Singapore Policy Approach: The search for a new sensible

~ 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