COMMENT: Slow and steady SDP

Singapore Democratic Party manifesto launch. (PHOTO: Wong Casandra/Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — So I paid $39 for the Singapore Democratic Party manifesto. Actually I paid for a coffee-table book which contained colourful pictures of SDP members until page 118. Then the manifesto surfaced and continued for another 35 or so pages. I skimmed through it quickly, realising belatedly that I had read most of it before, in the last general election and in the policy papers the SDP had been producing over the past year.

So I had to ask what the difference was.

Vice-chairman John Tan said that there were no “substantial changes” but there had been some “updating”. Like what, I asked. That’s when chairman Paul Tambyah, whom I’ve always thought of as the brains of the party, chimed in.

There was still a fundamental difference, he said, between the Government’s Medifund, Medisave and Medishield programmes and the SDP’s universal insurance coverage model. Even though Medishield Life now covers existing pre-conditions (an SDP proposal, he said) and there is Careshield Life, the healthcare system is still a patched-up montage compared to SDP’s plan of individual CPF payouts (average $50 a month) and Government money ($10.5b a year) into a single National Health Investment Fund.

There is a kink though, something which Dr Tambyah acknowledged. The SDP’s calculations took into account its complaint that G expenditure on healthcare is too little. But Government health expenditure has more than doubled. It rose from $3.9 billion in 2010 to $9.3 billion in 2016. And this means some changes must be made to the numbers.

As for education, its proposal to abolish streaming (an SDP proposal, he said) has been overtaken by events no? The education ministry has announced that PSLE results would group students into strength of subjects in secondary school rather than categorised into Normal or Express streams. Dr Tambyah replied that there was still some streaming, into Special Action Plan schools and Integrated Programme schools.

It is common to hear the SDP cry “copycat”, and Saturday’s (28 September) launch of its manifesto at The Colonial@Scotts was no different. Many of its proposals, said Mr Benjamin Pwee who joined the SDP this year after resigning from the Democratic Progressive Party, had been “adopted by the Government and echoed by PAP MPs”.

Mr Pwee said there was “an important segment” in the manifesto about the running of town councils, which the SDP will have to do if it won a seat or more in Parliament. “We have spelt out in detail how we are going to effect a smooth and seamless takeover of the running of the estates as well as described how we are going to be transparent and accountable in running town council operations,” he said.

That got me flipping through the book, which also has that old chestnut about ministerial salaries, by the way. (No prizes for guessing the SDP position).

Compared to the policy papers the SDP put out on healthcare, housing, education and immigration, the town council segment looks like an afterthought. It doesn’t say how the transition will be effected and gives general statements on how it will run a town council with full-time MPs who will put in place a “transparent and accountable system” for residents and pass over savings to them.

I asked Dr Tambyah later why liberal values, such as freedom of speech and law and order matters, were not in the manifesto. (It wasn’t in the earlier one either, although the SDP under Dr Chee Soon Juan seemed to be a prime proponent of these values.) Dr Tambyah said it was a common thread in all the policy papers and it was already well-known as part of the SDP DNA. It seems that the SDP is really focused on bread-and-butter issues although recent developments, like the fake news laws and fear of foreign intervention, could have provided the party with much ammunition.

Anyway, what I’ve written above is the media engagement part of the launch. It lasted just half an hour before the man came in for the public part of the launch. By then, more than 100 people had gathered in the room. Dr Chee Soon Juan, SDP secretary-general, took questions from the floor.

I asked him how he thought the 4G leaders of the PAP would campaign in this election and how different they would be from their predecessors. He described the 4G leaders as “dislocated from society”, having themselves led successful lives. “They’ve had it good in Singapore and think that everyone is like them.” Previous leaders had to struggle with nation building, he said, and the 4G leaders shouldn’t be relying on past successes to chart the future.

Clearly, the SDP believes that the general election will be held this year, even though it isn’t due till April 2021. It has upgraded its website, staked its claim on two GRCs and three single seat wards, launched its manifesto and will even hold a pre-election rally in Hong Lim Park in November.

It has unveiled its programme in a deliberate and calibrated manner. It has got its act together so far. Not for the SDP tiny plans for constituencies and neighbourhoods. It wants to get into the big picture so that people would “vote for the SDP, not just against the PAP”.

That’s a pretty ambitious message.

Now, what is the Workers’ Party up to? And is the PAP going to talk about its manifesto as well? It will be nice to hear from the contenders, because it means that we, the citizens, can make an “informed” vote when the election rolls around.

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SDP unveils updates to its manifesto, reiterates call for democracy