Thursday, November 14 2019 | ASIA TODAY INTERNATIONAL - Reporting the Business that Matters in Asia
SINGAPORE SALUTES ITS PIONEERS
LEE HSIEN LOONG has been progressively softening the image of the Singapore he inherited from his autocratic father, Lee Kuan Yew. Working parents now qualify for kindergarten subsidies, and senior citizens, born before 1949, have been dubbed the Pioneer Generation, qualifying for unlimited healthcare and GST subsidies . . .
In a sea of red and white, the national colours, one can barely spot the founding father of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, now a frail 91-year-old who is very much in the background as the nation watches its 49th National Day parade.
Lee senior has left the limelight to the current generation of leaders, led by his eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong.
It is impossible to talk about modern Singapore without acknowledging the vision of Lee, who guided his country for more than 40 years — from 1959, when Singapore attained self-government from Britain, to 1990, when he stepped down as Prime Minister.
He has left a big footprint on the global stage, transforming Singapore from a third world into a first world nation within a generation — minus the sobriquet of OECD membership.
So if Singaporeans sometimes come across as cocky and self-assured, it is because their country has done extremely well. Never mind the barbs that sometimes come from critics that Singapore has only achieved what it has because it is no more than a “club country”, a reference to its pocket size. Singapore’s achievements are quantifiable.
Size may be a factor in its success, but the reality is that there are many small countries which struggle to keep ahead economically, let alone being able to take their place among the developed nations of the world.
Singapore is now ranked as the third-richest country in the world by the International Monetary Fund. It had a per capita income of US$64,584 in 2013, some 90.5 per cent of Singaporeans own their own home in what is ranked among the most liveable cities in the world, and healthcare is virtually universal .
While Lee senior will always be credited for Singapore’s success, it is his son, the current Prime Minister, who has given Singapore a softer face. Perhaps to the horror of true free market capitalists, Lee junior has introduced welfarism.
One could argue that this is reflective of the man that he is. Lee Hsien Loong comes across as someone who is warm, personable and has the common touch.
Singapore has changed in the decade that Lee junior has been running the country.
In short order, he has moved to provide a safety net for disadvantaged Singaporeans, attempted to bring in political reform and free speech — Singapore has seen its first workers’ strike in more than two decades — and he has abolished the mandatory death penalty for some offences.
Does this tell the world that the country is changing. The answer is yes . . . to a degree.
The younger Lee has moved to bridge inequities among Singaporeans, some of whom are among the fabulously rich – Singapore is home to a disproportionately high number of millionaires.
His Government has brought in assistance for working parents (with kindergarten subsidies), and a S$8-billion Pioneer Generation Package has just kicked after being unveiled in the March Budget.
This package is intended to look after senior citizens, born before 1949, aiming to ensure unlimited healthcare for hospitalisation and medical services. The Government will top up health cover for Pioneers each year, and will provide a subsidy for GST paid for goods and services.
The rationale is that the Pioneer generation of Singaporeans has not been fully covered through Singapore’s compulsory retirement savings — through the Central Provident Fund and its medical cover (Medisave) — as these were implemented well after independence in 1965.
Lee junior has promised also that young people will be given every chance to achieve their potential. Generally, he says, the promise of strong safety nets is to give less wealthy Singaporeans “peace of mind, and the confidence to hope and dare”.
He has allowed more Opposition MPs to join Parliament, and allows citizens use of the sometimes initially farcical Hong Lim Park Speakers Corner — Singapore’s “Hyde Park Speakers Corner” — to loosen control on free expression. This year saw the biggest mass rally of gays, lesbians and bisexuals yet in Singapore, with some 26,000 turning up for a Pink Dot rally.
Political uncertainty is evident in recent polls, where the People’s Action Party that has ruled Singapore since independence has suffered electoral setbacks.
Weakening electoral support is said to be the reason for the Government to lean towards more populist policies — to stem a drift of voters away to Opposition parties.
But despite all of Lee’s efforts, Singapore has an increasingly restive population. Central to their concerns is the growth in population. Singapore is tipped to grow to 10 million by 2050 – for a country with just 700 square kilometres of land area. The population grew by 29.58 per cent over the past decade to 5.3 million today.
Responding to popular concerns about the impact foreign workers have on housing, public transport and jobs for Singaporeans, the Government has brought in a number of measures to stem the inflow.
Business is not happy. Despite rising wage bills — to bring wages to a set minimum — labour scarcity is impeding growth, and some businesses in the labour-intensive sectors, particularly retail and catering, have been forced to close.
When he finally steps down as Prime Minister in 2020 (as he has indicated), what kind of Singapore will Lee junior leave behind?
He won’t wear his father’s boots, which are too large to fill. But Lee junior is governing a more demanding and sophisticated citizenry well — in an increasingly unpredictable world — Florence Chong.