A roller coaster decade for Mr Lee Hsien Loong

A roller coaster decade for Mr Lee Hsien Loong
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong taking a photo of Madam Yeo Kheng Lien, 98, as her neighbour, Mr Chung Yat Wah (left), 76, looked on at Teck Ghee Community Club on 15 January 2012.

MR LEE Hsien Loong's first decade as prime minister can be summed up in one word: Challenging.

It has been a roller coaster of a ride for Mr Lee, who became independent Singapore's third prime minister on Aug 12, 2004.

For one thing, there has been greater political contestation. Singapore saw two general elections in 2006 and 2011, and two by-elections, in Hougang (May 2012) and Punggol East (January last year).

The presidential election of 2005 saw incumbent S R Nathan, the sole candidate, returned unopposed.

But in 2011, a four- cornered fight between candidates surnamed Tan saw Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam triumph with just 7,382 more votes, or 0.3 per cent, over closest rival Tan Cheng Bock.

It was a decade of peaks and troughs.

Just out of the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis, the economy went on to record robust growth of over 7.5 per cent a year until 2007, only to face the sharpest recession since independence during the global financial crisis.

Growth plunged sharply to 1.8 per cent in 2008 and shrank 0.6 per cent in 2009.

The Government responded with a whopping $20.5 billion Resilience Package for Budget 2009 to guarantee bank deposits, and to fund the Jobs Credit wage subsidy.

It did the unprecedented, getting then President Nathan's assent to dip into the reserves to fund the package.

Crisis was averted. A year later, the economy rebounded, growing 15.2 per cent.

Leading Singapore relatively unscathed through the global financial crisis was cited by several observers as among Mr Lee's top achievements in the decade.

Annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaged 6.3 per cent from 2004 to last year, according to economist Tan Kong Yam in an essay in The Straits Times Opinion pages today. On a per person basis, GDP went up from $46,320 to $69,050 from 2004 to last year.

Vibrant, but mind the gap

BEFORE he became prime minister, Mr Lee gave The Straits Times an interview where he spoke about making Singapore a "dynamic economy" and building a vibrant, cohesive society.

Is Singapore today a dynamic economy? Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin thinks so.

"PM Lee has made Singapore one of the most compelling global cities in the world. Like his father (former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew), he has permanently changed the course of Singapore. This is an extraordinary achievement especially for a country that was never meant to be."

Singapore has opened two integrated resorts, played host to the Formula One race and Youth Olympic Games, and created the dazzling Gardens by the Bay.

An Economist Intelligence Unit survey in 2012 put Singapore sixth best globally in its "Where to be Born" index, and top in Asia.

But that global buzz also comes at a price - cohesiveness.

Mr Lee presided over a Singapore of rising income inequality.

The Gini coefficient was 0.464 in 2004 and went up to a high of 0.489 in 2007.

The Gini index is a number tracking income inequality from 0 to 1, with 0 representing perfect equality.

One of the signal achievements of Mr Lee's Government is the move to bridge inequality by raising the tranche of subsidies for the lower- and middle-income group in all areas: from an income supplement for low-wage workers to grants for housing to subsidies in health care and childcare.

Whereas subsidies were mainly targeted at the low-income before 2004, subsidies these days are aplenty for households with median incomes and higher.

Long- term care subsidies are given to those with per capita household income of $3,100 a month - or up to the 70th percentile.

There is also more risk-pooling in health care.

In 2004, the old MediShield health insurance scheme did not cover babies with birth defects.

And once you reached 80 years of age, or hit claim limits of $30,000 a year and $120,000 for life, you were on your own.

This year, the new MediShield Life promises universal coverage for life with no claim limits.

In one stroke, high hospitalisation costs are done away with as a major source of angst for Singaporeans.

Mr Lee has also done much for the older generation, notably in the $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package of health-care subsidies.

By last year, the Gini coefficient was back down, to 0.463. After government transfers and assistance, it was 0.412.

Taken together, the social policies rolled out under Mr Lee, ably assisted by Deputy PM Tharman Shanmugaratnam, are reshaping the social climate in which Singaporeans live.

The momentum of change increased after the 2011 General Election.

But the shift towards higher social spending started way before that.

Workfare, for example, began in 2005 and was institutionalised in 2007.

There is a major reordering of the social compact.

The Government is not just taking care of the economy and leaving families to fend for themselves in the marketplace.

It will help families and individuals fend off the excesses of the marketplace.

Trouble is, many Singaporeans do not see it that way, as they grapple with rising housing costs and feel the heat of competition for jobs.

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