Party manifesto: Pressing issues versus long-standing issues

Supporters of various political parties display party flags on Nomination Day on 1 September 2015. (PHOTO: AFP via Getty Images)

By Bertha Henson

If there’s one thing the People’s Action Party can promise which no opposition party can, it’s jobs. In fact, 100,000 new jobs and training places. This is the power of being the incumbent: being able to get the civil service to deliver 15,000 new jobs, nudge the universities to do more training and get the labour movement to smooth the way.  For good measure, the PAP gave the job of creating jobs to one of its most popular leaders: Tharman Shanmugaratnam. 

It is left to the opposition parties to ask questions like what sort of jobs at what sort of pay, although there is a valiant proposal by the Singapore Democratic Party to get retrenched workers together to start a new business. This, however, is contingent on the Government agreeing to pay 75 per cent of the employees' last drawn salary for the first six months, 50 per cent for the next six months, and 25 per cent for the following six months.

In my view, given the PAP’s allergy to unemployment handouts not accompanied by self-improvement, it looks like a non-starter.

I have always thought that the Covid-19 was a fortuitous occurrence for the PAP electorally, because it will be the only party with enough ability to tackle the nation’s economic problems brought about by the blight.  But I didn’t think that its manifesto unveiled on Sunday would focus so much on its plans to take the country out of the crisis. 

It’s about the four Budgets introduced earlier which amounted to $93 billion (although $100 billion sounds sexier) - and how this money is spread through various sectors, from businesses to individuals in different forms - or to use a voguish term - in a “calibrated manner’’. Every single plan announced in the four Budgets is in the manifesto, with the slogan, Our Lives, Our Jobs, Our Future.  

What if the virus had passed us by, I wonder. What would the PAP manifesto have looked like? I think it would have to tackle the issue of income inequality, the HDB lease decay (nothing more has been said about VERs) and housing the elderly. It might even throw in issues regarding town council governance, which is dogging the WP.  These issues were absent in its manifesto. 

It is normal for any political party to direct the electorate’s attention in a way that favours its prospects. For a ruling party, it has to be a forward-looking manifesto, with no hint of anything in the past that might cloud the electorate’s choice. So it is to be expected that the Opposition manifestos will dig backwards, and come up with what it thinks a government should be doing - whether the opposition political party forms the government or not. 

They may not be able to magick jobs out of a hat, but they still have several bunnies they can pull out. A look at the manifestoes of the SDP, Workers’ Party, Singapore People’s Party, Reform Party and Progress Singapore Party reveals some common campaigning points. They include redundancy payments, like the SDP one above, with some attempt to put numbers on how much and for who but, unfortunately, no attempt to say how these numbers are picked in the first place. 

Here’s the WP version of redundancy insurance: Under our proposed scheme, the average worker will pay approximately $4 per month into an Employment Security Fund. Employers would be required to match workers contribution. A retrenched worker would then receive a payout equivalent to 40 per cent of their last drawn salary for up to six months. The payout will be capped at $1,200 per month with a minimum payout of $500 a month to benefit low-wage workers. Payouts after the first payout will be conditional on the worker actively seeking a new job or undergoing re-training.’’ 

This is from the Reform Party: Pay Singaporeans unemployment benefits of up to six months, based on 75 per cent of their last-drawn salary, with a monthly cap of S$2,500.

In his national broadcast, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam knocked this ball out of the park, suggesting that the strategy of keeping jobs alive and training them for future jobs would be a more dignified approach. 

There remains the old evergreens that resonate with the ground, such as:

The Goods and Services Tax

The PAP said this will stay at 7 per cent and not go up till after 2022, as announced by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat. He said that social spending needs for an ageing population will necessitate a higher GST. 

 The SDP wants the GST suspended while Singapore is still hurting from the virus, that is, zero GST for a time. The Reform Party wants the same, except that it specified a moratorium of 18 months. The WP opposes any increase, saying that the revenue can be made up for by increasing the Net Returns of Investments Contribution and pushing some land sale proceeds into the revenue column. The PSP wants basic items exempted from tax. 

CPF 

Who doesn’t want it earlier? Who will say that they won’t be able to manage their own money for their retirement? The opposition parties have platforms that call for eradicating the CPF minimum sum, pushing forward the release of CPF monies and allowing more withdrawals at age 55 or because of certain grounds, transfers and so forth. The Singapore People’s Party actually wants a total re-think because the CPF isn’t sufficient to ensure retirement adequacy. 

Will such calls make any headway with the electorate? It is interesting none of them has yet said that they hoped the CPF contribution rate for employers won’t be cut, so that businesses can cope with their manpower bill. After all, this is a usual lever pulled during economic crises to ease the pain of paying staff costs. 

Minimum wage policy

Another popular proposal. WP wants this pegged at $1,300 a month, citing figures that showed that 100,000 people here earned less. Reform Party wants it pegged at $10 an hour. SDP’s Chee Soon Juan said having a minimum wage that applies to bother foreigners and locals “prevents employers from hiring based solely on lower wages … Raising wages increases purchasing power of Singaporeans and this is good for business.’’ 

The PSP has weighed in on this too, but says that a “living wage’’ should be introduced only after the economy has stabilised. It introduced its manifesto earlier Monday (29 June), which is more like a statement of values than policy recommendations. 

If the PAP is going to engage the opposition on the  issue of minimum wages, expect to see more explanation of the Progressive Wage Model, with salaries that go up at different skill levels, as is the case for cleaners and security guards. The Government has said that this would be expanded to more sectors. 

Beyond policy issues, all the opposition parties, however, have made the usual call for diversity of voices in Parliament - a long-standing issue.  WP wants citizens to “Make Every Vote Count’’, SDP says its way is “The Way Forward’’ while PSP says “You Deserve Better’’. All parties refer to the overwhelming number of PAP MPs in Parliament, and raise issues of accountability and checks and balances. 

While manifestos outline a party’s broad directions, in an election campaign, tactics count for just as much.  

If physical rallies could take place, you can bet that these issues of power and possible abuse would be on every opposition speakers’ lips, denouncing the PAP for pushing through unpopular policies (I count POFMA as one) or amending the constitution to allow for a race-triggered presidential election. I also wouldn’t put it past them to refer to the FamiLEE saga, when asking about fitness to govern, although they would have to be very careful about attracting a defamation suit. 

But the PAP has a very efficient counter: its system of Nominated MPs and Non-Constituency MPs already provides for that opposition voice that some segments of the population want. In fact, NCMP seats will be raised from the current nine to 12, providing for at least 12 seats for the opposition’s “best losers’’. They will have equal voting powers as elected MPs, whether on constitutional amendments or supply bills - and they don’t have to run town councils. 

I personally think that this is unfair to the electorate and the elected, but this was an amendment pushed through by a PAP-dominated Parliament. The PAP has defined a “safe space’’ for opposing views, without having its dominance threatened. And the voter can rest in peace knowing that his town council will never suffer the fate of the one run by the WP. 

The Opposition needs a lot more than a manifesto or tactics to convince voters that they are worth voting for, especially when the political cachet of an elected MP has already been taken down several notches. 

Bertha Henson is a veteran Singapore journalist who now lectures at NUS. The views expressed are her own.

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