” into Singapore. Social tension as a consequence would  “threaten the foundation of our nation”, she said. The issue of immigrants has been a hot topic of debate  for some time, and the fear  of “social tension” is a legitimate one. This, however, should not suggest that our immigration policy should change to one that blocks the flow of foreigners. Globalisation has manifested itself in every single way possible and immigration is another product of it. In fact, acknowledging that globalisation has indeed arrived is analogous to accepting the consequence of immigration flow.

Ms Surayah’s point that these “foreign talent [sic] is taking jobs away from Singaporeans” is an oft-repeated one which most Singaporeans would concur with. The allegation has always been dismissed by the government but without providing any further proof that this is not so, this issue will not go away anytime soon. Ms Surayah’s assertion that the influx of foreigners has resulted in “unemployment and retrenchment for Singaporeans”, however, may not be entirely accurate. This is because the record unemployment Singapore has experienced this past year happened in the midst of a global recession. Thus, to put the entire blame on the influx of foreigners may not be very accurate – or convincing.

Her point about the “more than one million foreigners in our midst” potentially leading to “social tension” in Singapore, however, is one many would agree with. Even the Prime Minister has warned about this.

Ms Surayah’s call for the government to “look into the reasons for the mass emigration of Singaporeans instead of allowing the unfettered flow of foreigners” is a longstanding call which some Singaporeans have been making. Indeed, Singaporeans are dismayed that the government seems oblivious to this call.

Pet issues

Speaking in Tamil, Mdm G Prema reiterated several of the SDP’s pet issues – the lack of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the constitutional rights of Singaporeans and the “stranglehold that the government has over the mainstream media”.

“An ill-informed electorate will be unable to positively contribute to the future well-being of the nation,” Mdm Prema said. Interestingly, while these are well-known issues associated with the SDP, Mdm Prema’s delivery was the shortest among the four speakers.

Hope

Ms Chee then ended the SDP’s message on a more positive note. “There is hope,” she said, “and the hope lies with you and me.” She urged Singaporeans to “reach out and reach up with the Singapore Democrats for a more caring, open, just and democratic society.”

Perhaps the SDP should have addressed the issue of healthcare as well, which is an emerging concern among our elderly folks and which will see significant changes - HOTA, step-down care, rising costs, etc. Singapore is among the fastest ageing nations in the world.  As the latest results have shown, we are spending much lesser in healthcare, compared to countries such as  the United States, France and the United Kingdom, in terms of GDP.

Healthcare should be at the forefront of any political parties’ policies.

The SDP’s National Day message was delivered with apparent sincerity and each of the four speakers were articulate – clear and precise in their delivery, especially Ms Chee. Perhaps what the SDP should keep in mind for future messages is to do deeper research into some of the issues they would speak on and provide brief but better substantiation to the points they bring up.

Finally, one wonders why the SDP, for a message addressed to the nation, had chosen four women to deliver the message – none of whom holds any substantive positions in the party, although Ms Chee is one of two woman CEC member.

Among the parties which had a National Day message for the nation this year, the Workers’ Party and the SDP are the only ones which did not have it delivered by party leaders.

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