10 key issues which define Lee Hsien Loong’s 14 years in power (Part 1 on Strategic Direction)

Sunday (12 Aug) marks the 14th Anniversary since Lee Hsien Loong took over as Prime Minister from Goh Chok Tong.

Just 4 days ago (8 Aug), his National Day Speech talked about cautious optimism in an increasingly turbulent world, while his government has crafted policies to “come together for the residents in a tangible and holistic way”. Things such as CareShield and estate upgrading will keep Singapore a place where one can call home.

“In Singapore, we ensure that these key public services are both of high quality and affordable for all Singaporeans, rich or poor. This is how we’ve helped families to manage their cost of living, and given an extra hand to those who need it. For more than five decades, this approach has worked well”.

In all likelihood, this marks PM Lee’s last National Day as Prime Minister. This is because he has intended to step down by the next elections which is more likely to happen in 2019 than 2020. Given such, it would probably be good to examine his legacy as Prime Minister.

In the first of a two-part series, here are five of ten key issues which define the Lee Hsien Loong administration.

  1. Strong economic growth through an increase in foreign labour

Perhaps Lee’s biggest claim to success is Singapore’s GDP growth. Under his watch, he tippled our GDP, making us a $300 billion economy and an even richer than neighbouring Malaysia. Nonetheless, this was obtained by importing foreign labour even as productivity levels remained stagnant for a decade.

As the late Lee Kuan Yew noted in 2011, “We’ve grown in the last five years by just importing labour. Now the people feel uncomfortable, there are too many foreigners”. Citizens showed their discontent at the General Elections that very year.

  1. Increasing costs of living despite strong profits

Since 2014, Singapore has been ranked as the world’s most expensive city in the World. Despite this, Singaporeans have seen successive price increases despite underlying agencies – URA. HDB and SP – making hundreds of millions a year in profits, citizens saw successive price hikes in public carpark charges, gas tariffs and water hikes.

Recently, former PAP MP Inderjit Singh pointed out that it was an irony that the PAP government should seek to use commercial accrual standards for CareShield Life premiums while it was a compulsory scheme and the government had accumulated large reserves in Eldercare.

  1. A failed CPF-HDB model’?

While the PAP has relied heavily on its asset enhancement promise to garner for votes. As a result of this promise, citizens have used their retirement funds to pay for their housing, relying on price appreciation to fund their retirement. Indeed, it was during Lee’s watch that the prices of HDB flats increased the most. According to the resale index, the Q4 2004 level was 77.1 but increased to an all time high of 149.4 in Q2 2013.

After Minister for National Development announced that only 4% on HDB flats will go though en bloc and the value of land will hit zero after the lease has expired, owners of older HDB flats are finding it increasingly difficult to find buyers and prices have plunged. Given the quantum of HDB flats which will become older in the next 10 to 20 years, this could potentially brew into a crisis.

  1. Reserved Presidential Elections

The ‘reserved’ Presidential Elections in 2017 was another aspect of Lee’s administration which saw large scale disapproval from the ground with many remaining unconvinced. Some have even gone on to describe it as an attempt to ‘block’ Tan Cheng Bock from running as he is not a “PAP approved” candidate.

Even one year after Halimah Yacob was ‘elected’ in a walkover, there have been questions on whether she is able to discharge her executive role by understanding what is in the reserves.

  1. International Relations – is LHL as skilled as LKY?

Singapore’s long standing foreign affairs stance that it should remain politically neutral and not take sides in international disputes. Yet at the White House State dinner – against basic diplomatic etiquette and an increasingly assertive China – Lee prompted China to respect international laws.

This resulted in harsh rebuke from China, where their state-run media published an editorial telling small states to mind their own business and the seizure Singapore’s Terex vehicles in Hong Kong. Later on, Singapore was not invited to a high-level One Belt, One Road meeting.

Thus far, I have talked mainly about the strategic directions in which Lee Hsien Loong has led the country. In the next part, I will talk more about the execution of the policies and day-to-day issues facing Singaporeans. Nonetheless, already, these issues do not look pretty.

It should also be noted that despite pledging to locate a successor during his swearing-in speech in 2004, this was still not done 14 years later. This prompted former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong to take to Facebook to communicate his intention to see a successor in 6 to 9 months on the last day of 2017.

How will the issues play out in the next year? It will be interesting to watch.