People and policies

People and policies

From paradigm shifts in policymaking to protests in Hong Lim Park, there was plenty for politicians, analysts and residents alike to chew on in Singapore's political scene in 2014. Charissa Yong peers at five Ps of political peaks for the year.

1. Policy shifts

Longstanding policies were paved over with new paths as the Government pushed on with its "new way forward" to a more compassionate and inclusive society.

One pathway was particularly noteworthy: easing the anxiety of elderly Singaporeans about their medical bills. The unprecedented $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package, unveiled in February's Budget, gives generous medical subsidies to about 450,000 older Singaporeans for the rest of their lives.

Another move to assuage medical worries was MediShield Life, a groundbreaking universal health insurance programme that will give coverage to all Singaporeans and permanent residents for life.

It was endorsed in Parliament in July and will start next year.

But the issue that roused robust debates, as well as shrill protests by some in Hong Lim Park, was the Central Provident Fund (CPF) scheme.

There were Singaporeans who wanted an assurance that they could withdraw a lump sum when they retire.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised them in August that the issue would be looked into, even as a group of experts is studying ways to make the scheme more flexible.

They will give their recommendations next year, when the fund will turn 60.

In the meantime, the rigid focus on grades in education is passe, the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (Aspire) committee said.

Intent on dispelling the notion that a university degree is the only path to success, it wanted people to plot a new passage for their future by developing relevant skills for the workplace and not be caught up in the belief that paper qualifications are all that matter.

2. Politics

In April, Parliament House was enveloped in silence as lawmakers took a break midway through the Government's term of office to refresh themselves.

On returning in May, President Tony Tan Keng Yam set out the Government's key priorities for the rest of its term.

In the ensuing five-day debate, one standout was the fiery exchange between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang, who crossed swords over the issue of "constructive politics".

Mr Low argued that "however politics is described and coloured, it is still politics" and "what is important is the outcome of the political process".

PM Lee countered that this was "breathtakingly cynical": Politics is what one believes in and wants to achieve for Singapore, he said. He highlighted effective policies, integrity and people rallying round a common cause as some traits of constructive politics.

The clash set the stage for recurring face-offs between the WP and the Government and ruling party. Office-holders and MPs from the People's Action Party (PAP) took the WP to task on several fronts, such as its apparently lacking a vision for the country and the tardy way its town council deals with arrears in residents' service and conservancy charges.

In February, the accounts of the WP-run Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) failed to get a clean bill of health for the second year running, from auditors it engaged.

The Auditor-General's Office stepped in to audit them a week later.

Last month, the annual report card for town councils gave AHPETC a poor grade for corporate governance and overdue fees from residents. It sparked a spirited - and often sarcastic - back-and-forth between PAP office-holders and WP leaders.

One remark pointed to WP's "sound of silence" for failing to explain fully the reasons for the arrears. The WP reiterated it would give a full response in due course.

AHPETC also ran afoul of the law by holding a Chinese New Year event without a permit. Having been found guilty, it will know its sentence on Christmas Eve.

3. Public debates

Civil society activism grew as more Singaporeans spoke up for causes, be it lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights, pro-family norms or concerns about the Central Provident Fund (CPF) and retirement adequacy.

A record 26,000 pink-clad LGBT supporters attended the annual Pink Dot picnic in Hong Lim Park in June. In a pushback, Christian and Muslim groups held a campaign the same weekend, urging followers to "wear white" in support of family values while at religious services.

The so-called "culture wars" also veered into the realm of children's literature. In July, the National Library Board (NLB) said it would pull from its shelves and destroy three children's titles featuring same-sex parents after complaints that the books did not promote family values. The decision made headlines around the world.

In protest, some local writers boycotted NLB events, while 400 people, including children, attended an event at which the banned books were read out.

Noting the deepening fault lines between different segments of society, political leaders like Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cautioned against society becoming polarised, and advocated moderation instead.

At Hong Lim Park, a series of protests against the CPF scheme, each attracting a few hundred people, ended in September when unruly conduct by some disrupted an adjacent charity carnival.

Six people were taken to court for being a public nuisance. Two among them each face an additional charge of organising a demonstration without approval.

Last month, blogger Roy Ngerng was found by the courts to have defamed PM Lee by suggesting, in a blog post, that he misappropriated CPF savings. The court ruling was a first here on a defamation suit by a political leader over online remarks.

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