COMMENT: Crazy Rich Nation, transactional population

P N Balji
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivers the National Day Rally speech on 19 August 2018. PHOTO: Screencap from Prime Minister’s Office YouTube channel

At first glance, the Prime Minister’s National Day Rally speech on Sunday (19 August) showed a government breaking off another piece of its once jealously-guarded social policy. Not one, but two bites of the housing cherry. Subsidies to ease the burden of medical bills for a new group, called the Merdeka Generation. And as if these were not enough, Lee Hsien Loong added that his government will pick up the tab for all Singaporeans who have chronic illnesses.

But the morning-after effect is something else: many Singaporeans don’t seem to be rejoicing at the government’s apparent generosity. As one observer said, the devil is in the details. And many of these new policies are distinctly familiar. The plan to spruce up HDB flats a second time round is a continuation of the first Home Improvement Programme (HIP). The decision to buy back flats that reach 70 years is also not markedly different from the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (Sers). But this may cause the ugly divisions and stresses that bedevilled en bloc private estates to take hold in HDB estates, as residents eye the opportunity to make money.   

Meanwhile, the health subsidy is an extension of the healthcare package given to the Pioneer Generation, which was introduced soon after the ruling party’s majority dropped to a historic low of 60.1 per cent of the share of votes cast in the 2011 General Election. The other medical perk is an extension of an earlier one to help those with chronic illnesses. Now it will cover everyone, not just those who pass a financial test.

Where are the bold and original ideas for a country that is facing challenges on so many fronts? A US-China trade war sparked by President Donald Trump, an ageing population that can’t get gainful employment, the young who are facing the destructive forces of industry disruption. Then there is the $64 million question: Why is the fourth generation leadership not taking ownership of these new initiatives, given that they will only kick in many years down the road? After all, it will take HIP Two 10 years to get off the ground, and the en bloc initiative an even longer 20 years.

The new initiatives are unlikely to solve the long-term housing problems. Will there be demand, say in the next 30 years, for housing with a declining birth rate and a stagnant immigration policy depressing the market? And with the possibility that more young people, who are facing an unpredictable job market, will rent a house rather than buy one, we will need a complete overhaul of the flat-as-an-asset policy. This is the kind of policy challenges the new leadership will face.     

So, where are the 4G leaders?

Top row (left to right): S Iswaran, Ng Chee Meng, Chan Chun Sing, Ong Ye Kung. Bottom row (left to right): Amrin Amin, Indranee Rajah, Josephine Teo and Baey Yam Keng. (PHOTOS: Reuters, Getty Images, Yahoo News Singapore file photos, YouTube screengrabs)

As the time gets excruciatingly close for a new team of leaders to take over, the continued silence about who will take over as PM and precisely when is unsettling. Singaporeans need to know if these leaders have the gumption to think big and bold about their plans for the future. In short, they need to be told of their vision. 

Maybe the PM has his eyes on the next GE, which he must win decisively as it will be his last hurrah as the country’s leader. This year’s NDR speech had all the trappings of an election speech, and the plans announced on Sunday can be stretched out for more than a year to keep the political pot warm. And let’s not forget the court case that the Workers’ Party is facing in October on charges relating to the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council accounts.

To paraphrase the movie of the moment, this is a Crazy Rich Government. It has all the money in the world to throw at a problem and it has all the controls in place from womb to tomb to ride into a temporary sunset. Unless it does something silly to create an outcry among the public with some minister making foot-in-the-mouth comments on contentious issues like ministerial pay. 

Finally, the government has to ask itself what kind of people we are creating. If the highlights of NDR 2018 are any indication, it is a transactional population that is being created: one that constantly asks what it is getting in exchange for its votes, and that will never be satisfied.

P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who was formerly chief editor of Today, as well as an editor at The New Paper. He is currently a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.

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