SG2015: Insight and hindsight

PHOTO: The Straits Times

Defying the odds for 50 years

This was a year of celebration, commemoration and reflection for Singapore, the nation that founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew described as "improbable (and) unlikely".

When Singapore was thrust into independence in 1965, following its expulsion from the Malaysian Federation, few believed it would overcome the economic, geopolitical and demographic forces lined up against it.

It was a little red dot in a dangerous part of the world, without natural resources or an army of its own. And its people, made up of recent immigrants, had a history of communal tensions.

But today, 50 years on, the nation that should not have been is not only a beacon of what determination and grit can make possible, but also a symbol of defying the odds and overcoming vulnerabilities.

In five decades, Singapore has transformed from a Third World entrepot into a First World metropolis, with gross domestic product per capita soaring 100 times from US$500 (S$708) at independence to US$56,000 this year.

And Singaporeans of different races, religious beliefs and ethnicities enjoy relative peace and harmony in a multiracial society. It would make any nation strut with pride.

Singapore was no different. For 12 months, the country basked in the glory of its achievements, with a long list of SG50 activities. From mega-ticket events such as the SEA Games and National Day Parade to community activities led by Singaporeans, almost every child, teenager, working adult and senior was bitten by the SG50 bug.

The celebratory mood was further enhanced when Singaporeans were given an extra public holiday on Aug 7. It made for an extended Jubilee weekend over four days - from Aug 7 to 10 - for Singaporeans to "commemorate this special milestone year in our history", said President Tony Tan Keng Yam when announcing the public holiday.

In fact, the SG50 Steering Committee set up to plan the Golden Jubilee festivities had started its work two years before, in 2013.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in unveiling the committee then, had said: "Fifty years is a milestone, I don't think we should just have a fireworks display and a party."

The celebration was meant to be a unifying force for Singaporeans to identify as one people.

By the time the country celebrated its birthday on Aug 9, there was a palpable sense of patriotic pride in the air. Singaporeans cheered, sang and teared at the three-hour-long extravaganza at the Padang, where the first post-independence National Day Parade was held in 1966.

Spectators were treated to an unprecedented formation of 20 F-16 fighter jets flying at 600kmh, forming the number 50.

There was also a vintage parade segment, featuring pioneer policemen, nurses, firemen and soldiers in uniforms they wore during parades in the 1960s.

But a tinge of sadness marked the celebratory mood as people mourned the death of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died in March, aged 91.

This year's National Day was the first since independence without Mr Lee in the stands.

His absence, however, made hearts grow fonder of the many moments associated with the man and reminded Singaporeans of the values of multiracialism, meritocracy and equality which he stood for.

Amid the celebration, a growing sense of national identity emerged and Singapore, often in search of itself, seemed to shed some of its existential angst.

Nowhere was this more obvious than during a segment of the parade in which some uniquely Singaporean traits - which were once considered undesirable - were trotted out as proud symbols of the Singaporean identity.

There was a giant tissue packet with the word "chope", or reserve, acknowledging the habit of using tissue packets to reserve seats at hawker centres, and a giant squid with the words "blur like sotong", giving a nod to the Singlish phrase to describe a person's confusion.

SG50 paraphernalia had also become coveted items for many.

This year, goodie bags, typically given to those attending the National Day Parade, were handed out to all 1.2 million Singaporean and permanent resident households.

The special SG50 funpack came in 50 different designs and contained nostalgic items such as childhood card games, erasers with country flags on them, and snacks such as muruku and haw flakes.

Despite the initial indifference that met the launch of the SG50 logo, Singaporeans were soon caught up in the SG50 whirl, buying T-shirts for their own Jubilee parties and decorating their cars with red dots made of foam.

It was perhaps fitting that the "little red dot" - coined by former Indonesian president B.J. Habibie, reportedly to remind Singapore of its place in the world - had been remade as a symbol of the nation's spirit, "signifying that our dreams are not limited by the physical size of our island nation", as the SG50 Steering Committee's website says.

In the end, some 1.7 million people turned up over the Jubilee Weekend, from Aug 7 to 10, to mark Singapore's coming of age.

As a testament to its diplomacy over the years, friends from around the world came for the celebrations.

Foreign dignitaries from 18 countries, including seven heads of state and government, were invited to this year's parade, a first since 1969.

They included Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak, Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key.

In November, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a visit to Singapore, his first since becoming president, marking the 25th anniversary of Sino-Singapore ties.

In the same month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the leader of Asia's biggest democracy, also made his first visit to Singapore to commemorate 50 years of diplomatic ties.

Singapore's President Tan, in turn, made state visits to several countries, including China, France and New Zealand.

Even before the year comes to a close, ever-pragmatic Singapore is already looking to SG100.

To keep the SG50 spirit going and to get Singaporeans working towards a shared future, the Government is holding the Future Of Us exhibition this month, and the SGfuture series of dialogues to start the journey into the next 50 years.

Opening the exhibition, PM Lee had said: "It is up to each one of us to voice our hopes and future dreams, to make the choices to realise these dreams."

Shifting left, moving ahead

British boyband One Direction performed to screaming fans at the National Stadium in March, but the one direction that had Singapore MPs all abuzz during the Budget debate in the same month was the shift to the left in the country's social policies.

People's Action Party MP Alex Yam even invoked pop superstar Beyonce's 2006 ditty Irreplaceable - "To the left, to the left, everything you own in a box to the left" - to caution against overspending.

Fellow PAP MP Vikram Nair, however, noted that Singapore had moved beyond the notions of "left" and "right" to embrace ideas from both sides.

The Jubilee Budget may have been Singapore's largest ever, but a closer look shows it balanced what many billed as a leftward shift with strong support for those in the middle class.

The total expenditure for financial year 2015 is an estimated $68.2 billion, a near 20 per cent increase from FY2014's $57.2 billion.

This was largely due to two factors: transport spending going up considerably with such projects as Changi Airport Terminal 5 and new MRT lines, as well as a 16 per cent bump in social development expenditure to $32.1 billion from $27.6 billion the previous year.

In particular, the Government is pouring a lot of money into schemes that help the elderly and the poor, as well as increasing subsidies for the lower middle class.

The reason for the shift was laid out by Deputy Prime Minister and then-Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in his speech wrapping up the Budget debate.

The Government, he said, had "embarked on major moves to build a more inclusive society and mitigate inequalities".

"The system is not just about redistributing from the rich to the poor, it's also about the middle-income group," he said. "Very importantly, the middle-income group in Singapore are net beneficiaries of our system."

Political watcher Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University and a former Nominated MP, tells The Sunday Times the redistributive policies are motivated by the widening income and wealth gaps.

They are also "undergirded by a conviction that sustaining political legitimacy entails this need for a revitalised social compact" between the Government and the people.

The two key policies in Budget 2015 that are symbolic of the shift to the left are the permanent Silver Support Scheme and SkillsFuture initiative.

Silver Support aims to forge a new compact in what Mr Tharman calls "fairness in retirement".

The scheme will support the poorest 30 per cent of Singaporeans aged 65 and older through payouts of between $300 and $750 every three months. This will cost the Government about $350 million in the first year, and is set to grow as more Singaporeans turn 65.

SkillsFuture is billed by Mr Tharman as a "major force for social mobility". From next year, Singaporeans aged 25 and above will get $500 worth of SkillsFuture credits that can be used to pay for about 10,000 courses. More than $1 billion has been set aside to fund this national effort to encourage Singaporeans to pursue lifelong learning.

The credits will not expire, and will be topped up periodically.

Other policy measures in 2015 include major changes to the Central Provident Fund (CPF) retirement scheme to offer greater flexibility to members to customise their savings and payouts on retirement.

Middle-income workers will be able to grow their nest egg as the salary ceiling for calculating CPF contributions will be raised from $5,000 to $6,000 on Jan 1, 2016.

Older workers will get a boost in their retirement savings, as CPF contribution rates for those aged above 50 will rise by between 0.5 percentage point and 2 percentage points.

Other Budget measures to help the middle income include an expanded childcare subsidy scheme, reduced maid levies and the waiver of national examination fees for their children.

This bumper crop of policy announcements comes a year after Budget 2014 made major moves to address concerns over the cost of healthcare; namely, the introduction of the $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package for Singaporeans aged 65 and older, and MediShield Life.

MediShield Life, which took effect on Nov 1, covers all 3.9 million Singaporeans and permanent residents from birth to death. Claim limits for hospital bills and some outpatient treatments are now higher, and the lifetime cap of $300,000 claimable under MediShield was lifted.

Meanwhile, lower- and-middle- income citizens on the Community Health Assist Scheme were given larger discounts on subsidised medicine at polyclinics or specialist outpatient clinics.

When Singapore was shrouded by the haze, the Government was moved to give those under the age of 18 or over 65, as well as low- to middle-income earners, subsidised treatment at more than 450 general practitioner clinics and polyclinics for haze-related ailments.

About 50,000 people benefited from it over two months.

At this year's National Day Rally, more incentives were also offered to nudge couples to have more babies to lift the low birth rate. These include enhancing the Baby Bonus scheme, a higher Medisave grant for newborns and an extra week of paid paternity leave funded by the Government.

The Singapore approach to income redistribution was vividly described by Mr Tharman at a special Economic Society of Singapore lecture in August. He said: "No government can have a hands-off strategy, where people are left to fend for themselves. Neither should we have handouts all along the way, because that just takes the dignity out of people.

"Let's instead keep providing hand-ups, especially for those who start with less, helping them develop their strengths and have a real chance of doing well. Empower people, and enable them to earn their own success."

For most Singaporeans, these policies go beyond the labels of "left" or "right". What matters is having ample chances to earn a better income and have enough for retirement.

As PAP MP Denise Phua puts it: "Whether we're going right or left, as long as we're not going backwards, we're going forward."

Lasting legacy of election that put fresh spin to talk of 'new normal'

An hour after polls closed on Sept 11, the usually reticent Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang gave a rare impromptu interview outside his town council office in Hougang.

Seated on a bench and with one arm draped over the backrest, he told The Straits Times that the party "should be able to retain" Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and that he believed it was doing "all right" in the contest to retain the Hougang and Punggol East single-seat wards.

Meanwhile, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say was holed up in the People's Action Party's (PAP's) Bedok branch in New Upper Changi Road for what looked like a long night ahead.

His East Coast GRC teammate Lee Yi Shyan was visiting counting centres to get a picture of how the vote was shaping up in a GRC that some analysts had believed could be the next to fall to the WP.

The contrasting sense of confidence on the one hand, and apprehension on the other, mirrored the sentiments of the opposition and the ruling party as they headed into General Election 2015.

Many in the opposition camp, as well as among political watchers, saw the election as one in which the WP would build on its gains in GE2011. And they believed the electorate's yearning for greater political diversity in Parliament would continue unabated.

But in the early hours of Sept 12, the faces told a different story.

The PAP romped home with 69.9 per cent of the national vote - a 9.8-percentage-point upswing from its 2011 showing, and its best performance since GE2001.

Opposition leaders put a gloss on their performance, with Mr Low pointing out that the WP's net loss was just one seat - Punggol East.

But Reform Party chief Kenneth Jeyaretnam was caustic in his assessment of the outcome, telling reporters that "Singaporeans get the government they deserve, so I don't want to hear any complaints".

ELECTION SEASON

The year began with the air thick with speculation that an election was on the cards. Just a month earlier, in December, Prime Minister and secretary-general Lee Hsien Loong primed the party faithful at the PAP's 60th anniversary and party convention, saying that the next election would be "a deadly serious fight", and underscored the need to put a team in place to take the country forward.

The Government's Budget in February, which proved to be the last before the general election, held more clues. The more apparent shift to the left in social policies underlined what Deputy Prime Minister and then Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam described as major initiatives taken in recent years to empower Singaporeans at each stage of their lives.

Meticulously planned Golden Jubilee celebrations and the mood generated - tempered by the spontaneous outpouring of grief at the death of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in March - were developments that combined to suggest that it was a question of when, not if, the election would be called.

Yet it was still far from certain how the PAP would fare. It was bruised by the outcome of GE2011, when it had its worst electoral showing since Independence with 60.1 per cent of the vote share, and lost a GRC for the first time. But the setback prompted soul-searching within the party, as well as a systematic addressing of the GE2011 hot-button issues of housing, transport, cost of living, and population and foreigners by the Government.

The party's approaches changed in other ways: greater use of social media; spending a longer time with residents; and having potential candidates on the ground much earlier than previously so residents can assess and be more familiar with them.

OPPOSITION BUZZ

The opposition, on the other hand, appeared confident of keeping the momentum from 2011 going, and contested all electoral seats for the first time since Independence in 1965.

The parties attracted candidates with strong qualifications like consultancy firm chief executive Leon Perera, who was at Oxford on a government scholarship and graduated with double first-class honours; National University of Singapore sociology professor Daniel Goh; and medical professor Paul Tambyah.

It suggested that the opposition's ability to attract a different calibre of candidate, as seen in the previous election, was no fluke.

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) launched its election campaign early - in January - and was buoyed by the return of secretary-general Chee Soon Juan. With his defamation suit out of the way, he could contest his first election since 2001 and presented a softer, more moderate image.

The Reform Party generated interest with its recruitment of three Speakers' Corner regulars: rights lawyer M. Ravi, blogger Roy Ngerng and career counsellor Gilbert Goh.

But the focus remained on the WP, the only opposition party with elected MPs, and whether it would claim another GRC. It evidently believed it could, and assumed that Aljunied GRC was safe.

The WP's incumbents, its "A-Team", did minimal campaigning there, choosing to focus instead on helping to bring in the votes in the other constituencies where the WP was contesting - in particular, in East Coast GRC.

The approach almost cost them. It took a recount, after which anxious supporters learnt that the team retained Aljunied GRC by the skin of their teeth: with just 50.96 per cent of the vote.

Was the WP's showing the result of misreading the ground, and an overestimation of the electorate's appetite for opposition growth?

Party leaders, usually guarded and cautious, had begun talking openly about having at least 20 opposition MPs, so as to be an effective check on the Government.

In the wake of the results and as the WP, like others, continues its post-mortem, it will have to assess whether its ambitions, including that of developing a stronghold in the eastern part of Singapore, proved to be too much of a target for the electorate to stomach.

THE ROAD AHEAD

The nine-day election campaign was documented and instantly uploaded via smartphones. No moment was spared - whether it was a PAP candidate's enthusiastic fist pumping, or an opposition candidate catching himself just after urging the crowd to vote for the ruling party.

But the lasting legacy of GE2015 goes beyond such episodes.

The election has, arguably, cast a new perspective on GE2011 - which was labelled far and wide as providing the first steps in a gradual but inexorable move towards a two-party system that mature democracies are supposed to have.

But perhaps everyone was too quick to declare the beginnings of a "new normal" for politics here.

There is agreement among political watchers that in 2011, voters used the election to signal their displeasure with a range of policies by voting against the PAP. It is less clear if the outcome meant that they accepted the opposition's argument about needing a sizeable presence in Parliament to provide checks and balances.

What is certain, however, is that Singaporeans recognise that the power to pass judgment on the performance of the Government, or on political parties competing for their attention, rests squarely with them.

On Sept 11 this year, voters told the PAP just what they thought of its policies, plans and performance.

And to be sure, they also sent a similar message to the opposition parties.

Staying vigilant against the threat of ISIS

If 2014 was the year that terror group ISIS sent shockwaves around the world in declaring its self-styled caliphate, 2015 was the year Singaporeans were constantly reminded of the clear and present danger the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria poses.

Apart from global terror attacks that demonstrated the growing influence and reach of ISIS, and foiled plots targeting Malaysia's Parliament, social media postings this year identified Singapore as a possible target for attack.

Also, four Singaporeans were detained under the Internal Security Act for wanting to join the group.

One of them, polytechnic student M. Arifil Azim Putra Norja'i, now 20, was the first individual linked to ISIS posing a threat on Singapore soil. He had made plans to assassinate President Tony Tan Keng Yam and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong if he could not travel to Syria. If he could not do so, he was planning to carry out attacks in public places using easily available weapons like knives. He was detained in May.

The three others detained were not said to be plotting specific attacks but had wanted to travel abroad to fight alongside ISIS.

In July, Mustafa Sultan Ali, now 52, was detained after the Turkish authorities deported him for trying to cross into Syria to join ISIS.

In August, Muhammad Shamin Mohamed Sidek, now 29, and Harith Jailani, now 19, were detained in separate cases for planning to join ISIS.

And a radicalised 17-year-old student was placed under a Restriction Order which limits his activities.

There have been others who tried to travel to Syria through Singapore to evade detection. Last month, two Indonesians arriving by ferry from Batam with the intention of going on to Syria were denied entry. They reportedly used false documents.

In the region, a Singaporean became a fatality to a terror attack. Ms Melisa Liu, 34, who worked for insurer AXA, was killed in a bomb blast at Bangkok's Erawan Shrine on Aug 17. Her husband Ng Su Teck, 35, and her brother were among seven Singaporeans injured in the incident.

Whether or not the bombing is directly linked to ISIS, it raises the spectre of similar attacks being plotted and carried out in the region by ISIS sympathisers and returning fighters.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in Washington earlier this month that recent years have seen the number of ISIS sympathisers eclipse the number of supporters its predecessor Al-Qaeda had in the decade when it was influential.

Some 700 Indonesians and more than 150 Malaysians have joined ISIS in the Middle East, and a major concern for many in the region is that they will pose a danger when they return home with combat experience.

ISIS has claimed responsibility or inspired attacks around the world, from massacres in Paris in January and November to the downing of a Russian passenger plane over the Sinai and a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, this month.

Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, head of policy studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, notes that Abdelhamid Abaaoud - the apparent architect of the Nov 13 Paris attacks - had returned from Syria.

ISIS' ability to mount devastating and coordinated urban terrorist assaults will improve as more such trained, hardened fighters return.

The Bangkok-based UN Office on Drugs and Crime has also pointed to a growing link between South-east Asian radical networks and ISIS.

The situation today is beginning to resemble the early noughties, when returning fighters who had fought in the Soviet-Afghan war formed Jemaah Islamiah (JI), whose Singapore cell plotted attacks on several embassies here.

ISIS has also been aggressive on social media. The Straits Times this year reported videos the group released in Malay that showed the indoctrination and grooming of children of fighters in ISIS' South-east Asian combat unit, Katibah Nusantara, encouraging others to join them.

International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research analyst Jasminder Singh says such videos show that if they return home, "the problem is not going to end just with their parents, but continue into the next generation".

Singapore has been active in fighting ISIS, including deploying military planners to assist the multinational coalition against the group.

It has also long maintained that rehabilitation of radicals is a key part of tackling the ISIS threat, and initiatives to share know-how and help the community counter radical ideology gained urgency this year.

In April, Singapore organised an East Asia Summit symposium on terrorist rehabilitation and social reintegration for scholars, religious leaders and officials from 30 countries.

In June, the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), Muslim scholars who counsel terror detainees and radicalised individuals - launched a manual to help counsellors counter ISIS' message. It traces the evolution and organisation of ISIS, and collects research by reputable scholars that debunks its radical rhetoric.

In July, RRG launched a helpline for counsellors to clarify religious concepts misused by extremists or guide callers who suspect someone is being radicalised. It also uploaded videos explaining how ISIS has misinterpreted Islamic teachings.

In August, the Inter-Agency Aftercare Group put out a book that shed light on its work in supporting the families of terror detainees since 2002, and helping rehabilitated individuals reintegrate into society.

And in October, several Muslim groups named 20 young men and women "ambassadors of peace" to reach out to their peers and engage them on the importance of harmony and moderation - recognition that youth are key to the ongoing battle for hearts and minds as ISIS seeks to amplify its reach online.

The Home Team and Singapore Armed Forces have also stepped up their guard, including through annual Exercise Northstar in May and Exercise Heartbeat in November to test their preparedness in an attack.

This constant vigilance underlines analysts' warnings that Singapore remains a high-value, symbolic target for ISIS and its allies.

As Mr Singh puts it: "They haven't yet got the opportunity to conduct anything here because of the security environment, but we can't take that for granted because they will keep trying."


This article was first published on Dec 20, 2015.
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