Effective policies matter more than courting popularity: Shanmugam

SINGAPORE - Singapore's leaders need to do the right thing by their people in policy-making, said Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam on Friday, rather than get caught up in "the numbers game".

He made the point at a Foreign Correspondents Association lunch, when asked for his sense of the level of support for the ruling People's Action Party.

"The last thing I want to do is to say that we want to have policies in order to get, from a purely political perspective, some numbers back. I think the moment you start doing that, the country will go down."

For instance, with a rapidly ageing population and concerns over health-care costs, the right thing to do was to introduce universal health-care coverage, said Mr Shanmugam, who is also the Law Minister. This will be in the form of the new MediShield Life, which will replace the national health insurance scheme next year and cover citizens for life.

Premiums are expected to be substantially higher than those for the current MediShield, but the Government has announced permanent subsidies for both low- and middle-income Singaporeans.

The pioneer generation, who are 65 years and older this year, will also receive hefty subsidies of between 40 and 60 per cent.

Many other countries have universal health coverage and the financial burden falls on future generations as the cost is funded by borrowing. But Singapore is careful not to take this path, Mr Shanmugam said.

So, the costs of funding premiums for those 65 and older is being drawn from this year's Budget that provides for an $8billion Pioneer Generation Package.

Health-care policy in this case was necessitated by population changes, Mr Shanmugam said, and Singapore could not be ideological about it. "Be honest and upfront. Explain the cost, explain the trade-offs... and on the whole you will be all right."

Doing the responsible thing also extended to how the Government responded to the Little India riot, he said. It took the "hard political calculation" - despite being politically costly - to put in place temporary measures to keep the peace in the heritage neighbourhood, even before a Committee of Inquiry (COI) had completed its investigations.

Alcohol sales were banned on weekends, for instance. The measures were to ensure there would be no repeat of the Dec8 mayhem, he said, adding that this was the Government's responsibility to citizens.

"To leave it to the COI and refuse to do anything is an abdication of responsibility, which a lot of governments do," he added. "Then they cannot be criticised."

Last month, Parliament also passed a temporary Bill to curtail the authorities' powers in Little India. It had been relying, after the riots, on an emergency-type law that conferred wide-ranging powers - including the use of lethal force - to maintain order.

Mr Shanmugam took issue with a suggestion that foreign worker rights did not rank highly in Singapore. Workers choose to come, and want to stay here, he said.

"Do you think he (a worker) chooses to come to Singapore because we treat him worse than any other country that can take him?" he asked. "Many of the statements that have appeared in the international media don't bear a moment's scrutiny."


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