4 instances when the Government flip-flopped on its own words

Over the years, the Singapore Government has made countless promises to its citizens. While they have kept a lot of these promises in the past, there have been several instances when the government backtracked on its own words.

Here are four examples when the Government went flip-flopping:

1. TraceTogether data can be used in criminal investigations

In March last year, the Government launched the TraceTogether (TT) programme, which started as a mobile application to help support and boost contact tracing efforts in order to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

The Government then assured the public that the data collected from the app will be used solely for contact tracing purposes.

In fact, during a Multi-Ministry Taskforce (MTF) press conference on 8 June last year, Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the MTF, and Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan both stressed that data from the TT app and token would not be used for anything else other than for the purposes of contact tracing.

“There is no intention to use a TraceTogether app, or TraceTogether token, as a means of picking up breaches of existing rules. There is no intention at all. So the app and the device, plus SafeEntry combined, are meant to provide us with information in a timely manner so that we can do speedy, fast, and effective contact tracing. It is not meant as a way to detect offences and breaches of rules,” Mr Wong said.

Adding to Mr Wong’s clarification, Dr Balakrishnan said: “TraceTogether app, TraceTogether running on a device, and the data generated is purely for contact tracing. Period.”

Before that, on 4 June last year, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean gave the same response to MP Murali Pillai in Parliament when the latter questioned the steps Government had taken to safeguard personal data collected by contact tracing apps.

Mr Teo reiterated that TT data is “stored only on your own phone in the first instance, and accessed by MOH only if the individual tests positive for COVID-19”.

The data, said the Senior Minister, “is only used for contact tracing”, adding that safeguards “including encryption” are present to protect the data “from malicious hackers”.

However, in January this year, the Government went against its own assurances when Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan revealed in Parliament that the police can use TT data for criminal investigations.

Mr Tan explained that the police is empowered under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) to get hold of any data, and that includes the data gathered via TT.

As expected, this news did not go down too well with the public as they felt their trust was broken.

To rectify the earlier blunder, Mr Wong’s office clarified in a report by ST that the Education Minister did not say that such data would solely be used for contact tracing purposes, but rather that it has no intention to be used “as a means of picking up breaches of existing rules”.

Finally, on 2 February, Dr Balakrishnan said in Parliament that the Government acknowledged its “error in not stating that data from TraceTogether is not exempt” from the CPC.

In fact, Dr Balakrishnan, who is also the country’s Foreign Minister, took responsibility for the mistake in his speeches on Tuesday.

“I take full responsibility for this mistake and I deeply regret the consternation and anxiety caused by my mistake,” he said.

2. PM Lee’s mask messaging, from “no need” to “compulsory”

When COVID-19 reached the shores of Singapore early last year, the Singapore government took a rather drastic step by urging Singaporeans not to wear mask if they are feeling well.

The COVID-19 MTF told the people of Singapore in January 2020 to refrain from hoarding masks, stressing that masks should only be used by those who are unwell.

This was also echoed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a Facebook post on 30 January, where he highlighted the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) advice to wear a mask only if the person is sick.

He wrote, “There is no need to wear a mask if we are well.”

Additionally, at a closed-door discussion with members of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) in February 2020, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing even ridiculed Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s decision to wear surgical masks in public

Mr Chan said that if Singapore had followed in Hong Kong’s footsteps “without thinking”, with its leaders wearing masks to give updates on the virus outbreak and causing panic, “I can guarantee you, today our hospital system would have broken down”, he said.

“There will be no more surgical masks for our hospital people because [these would have been] all used up like tissue paper.”

However, over the course of the pandemic, experts around the world have come forward to extol the importance of mask usage for everyone, whether or not they are unwell.

One of the experts was Adrien Burch, who is an expert in microbiology at the University of California at Berkeley. He noted that there is no strong evidence to support the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) and the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) claims that wearing face masks “don’t work”.

Subsequently, the Government took a “U-turn” from its previous stance on 3 April, as PM Lee announced that the authorities will “no longer discourage people from wearing masks”. This came after the WHO and CDC stated that it will review the guidelines on wearing face masks.

The Government finally made it compulsory to wear a mask when leaving the house starting 14 April 2020.

3. Changes in CPF withdrawal age

The next incident in which the Government flip-flopped on its own words revolves around the Central Provided Fund (CPF) withdrawal age.

On 1 July 1955, the Singapore Government introduced CPF, a compulsory saving scheme that requires all employees and employers to contribute a portion of the employee’s gross monthly salary to the provident fund. This is implemented so that individuals will have some funds to support themselves during their old age.

When it was first introduced, the Government stated that members can withdraw the entire sum in their account when they turn 55.

In 1987, then-Acting Labour Minister Lee Yock Suan introduced the Minimum Sum Scheme where members would get their monthly retirement pay-outs from the age 60. Back then, this was known as the drawdown age.

Then in 1993, the statutory retirement age was set at 60 years old. A year later, amendments to the CPF Bill were passed allowing Minister for the Labour Ministry, now called the Manpower Minister, to increase the drawdown age to correspond with the prevailing retirement age.

Dr Lee Boon Yang, who was the then Labour Minister, said in Parliament that “pegging the monthly withdrawal age to the prevailing retirement age is necessary in order to ensure that the Minimum Sum can last the duration of a CPF member’s retirement”.

Later in 1999, the retirement age in Singapore was raised from 60 to 62, resulting in the increase of drawdown age to 62 as well.

While delivering his National Day Rally speech in 2007, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong revealed that the drawdown age would progressively be raised from 62 to 65. He said this is in view of plans to legislate re-employment in 2012, which means that it would be compulsory for employers to offer re-employment for workers who have reached the retirement age until they hit 65.

“We are legislating for re-employment until 65… Therefore, drawdown age should also go to 65 because you are working, you work till 65, when you stop working, probably at 65, then you start drawing down,” PM Lee noted.

During the Parliamentary debate on CPF reforms in the same year, Ng Eng Hen, who was the then-Manpower Minister, revealed that the drawdown age will be raised to 65 and “eventually to 67, in line with the re-employment law”.

After the re-employment legislations were passed, the drawdown age raised to 63 in 2012, then to 64 in 2015 and finally 65 in 2018.

Now named the ‘pay out eligibility age’, it has remained at 65 although the re-employment age was increased to 67 in 2017.

4. HDB value said to appreciate but has actually depreciated

Nearly 80 percent of Singaporeans live in Housing Development Board (HDB) flats, which are subsidised public housing introduced by the Government. These units are issued by the state on 99-year leaseholds, meaning it will have to be returned to the Government after it reaches the end of its lease.

Over the years, the Government has assured the public that the value of the flats will never go down and that it is an appreciating asset.

However, in 2010, unhappiness among the people of Singapore surfaced due to high prices of the flats.

Responding to this, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that year: “The HDB flat is not just a shelter but also a key investment asset… over the long term, the value of HDB flat depends on the strength of the Singapore economy. Provided Singapore continues to do well, our flats will maintain their value, and Singaporeans can enjoy an appreciating asset.”

Echoing the same sentiment, PM Lee’s father and Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) promised the people in March 2011, that: “85% of Singaporeans are living in HDB flats and we intend to keep the values of these homes up. It will never go down. As Singapore prospers, the GDP goes-up, the value of homes will go up.”

Right before GE2011, then-National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan told Singaporeans: “We’re proud of the asset enhancement policy. (It) has given almost all Singaporeans a home of their own… that grow in value over time.”

Following that, in 2013, Mr LKY once again requested Singaporeans to not sell their HDB units and assured them that the value of the assets would grow.

“We intend to keep the value of these homes up, it will never go down. Because it will be renewed, the surrounding will improve, and as Singapore prospers, GDP goes up, the value of homes will go up.”

Despite all the promises made over the years, Singaporeans’ hope came crashing down when then-National Development Minister Lawrence Wong revealed in 2017 that a large majority of flats will be returned back to HDB without any compensation for homeowners, when the 99-year lease ends.

Following that, HDB chief executive Dr Cheong Koon Hean said in April 2019 that the value of old HDB flats will indeed decline over time.

Just a few months later, in October that year, PM Lee pointed out that it is fair for the value of HDB flats to drop to zero at the end of its lease, even though the Government had earlier made countless promises that HDB flats are “nest-egg” that will continue to grow in value as the time progresses.

PM Lee went on to add that he thinks “it’s fair” that the value of HDB flats declines to zero value and will most probably be given back to the Government with zero compensation.

 

What other examples can you think of? Share with us in the comment section below!

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