Leon Perera: Addressing political discourse, economic pessimism, promoting social mobility, and inspiring global change

Leon Perera: Addressing political discourse, economic pessimism, promoting social mobility, and inspiring global change

During the parliamentary debate over President Halimah Yacob’s address, Workers’ Party Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC, Leon Perera, delivered a compelling speech emphasizing the importance of active democratic participation and social mobility in Singapore.

In her speech last week, President Halimah called for an active citizenry and a passionate civil society, emphasizing the importance of avoiding political polarization and maintaining trust between political leadership and the people.

Regarding Mdm Halimah’s speech, Mr Perera highlighted that countries that successfully encourage their citizens to participate in the democratic process actively often foster a more confident populace. In such a nation, people genuinely feel that their voices matter and are more likely to defend their country as their home.

“Countries that succeed in drawing strong participation in democracy will be more successful in fostering a confident populace, a people who deeply feel that this is my country, my home, a place where my voice counts for something, a place I will sacrifice to defend.”

He emphasized the need for Singapore to be a place where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential and realize their dreams. The goal is to ensure that the future holds better prospects for every citizen and their descendants without being hindered by economic pressures and increasing competition from education to the workplace.

Mr Perera reflected on a public comment by former media editor and academic Bertha Henson, who questioned the fear of political polarization in Singapore, suggesting the real concern should be “mono-politics” – the dominance of a single narrative or perspective.

He proceeded to discuss assumptions present in the dominant political narrative, stressing the need for active participation in politics without fear of polarization, maintaining respect in disagreement, and promoting transparency of information for rational discourse.

Mr Perera argued that blind trust in the government goes against the concept of an active citizenry, and citizens should engage in independent thinking based on facts and evidence. He proposed five recommendations to create a more open society:

  1. Delink the People’s Association from the ruling political party, allowing for a more level playing field in politics and ideas.
  2. Establish an Ombudsman with investigative capacity to ensure accountability and unbiased opinions.
  3. Make funding for civil society and arts handled by independent committees unlinked to the government.
  4. Publish all public opinion polls and data collection efforts conducted with state funds, with exceptions for commercial or national security sensitivities.
  5. Allow Opposition MPs to engage school students in their MP capacity alongside ruling party MPs and Ministers, nurturing independent, critical thinking from a young age.

Mr Perera emphasized the importance of preventing the marginalization of those with differing views, ensuring a more open and inclusive political landscape in Singapore.

Economic anxiety and pessimism of Singaporeans

Citing the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer survey, Mr Perera pointed out that only 36% of respondents in Singapore believed that their families would be economically better off in five years, the lowest level recorded since the survey’s inception 23 years ago.

Mr Perera highlighted the growing economic divide in Singapore, with approximately 50% of households living in less expensive homes, potentially experiencing economic anxiety and pessimism captured by the Edelman survey.

This group, he suggested, might be struggling to compete in the workplace or academia due to a lack of inherited advantages of wealth or social capital.

Noting that poverty and social inequality were ranked as the third biggest concern in a 2020 national survey by Ipsos, Mr Perera called for more comprehensive reforms to address these issues. He emphasized that while real wages appear to be growing, the experiences and sentiments of Singaporeans reflect a lack of confidence in their future economic prospects.

Mr Perera argued that this economic pessimism could be contributing to Singapore’s low Total Fertility Rate (TFR) and, if left unaddressed, could potentially result in a brain drain as citizens seek opportunities in more liveable countries. This, in turn, could create an over-reliance on foreign manpower in Singapore.

To address these concerns, Mr Perera put forth several reforms proposed by the Workers’ Party, including:

  1. Implementing a national minimum wage.
  2. Establishing a redundancy insurance scheme.
  3. Tackling poverty and breaking the poverty cycle through comprehensive policy changes.
  4. Reforming the HDB housing system to lower BTO prices by revisiting the land valuation formula and introducing other measures.
  5. Revamping trades or vocational jobs to improve productivity, pay, and working conditions.

Mr Perera acknowledged that these reforms might slow the rate of growth of Singapore’s reserves, but argued that it was a necessary trade-off given the country’s current needs and the increased size of reserves compared to GDP.

“I believe slowing down the growth of reserves is wholly justified at this stage of our nation’s history, given the needs we have with an aging population in a turbulent world and given the much larger size of reserves now versus GDP…We must invest to ensure a confident current generation, lest our fertility go so low that there will be few people in the generations to come,” said Mr Perera.

Development of a Singapore model to inspire the world

In the third and final part of his speech, Mr Perera focused on the importance of fostering active citizenry, a vibrant civil society, and engaged, rational politics to create a more inclusive and progressive nation.

Mr Perera suggested that Singapore could assume a leadership role in regional economic projects by aligning them with the nation’s values of good corporate governance, efficiency, and egalitarianism. To do this, he advocated for increased consultation and engagement with civil society and stakeholders, focusing on poverty alleviation and inclusivity as core principles of the projects.

Drawing comparisons with the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) strategic investments in renewable energy, Mr Perera highlighted the potential for Singapore to take a similar approach in green investments. He cited IRENA’s estimates that Southeast Asia could save US$160 billion by cutting energy-related CO2 emissions and $1.5 trillion in health and environmental costs related to fossil fuels by 2050 if the region commits to renewables. However, achieving these goals would require a substantial $7 trillion in investment by then.

Mr Perera argued that Singapore could lead a flagship renewable energy project in the region, which would benefit both the nation’s economy and strengthen its soft power in the ASEAN region.

By raising financing from global capital markets rather than relying solely on government financing, Mr Perera suggests that Singapore could showcase its ability to combine traditional bureaucratic efficiency with progressive policies that promote openness, accountability, and democratic ownership among an active citizenry.

Furthermore, Mr Perera emphasized that such regional renewable energy projects would not only provide a sustainable energy source but also help establish Singapore’s position as a regional leader in ASEAN.

By demonstrating its commitment to these values and principles, Mr Perera opines that the nation could foster a sense of regional identity, centered on the principles of openness, accountability, and democratic ownership, which would potentially inspire other countries in the region to adopt similar models.

WP has been offering alternative policy ideas

In his speech, Mr Perera also responded to Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong’s point that the opposition should offer concrete alternative policy ideas.

He said, “We offer alternative policies that differ substantively from the ideas of the PAP – eg on slowing reserves growth to enhance livability, social justice and social mobility; and reducing BTO prices based on tweaks to the land valuation formula.

“The alternatives we have championed in Parliament, in our manifesto are too numerous for me to mention here. I only have 20 minutes. We championed universal healthcare insurance and delinking BTO from resale prices long before they were adopted by the PAP government.”

“We championed anti-discrimination legislation and redundancy insurance, policies the PAP are now considering. The DPM, the PAP knows this.”

“Sir, I have a sense of déjà vu now, recalling how I was debating a similar issue about what the PAP said about our housing paper just a few weeks ago.”

“Sir, let us be honest in our political debates. Honest. Not going for false but flashy soundbites that smear our opponents, that the media then viralise. I don’t want my children to grow up in a posttruth society.”

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