Andrew Loh / With contribution by Ravi Philemon
Singaporeans do not need to choose between prosperity and freedoms, declared Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam, secretary general of the Reform Party (RP). “The Reform Party’s message continues to be that this Faustian pact is unnecessary,” he said in his party’s first National Day message. “[You] do not have to choose between freedoms on the one hand and prosperity and opportunity on the other,” Mr Jeyaretnam told the estimated 60 people in the audience at Speakers’ Corner.
In what perhaps sounded more like an election speech than a message for National Day, the party, to its credit nonetheless, addressed both economic issues and issues of freedom.
The party’s promise to remove restrictions on the freedom of speech, assembly and peaceful protests will go down well with the more liberal-minded Singaporeans. However, what is unclear is how far the party thinks such freedoms should be allowed.
The party perhaps fares better with regards to the Internal Security Act (ISA). “The Reform Party will abolish the ISA and replace it with an Act specifically designed to combat modern day threats of clear-cut terrorism,” it says. Perhaps the RP is contemplating an Act along the lines of the Patriot Act in the United States? The Patriot Act itself is a controversial piece of legislation which detractors have accused of curbing individual freedom and privacy rights. How would such an Act, or one similar to it, complement the freedoms which the RP has vowed to uphold? One would, however, agree with the RP that the ISA needs to be fine-tuned or indeed replaced.
We concur with the party when it said, “[We] will do away with the current press laws and allow an independent press and media to develop.” Kudos to the party for saying it out loud.
On the economic front, the RP proposes a “minimum wage with exemptions for both young and older workers.” Has the RP got something against “young and older workers”? The older workers especially have contributed much towards nation-building. Why should they be discriminated against in RP’s call for a minimum wage, especially when these older workers constitute one of the most vulnerable segments of the population? It would have been good if the secretary-general had spent some time explaining this particular proposal as Singapore has one of the fastest ageing populations in the world; and where job security and retirement are amongst the top concerns among older Singaporeans. Aren’t these older workers, who are employed in low-skilled, low-paying jobs, the very ones which a minimum wage should be intended for? This sounds rather contradictory to the other promise which the RP made: to “provide a better safety-net for the most vulnerable.”
The party also suggested a re-distribution of wealth through various ways. It hopes to “link the value of the assets in the SWFs to the incomes and retirement savings of ordinary Singaporeans”, reduce the government’s stake in the economy, provide more help to Singaporean SMEs and start-ups, and eliminate unnecessary waste in government expenditure, particularly in the area of defence spending.
While these are all lofty goals, or some might say popular ideas, the RP seems particularly peeved with national defence. First, Mr Jeyaretnam’s remarks – “And as we have just watched the helicopters and commandos and other dazzling military feats on National day – displays intended to feed our fears…” – seems a tad too callous. Contrary to what Mr Jeyaretnam said, such ostentatious military displays seem to induce feelings of pride and a sense of security, rather than fear, among Singaporeans.
Second, the threats of extremism and terrorism are real; and Singapore cannot afford an attack like that of Bali or Mumbai. We must be quick with intelligence gathering and even quicker in dealing with those that perpetrate extremist views and violence.
Will a reduction in defence spending, as the RP proposes, have serious and dire consequences for the security of our nation? Also, as our birth rate remains stubbornly low, the SAF will have to depend on more sophisticated weaponry to make up for the lack in manpower. Such weaponry would undoubtedly cost a lot more, both in terms of actual cost and in training NSmen to operate them. And in a globalised world, national defence is no longer restricted to national borders.
It is commendable that the secretary-general of RP calls for “free compulsory education for at least up to secondary level”. However, he did not elaborate if it is for all Singaporeans that RP advocates this. Compulsory education is still not compulsory for children with special needs in modern Singapore, for example. It would be good to hear what the RP proposes in the area of special needs education.
Members of the Young Reformers, the party’s youth wing, were present to give support to its party secretary general at Speakers’ Corner. The ones missing, apparently, were members of the Central Executive Committee (CEC). Why were members of the CEC absent at such a momentous public event for the party, this being its first National Day message?
Perhaps it is time for the Reform Party’s CEC members to come out of the woodwork. Even its website does not provide a listing of its CEC members, and it has been one year since the party was first established by Mr Jeyaretnam’s father, the late Mr JB Jeyaretnam.
Lastly, the RP’s National Day message was, undoubtedly, an attempt by the party to express its vision for Singapore. Given its infancy (the party celebrates its first anniversary in September), expectations of a General Elections being called soon, the lack of media publicity for opposition parties in general, and its need to make up for lost time perhaps, it is understandable that the RP took the opportunity – on National Day - to lay down what was, effectively, an election manifesto – albeit a limited one.
The Reform Party's National Day message gives Singaporeans a good starting point to know what the party stands for. However, it is easy to draw broad strokes. The devil, as they say, is in the details.