by Ravi Philemon
In the last General Elections, the People’s Action Party (PAP) lost six seats to the opposition. The loss meant that the ruling Party would occupy 81 seats in the House of 87 elected Parliamentary Members. The unprecedented number of seats lost to the opposition sent the PAP into a season of soul-searching. Apologies, policy tweaks, and national conversations followed the defeat.
A little more than two years on, I would like to do a “half way mark” review on two key hot-button issues that emerged from GE2011. Has the government done enough to address these issues, such that the nation can move on in the interest of citizens?
In 1994, the PAP had introduced a multi-million dollar salary scheme for Ministers pegged to the incomes of top earners in the private-sector. The leaders of the ruling Party justified the introduction of this salary scheme by saying it was needed in order to attract the best from the private sector to politics, and to keep the office holders honest.
In past elections, Opposition politicians had repeatedly taken issue with the excessive pay of Ministers, noting that benchmarking salaries to the top earners in the private sector was at odds with the spirit of public service. Ministerial salaries were again raised by opposition parties in the run up to the last General Elections.
Immediately after the 2011 General Elections, realising that this issue had gained more traction with the people (especially since incomes of most workers had remained stagnant over the years while wages of Ministers had increased), the PAP Government decided to review the hugely unpopular Ministerial salaries scheme.
It convened a Ministerial Salaries Review Committee to tweak the salary framework for Ministers. Under its Terms of Reference, the Review Committee recommended a new salary structure with wage reductions for office holders. Their recommendations were accepted by the Government. However, despite the salary reductions, Singapore Ministers continue to be the best-paid executive branch leaders in the world.
Never mind the fact that the new benchmark is not pegged to any international standards of salaries paid to public office holders anywhere in the world, nor are they benchmarked to the salaries of the general wage level of Singaporean workers.
Never mind that the new benchmark is not very different from the old one, and is pegged to an earner in the top 0.03 percentile.
The ruling party hoped that the review of Ministerial salaries would assuage public anger on this issue.
Population Growth Policy
Another hot-button issue the PAP tried to address since the last General Elections is that of population growth. Between the General Elections of 2006 and 2011, the population of Singapore had grown from 4.4 million to 5.18 million. Population increase of about 780,000 mainly through immigration in 5 short years was deemed unacceptable by the people.
The ruling party promised to better calibrate the influx of immigrants and called for feedback from citizens to draft an appropriate population policy. After about six months from the call for feedback, the 2013 Population White Paper, which proposed a population increase of 6.9 million in the year 2030, was rolled out.
The White Paper said that Singapore still needed a significant number of foreign workers to complement the Singaporean workforce, but promised to limit the number of foreign workers to a rate that will be more absorbable by Singapore. The White Paper also proposed to take in 15,000 – 25,000 new citizens each year, without which the Paper said, the Singaporean core will be unsustainable.
If population increased to 6.9 million, the Singaporean core, which stood at over 85% in the 1990s, would have shrunk to about 55% in the year 2030 – that is, with the inclusion of thousands of new citizens.
Never mind the fact that calculated using the whole labour force instead of just citizens, Singapore’s Old Age Support Ratio is very high by international standards, or the fact that adding adult new citizens now will add to our aged population beyond the year 2030.
Never mind the fact that the ruling party’s population proposal would increase the population density, which in return could affect Singapore’s fertility, thereby creating a vicious cycle of being overly dependent on foreigners, which would drive down the wages of many Singaporeans, and drive up income inequality.
With the release of the Population White Paper, the leadership of the PAP hoped to explain to Singaporeans why it is important to continue having a relatively high inflow of foreigners, and thereby assuage their unhappiness.
Has the PAP done enough to assuage public anger?
But the issues that have caused Singaporeans a lot of unhappiness in recent years, be it the issue of excessively high Ministerial salaries or unsustainable population growth, are deeds of the PAP itself. And that in trying to address such unhappiness, despite seeking public feedback and convening committees of various sorts, the PAP has chosen to just tweak their existing formulas which created these problems by “calibrating a little to the left, a little to the right” (in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s own words).
During the last General Elections, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong apologised to the people of Singapore for the “side effects” of his Government’s initiatives. He promised to better tackle them after the elections.
The cut in the salaries for Ministers as well as the cut in foreign worker quota to lessen the influx of immigrants, were on terms specified by the PAP – and the cuts were deemed acceptable to them.
But has the PAP done enough to soothe public anger on these issues? Or have they only scratched the surface of such problems without going far enough to address the root of these? Will problems like these come back to haunt our children in the future because they are not being properly addressed today?
Only the citizens of Singapore can answer such questions.