Taking the pulse at half-time

Taking the pulse at half-time
(From left) Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser, Nominated MP Eugene Tan, Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim, Straits Times assistant political editor Robin Chan, who moderated the session, People’s Action Party MP Hri Kumar Nair and Dr Gillian Koh at the Q and A session of the discussion at the SPH News Centre on April 23, 2014.

SINGAPORE - While there has been progress on several policy fronts since the last General Election, panellists at a round-table discussion organised by The Straits Times this week were divided on what this signifies for the second half of this term of government.

Singaporeans' confidence and optimism that things would get better in the future is "encouraging" and reflected in the findings of a recent survey commissioned by the paper, said People's Action Party (PAP) MP Hri Kumar Nair.

But other speakers such as Nominated MP Eugene Tan said the Government has its work cut out for itself when Parliament reopens next month for its second - and likely shorter - half term.

"Certainly the Government would have been expecting a better report card from the survey respondents," he said. "Put bluntly, I think time is running out."

Mr Nair, however, pointed to a trend where respondents had confidence levels of above 50 per cent in Singapore's future across six out of seven policy areas. Their confidence was also higher than their assessment of whether the Government has improved its handling of these policies since 2011.

Even in transport, for which respondents gave some of the lowest scores in rating how the Government has done, 39 per cent feel the Government has done better or much better but 53 per cent are confident or very confident in the future of the system - a difference of more than 10 points.

"There is assessment of how their lives are being affected now, but there is also a realisation that not all problems can be solved straightaway and also an appreciation that things are being done that will lead to better outcomes," said Mr Nair, who is an MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.

Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim said she was not surprised that respondents generally feel the Government has improved its handling of issues such as health care and housing. Since the 2011 GE, the Government "has very visibly been paying attention to social issues and has been saying so", said the Aljunied GRC MP.

Housing, for instance, has seen tangible progress. Ms Lim and Mr Nair said they now see fewer cases of first-timers facing problems getting a flat - a result of the ramped-up supply of Build-To- Order flats and the delinking of BTO prices from the resale market.

The MPs disagreed, however, on the progress in housing for other groups. Mr Nair noted the Government's moves to allow singles to buy BTOs and help divorcees with housing, while Ms Lim highlighted the difficulty that remains for those who exceed the income criteria for rental flats but cannot afford to enter the open market.

Attention to these groups

However, the panellists singled out two groups that will need special attention: the swathe of respondents who stayed neutral on several questions, and the middle class, sandwiched generation.

The large neutral group suggests that Singaporeans are still not passing judgment yet, said Associate Professor Tan. "That could mean that the Government still has a lot to fight for."

Ms Lim said it was a very healthy development that the electorate "want to make their own assessment after the facts are fully known and the programme is fully implemented".

One area of uncertainty is in health-care costs, she said. Some 34 per cent of respondents did not commit on whether they feel confident of paying for health care in their old age, while about 30 per cent were neutral on whether they support MediShield Life and the Pioneer Generation Package. Both policies have not kicked in yet.

Hence, said Ms Lim, while the Government has announced these two major policies and said that it will look into taking on a bigger share of medical bills, "we're not too sure right now of what it actually means in dollars and cents".

People are also concerned about medical inflation, which might still result in them paying more even if their share of the bill becomes smaller, she said.

Sociologist Tan Ern Ser of the National University of Singapore also flagged the middle class, sandwiched generation as a group to watch. The ST survey found that those aged 35 to 44 tended to be most negative about issues like health care affordability.

But while this group will be helped by policies such as the Pioneer Generation Package, it will take time for the effect to reach them, said the Institute of Policy Studies' Dr Gillian Koh. She said the Government has to be clearer in signalling the policy intent and benefits that people stand to get.

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