Saturday, January 15, 2011

Prospects Good for Greater Political Pluralism in Singapore

Last year was not a year of dramatic change for Singapore. It was, instead, a year for fine-tuning existing public policies to meet the impending and fluid economic and political challenges of globalization.

One of the key decisions the government made in 2010 was to reduce the number of foreign workers admitted into the city-state. The ruling People’s Action Party has always believed that the expansion of the domestic economy is crucial to economic growth — a belief manifested through a variety of liberal immigrant and labor policies.

But economists and analysts have pointed out that the over-reliance on foreign workers has had a negative impact on the country’s productivity levels. Easy access to cheap foreign labor, for example, remains an obstacle for small and medium-size enterprises to upgrade their operations.

The issue of foreigners is as much an economic as it is a political one. Increasing concerns from citizens have also led to a reconsideration of such policies. Since 2007, approximately 150,000 foreign workers have entered Singapore per year, and they now make up about one-third of the island’s three million-strong workforce. This surge in population figures has resulted in local concerns regarding overcrowding in public transportation and other public facilities, as well as unwanted competition for jobs and housing.

In order to address such concerns, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the inflow of foreign workers would be adjusted this year, while making clear that they continued to play a key role in the expansion of the economy. The question is whether this calculated reduction in foreign workers represents a short or long-term solution. The answer may be clearer after the general elections due by February 2012.

Another example of policy fine-tuning was the publication of the 2010 Censorship Review Committee report. With an eye toward regulating new media platforms, the government commissioned the committee to explore ways to improve existing media guidelines. Among the many recommendations, the committee called for the introduction of a PG-13 rating; a calibrated approach on Restricted 21 content, by allowing it on video-on-demand on pay TV only; and the introduction of a term license scheme for arts and entertainment.

Even as the government strives to retain control over technological and media advances, the real issue here is how it will juggle the demands of the religious and moral conservatives against those citizens who desire greater cultural and lifestyle freedoms.

Moving on, the question on everyone’s lips entering 2011 is whether this will be the year of the general elections. If so, the PAP will have to negotiate several issues. The economy and employment will remain top priority. Although there are signs that the economy is recovering — given the end of the recession in the United States — unemployment figures are likely to remain high for now.

Other perennial issues that will set the tone for the elections are the rising costs of living, the widening wage gap and high ministerial salaries. Observers will also be watching to see if the most well organized among the opposition parties, the Workers’ Party, will be able to claim its first Group Representation Constituency or if it will remain hemmed in with a single seat. The Singapore Democratic Alliance’s leader, Chiam See Tong, will similarly attempt to win over a GRC. And finally, the wild card in the pack is the Reform Party. Founded by the late opposition veteran J.B. Jeyaretnam, it is now led by his eldest son, Kenneth Jeyaretnam, who has succeeded in attracting highly educated and qualified individuals to the party.

Collectively, the opposition parties on offer provide an interesting mix of styles. The Workers’ Party plays the role of loyal opposition, acknowledging that the PAP is best qualified to lead and campaigns on the need for minor tweaks in an otherwise efficient system.

The confrontational politics and civil disobedience practiced by the Singapore Democratic Party project it as a more marginal group that views the PAP’s hegemony as a clear obstacle to a more socially and politically equitable society.

Finally, the Reform Party’s agenda to re-examine the economic and political fundamentals of Singapore’s successes suggests a radical re-conceptualization of the country’s future.

Whatever the styles, if these opposition parties play their cards right and take advantage of the relaxed regulations in the year ahead, the Singapore voter may edge one step closer toward greater political pluralism.

By Dr. K. Kesavapany director of Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and is Singapore’s ambassador to Jordan.

East Asia Forum

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