The Citizens’ Agenda: The Parties Respond

Author: Thum Ping Tjin
Published:

Nearly a year ago, we embarked on the Citizens’ Agenda: our quest to find out what our Singaporean community thinks are the most important issues facing Singapore, and then to write and commission journalism features, research, comics, podcasts, and videos on those subjects.

We summarised the answers from Stage 1 into 28 issues. In Stage 2, we asked our community to vote on the top 5 issues. In the months since, we’ve commissioned and released those articles, discussed them in democracy classrooms, and published them all in a book (The Singapore Citizens’ Agenda, available for sale now!).

Now, with Singapore’s General Election looming, we complete this iteration of the Citizens’ Agenda by telling you how the political parties responded to the issues. We reproduce our email to the parties below, and produce all their answers verbatim.

Our thanks to the parties who responded, and to everyone who took part in the Citizens’ Agenda. This has been a tremendous experience for us, and we hope it has been educational for everyone, Singaporean or otherwise. We plan to run an improved version of The Citizens’ Agenda in Malaysia next, and then to run it again in Singapore next year.

Summary Results

The Citizens’ Agenda: The Parties Respond

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing on behalf of New Naratif, a movement for democracy, freedom of information, and freedom of expression in Southeast Asia. Last year, a survey of nearly 800 members of our community (“The Citizens’ Agenda”) identified what they perceived as the top five issues facing Singapore. I am writing to ask your party’s position on these five issues ahead of the imminent General Election. They are listed below with corresponding questions and I would appreciate it very much if you could answer them. Your answers would help Singaporeans make informed decisions about their vote in the next election. The answers you provide will be listed, verbatim, on our website at newnaratif.com/citizensagenda. You can also visit that site to examine the process of The Citizens’ Agenda, our methodology, and the data and reports from the first two stages.

Issue #1: Transparency and Accountability: Does [your party] agree that increased transparency and accountability from elected and unelected public officials is a good thing? If elected to power, what initiatives would you introduce to promote increased transparency and accountability?

Issue #2: Destructive politics: How would [your party] create a political environment which encourages constructive input from all Singaporeans? How would your party eliminate any reluctance that Singaporeans may have of speaking up or getting involved in politics for fear of getting in trouble or retribution?

Issue #3: Inequality: How would [your party] address the growing inequality between the rich and poor in Singapore? What is the role of government in society in addressing inequality? How would you reform Singapore’s social welfare net?

Issue #4: Cost of Living: How would [your party] tackle Singapore’s high cost of living and make life more affordable for citizens? Which structural reforms are necessary?

Issue #5: Discrimination: How would [your party] end discrimination in all its forms—e.g. race, colour, gender (including gender identity), SOGIESC (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics), marital status, age, physical or mental disability, medical condition (including HIV/AIDS and cancer/genetic information), military service? To what extent should government intervene into society to end discrimination?

Thank you very much. I look forward to your reply.

Yours faithfully,
PJ Thum

Thank you for inviting Red Dot United to comment on the top five issues your readers voted as most pressing for Singapore.  I hope we have addressed the questions you raised.  Should you need us to explain further or address any area we missed out, please let us know.

#1: Transparency and Accountability

RDU believes that good and responsible government is attentive to the needs of all the people it represents. Their service to the people should not be affected by the political affiliation of the citizens.

RDU does not subscribe to the idea that government leaders and ministers need to be paid in excess to prevent corruption. Several other countries rank above Singapore in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and not one of the higher-ranking countries has ministers paid anywhere close to Singapore’s ministers.

We disagree that a person’s worth is in the salary he earns.  History, including our nation’s own, has proven that exceptional political leaders will do their best out of a love of the nation, and not for money alone.

PAP has been in power for a long time, since 1959, and its leaders have enormous powers of social, economic and political control. They have argued these are necessary to prevent the emergence of a rogue government. But what if a government is too strong and too opaque?

We quote from Transparency International’s Global Corruption Report, “Information is perhaps the most important weapon against corruption.” Being open can help keep us honest and as citizens, we should ask for the right to clear and open communication and access to the information we need.

Our key values here are: Accountability, Integrity, Transparency and Independence.

Our policy suggestions are:

  • have a Freedom of Information Act which will allow citizens to request and obtain government information
  • adhere to the principle of ministerial responsibility – where ministers are held to account for matters for which they were personally responsible or where they were aware of problems but had not acted to rectify them
  • MPs to declare any financial or non-financial benefits received, which might reasonably be thought by others to influence their actions, speeches or votes in Parliament or in their capacity as an MP
  • the PAP whip to be lifted in Parliament more often to allow MPs to vote according to their conscience

#2: Destructive Politics

RDU believes that the best society is based on cooperating with mutual consideration and respect. We are interested in debating ideas and not judging people. All citizens are mutually dependent on each other and are valuable to our society.

We will not engage in personal attacks, but instead encourage Singaporeans to pursue knowledge and understand various perspectives before forming reasoned and balanced opinions. Singaporeans also need to know the political history of our nation because it provides the tools to understand and critically assess many contemporary problems and policies.

Political decisions affect many lives and the future of our country. It is natural and right for citizens to be interested in what is happening around them and the decisions made by government that will impact their lives. It is important to share your own opinion, hear the opinions of other Singaporeans and discuss them to find directions that will foster the resilience of our nation.

Our key values here are: Respect, Equality, Fairness and Heart (empathy and compassion).

Our policy suggestions are:

  • independent Elections Department, outside of the PMO
  • only Courts be empowered to declare any piece of information as deliberate falsehoods
  • include politics and current affairs for education and balanced discussion in schools
  • de-politicize the People’s Association and other grassroots organizations

#3: Inequality

RDU believes in sustainable capitalism which incorporates the goal of social justice. The focus of our economy cannot be solely on maximizing wealth, but should also aim to meet minimum needs of all the people. Sustainable capitalism means that even if you earn lower incomes, you will not be prevented access to certain basic goods and services.

Nearly 20% of Singapore’s households have a monthly household income of less than $2000. For whatever the reason, resources in Singapore have now been allocated such that the rich get richer while the poor have little hope of catching a ride on the idealized escalator-that-keeps-moving-up analogy suggested by DPM Tharman. China reduced its poverty rate from 10% in 2012 to % in 2017, lifting 60 million people out of poverty in just five years.

Let’s start by owning the problems and facing the statistics. Establish what the poverty line is in Singapore, measure against the living costs of basic necessities, then set policies on wages or living allowances for the impoverished elderly from there.

In Singapore, social mobility increasingly depends on the income level that one starts with. If income inequality worsens over time, it will affect the next generation’s chances of social mobility and their ability to take charge of their own lives. RDU has several policy proposals which are targeted at bringing the focus to growing the wage share of Singaporeans.

Our key values here are: Equality, Fairness, Happiness, Hope and Heart (empathy and compassion).

Our policy suggestions are:

  • decrease class sizes in all neighbourhood schools so as to provide more attention for children whose parents work hard to earn a living, and enforce a minimal homework policy for primary schools so as to dispense with the need for expensive tuition classes
  • free education up to tertiary level for children from families in the bottom 20% of household incomes
  • central oversight of social welfare provision schemes, coordinating and supporting the many VWOs doing good work for Singaporeans
  • change political leaders’ KPIs to reflect the standards of the weakest and poorest in Singapore, rather than the richest and most successful – namely, their salaries to be pegged to a percentage of the median income of the median earners rather than of the top 1000 earners in the country or to GDP

#4: Cost of Living

RDU sees that many Singaporeans are burdened with the anxiety and stresses caused by financial insecurity and livelihood uncertainties. We cannot look clearly at the present, much less the future, when we are constantly worrying about issues like our jobs, our healthcare expenses, and our retirement adequacy. We cannot take on the future with a sense of hope and confidence if we are overly anxious of the cost of failure and a fear of not being able to bounce back from adverse circumstances.

We will purposefully work towards reducing the unnecessary anxiety levels for Singaporeans. Singaporean economists have pointed out that excessive savings into the reserves has had a high opportunity cost and impact on the Singaporeans of older and current generations. The government takes in money from the public and private businesses in many forms – GST, ERP, COE, HDB, fees, worker levies and others. This leaves our people much less money to spend on consumption and investment. The government then spends on large national projects such as Jewel and Changi Terminal Five to boost the economy. Much of our reserves is also sent abroad to fund the portfolio assets of our two sovereign wealth funds.

The size and regularity of Singapore’s annual budget surpluses, if calculated by IMF standards, are historically unmatched by any other modern country. We would like to see a conscious reduction of the money collected from Singaporean individuals and companies, to promote domestic economic growth. The economists have calculated there is also enough to fund a larger social safety net, by providing income supplement for Singapore’s poor and elderly. Our impoverished elderly worked hard and saved over decades to contribute to the accumulation of our reserves, while living costs spiraled and they found themselves unable to afford a comfortable retirement.

Our key values here are: Fairness, Accountability, Integrity, Transparency, Happiness, Hope and Heart (empathy and compassion).

Our policy suggestions are:

  • establish a watchdog agency to examine healthcare costs and abuses of the system or consider a national health insurance scheme, incentivizing government regulation of healthcare costs
  • provide a free daily meal for our impoverished elderly or disadvantaged families through hawker stalls which are reimbursed for the meals
  • increase number of public rental flats for the low-income, elderly or young singles
  • provide a better income supplement for our impoverished elderly and those living below the poverty line

#5: Discrimination

RDU believes in supporting and promoting the rights and equality of opportunities for all citizens.

Multiculturalism is an essential Singaporean DNA trait, founded upon the acceptance and celebration of our different cultures and traditions. Differential treatment, based on to-be-agreed-upon attributes, e.g. age, race, gender, religion, political affiliation, etc. should be unlawful and certainly not part of any government policy or institution.

Going one step further, the weak and disenfranchised who are not always able to speak up for themselves – the people with disability, the children, also the foreign workers in Singapore – need to have the government look out for their rights and care about their protection, intervening and providing special facilities and resources where necessary. True community-building can only take place when partisan politics and self-interests are taken out of the equation. Old and new citizens alike should forge a strong Singaporean identity of togetherness that will foster a sense of belonging, patriotism, community and happiness.

Our key values here are: Equality, Fairness, Hope and Heart (empathy and compassion).

Our policy suggestions are:

  • legislate to better protect the rights of minorities and those who are bullied by the status quo
  • emphasize sports and other life-skills training for our children, where they can interact across schools and economic divides
  • build non-politically-aligned platforms where Singaporeans, new citizens, PRs and foreigners living in Singapore can interact and form meaningful friendships
  • consider shortening length of national service and implementing non-military national service for all new citizens (including first generation new citizens, regardless of age).

Warmest regards,

Michelle Lee
Chairperson
Red Dot United

Thank you for approaching us. I am well aware of New Naratif and the sterling work you do in challenging the Government narrative.

You say you have 800 members and that they have identified five issues as the top ones facing Singapore. I do not agree that these are the top 5 issues or that Singaporeans regard them as such. I am afraid your sample size is too small and is not representative. Generally most Singaporeans are not concerned with the lack of transparency or whether the Government's wealth is being used for their benefit but more likely to be swayed by handouts of a few hundred dollars given to them just before elections. This is likely to be the case at the next election gain though I do not think it is imminent. Even if the Government goes ahead it will lack even less legitimacy than it normally does. We are still in discussions with other parties about forming alliances but will publish a short manifesto or list of pledges before the election.

We have been at the forefront on transparency as I am sure you are aware. Since 2011 I have called for more information on the reserves and the assets of Temasek, GIC, Changi AIrport Group etc and for the PM's wife's salary to be made public. Please read my blog at kenjeyaretnam.com My calls have now been widely adopted with even the PM's brother asking why Ho Ching's remuneration is secret.

The only "destructive politics" is the type practised by the PAP. I do not like the phrase which has no place in a democracy. Notably LHL in his condolence letter accused my dad of wanting to destroy the PAP and Singapore's whole system of government. Sadly most of the opposition, out of fear or hope of advancement, also subscribes to the idea that the Opposition must be "constructive". When Nicole Seah was a member of RP she like to use the phrase "don't oppose for the sake of opposing" and "don't criticise the PAP." This is also the stance adopted by the tolerated Parliamentary opposition, Workers Party.

Discrimination, particularly against LGBT people or minorities, is definitely not a hot-button issue. I went out on a limb, much further than his own party SDP,  in supporting Vincent Wijeyasinghe when he was attacked by Vivian Balakrishnan for being gay. Shortly after Vincent was forced out or resigned from SDP. We have also fielded two openly gay candidates, Roy Ngerng and M. Ravi. Our stance against racial discrimination is well known.

Please let me know if you need any further clarification.

Regards

Kenneth Jeyaretnam

Please see our answers below each of your questions...
Issue #1: Transparency and Accountability: Does the SDP agree that increased transparency and accountability from elected and unelected public officials is a good thing? If elected to power, what initiatives would you introduce to promote increased transparency and accountability?
Transparency can, for the SDP, realistically start at the "local" level ie. running of town councils (TCs). The SDP has laid out our TC plans (https://cdn.yoursdp.org/s/asset/SystemFile/SDP_TC_Management_v2.pdf) to post online our activities & plans from financial management to staff hiring to procurement and invite residents to track them. The ability to operate with openness and accountability will lead to confidence in the party's running of local offices and establish standards that will allow us to call for similar approach and standards in national governance particularly as it applies to the formulation of our national budget and the running of the PA, NTUC, GIC and Temasek.
Issue #2: Destructive politics: How would the SDP create a political environment which encourages constructive input from all Singaporeans? How would your party eliminate any reluctance that Singaporeans may have of speaking up or getting involved in politics for fear of getting in trouble or retribution?
The only avenue of communication in Singapore's political environment is through social media. To build confidence among the electorate, it is important that the opposition engages in reasoned argument. Singaporeans, despite their fear of political change, respond better to the kind of opposition that presents intelligent arguments based on reason than colourful rhetoric.
Issue #3: Inequality: How would the SDP address the growing inequality between the rich and poor in Singapore? What is the role of government in society in addressing inequality? How would you reform Singapore’s social welfare net?
Legislate a minimum wage Introduce universal healthcare through our National Healthcare Plan where we remove the '3Ms' and introduce our NHIF (National Health Investment Fund) where everyone is guaranteed quality healthcare regardless of economic status. https://yoursdp.org/news/sdp_39_s_alternative_plan_will_make_healthcare_system_fairer_and_more_sustainable Pay retirement income of $500 to the elderly through our Retirement Income Scheme for the Elderly (RISE) which will be announced shortly. Mandate retrenchment insurance https://yoursdp.org/news/sdp_proposes_restart_to_support_retrenched_workers Reform our school system essentially by levelling up neighborhood schools. https://yoursdp.org/news/sdp_our_education_system_in_dire_need_of_reform_shows_how_to_do_it
Issue #4: Cost of Living: How would the SDP tackle Singapore’s high cost of living and make life more affordable for citizens? Which structural reforms are necessary?
Please see https://yoursdp.org/news/12-1
Issue #5: Discrimination: How would the SDP end discrimination in all its forms—e.g. race, colour, gender (including gender identity), SOGIESC (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics), marital status, age, physical or mental disability, medical condition (including HIV/AIDS and cancer/genetic information), military service? To what extent should government intervene into society to end discrimination?
One of our major concerns is the continued discrimination of our minority ethnic groups especially the Malay community. https://yoursdp.org/policy/malay-community

John Tan
Vice-Chairman
Singapore Democratic Party

Hope this reaches you well.

Thank you for your email and we apologise for the terribly delayed response.[Note: They were actually the first party to respond. -ed.]

Before we address the questions, we would like to put on record our appreciation for all the good work that you and your team at New Naratif do.

Many, if not all, of the topics and issues canvassed in your questions will be addressed in our manifesto, which we intend to release shortly after the dissolution of Parliament. However, for the purposes of this email, we will answer your questions from a first-principles approach and to give a general overview. Further details will be set out in our manifesto.

To put things in perspective, the SPP intends to contest no more than 7 seats at the upcoming General Elections. Accordingly, many of our activities, outreach and policies are centered around the localities in which we will be contesting. We are also cognisant of the fact that we will not be in a position to implement policy following the GE. Therefore, all of our ideas are premised upon principles and broad policies that we will advocate for in Parliament if we are given the opportunity to serve as elected representatives. In addition to serving as the voice of our residents, we also intend to play a bigger role as an effective check and balance on the powers that be.

1) Accountability is one of the 3 core values that guides the SPP. We opine that accountability mechanisms which are effective and institutionally robust are vital to any democratic society. One mechanism of accountability is exercised through elected members of the opposition in Parliament, who act as a check and balance on the powers that be. Other accountability mechanisms can be instituted through the law and some through independent bodies.

Accountability is also the basis upon which informed debated can emanate. With accountability and transparency, trust in the Government can improve and all parties will be better placed to come up with the best ideas and solutions for Singapore. Stronger accountability and transparency will also help to deal with fake news and reduce information asymmetry.

In our manifesto, accountability is a common thread that runs through many of our ideas and policies. For example, we advocate for the enactment of a Fixed Terms of Parliaments Act, the publication of CPF returns and urge all elected officials to publicly declare their assets. As stated, we will elaborate further on these policies in our manifesto.

2) At the SPP, we believe that political discourse should be constructive, compassionate and evidenced-based. We believe that it is through a contest of ideas that the best ideas for Singapore and Singaporeans can prevail. There is little value, if any, in populist rhetoric and mud-slinging as they detract from the real issues at hand. We will also advocate for ideas and policies that promote vibrant and robust debate in society.

3) Inequality is a pressing issue in Singapore which we have addressed at length in our manifesto. We believe that Singaporeans should not be treated as mere economic digits. We also believe that we must pay special attention to groups of people who may be affected by economic stagnation and increases in the cost of living disproportionately. Policies must be specifically calibrated to ensure a more robust and aggressive safety net for those who are the most vulnerable amongst us. In this vein, we advocate for no further increases in regressive taxes like GST, the enactment of a national minimum wage and stronger labour laws.

4) In relation to the cost of living, some our our proposals include:-

  • No further increase in regressive taxes like GST
  • Higher payouts for the Silver Support Scheme and for welfare payouts to track increases in the cost of living
  • A national minimum wage
  • Rethinking our CPF scheme to ensure that it meets the needs of retirement adequacy

5) The SPP takes a principled stance against discrimination in all forms. We believe that the law and policy should not be discriminatory or enable discrimination.

Hope this helps answer your questions. We would be obliged if you could include a note to state that our ideas and policies will be set out in further detail in our manifesto and that the above only serves as a general overview of our position.

Don't hesitate to let us know if you have any queries in relation to the above.
Keep up the good fight.

Ariffin Sha
Assistant Secretary-General
Singapore People's Party

Thum Ping Tjin

Thum Ping Tjin (“PJ”) is Managing Director of New Naratif and founding director of Project Southeast Asia, an interdisciplinary research centre on Southeast Asia at the University of Oxford. A Rhodes Scholar, Commonwealth Scholar, Olympic athlete, and the only Singaporean to swim the English Channel, his work centres on Southeast Asian governance and politics. His most recent work is Living with Myths in Singapore (Ethos: 2017, co-edited with Loh Kah Seng and Jack Chia). He is creator of “The History of Singapore” podcast, available on iTunes. Reach him at pingtjin.thum@newnaratif.com.

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