Solid but with holes: the Workers’ Party manifesto

There is almost nothing that I disagree with in the Workers’ Party manifesto released 9 April 2011 for the upcoming general election. Clearly, a lot of thought has gone into it, and it has a coherence that is praiseworthy.

While solid in the areas it covers, it struck me that there were two important areas where it fell short. In both, you sense the party ducking hard choices.

One area which I consider important is that of non-discrimination and equality under the law for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons. At three different points, the manifesto brings the party within reach of a principled stand, and yet it does not grasp it.

On page 24 (within the chapter on Society), item F2 says:

There should be a Board of Equal Opportunities to ensure that there is no discrimination on account of ethnic origin, religious belief, gender, socioeconomic class or age.

You don’t see “sexual orientation” being included; you don’t see the word “gender” clarified to include gender identity. So close and yet so far.

This is repeated on page 49 (within the chapter Labour Policy), items F1 and F2 of which say:

In line with the spirit of Article 12 of the Constitution (Equal Protection), Equal Opportunities Legislation should be enacted to prohibit unjustified employment discrimination on the basis of age, race, religion, gender or disability.

The Board of Equal Opportunities should hear complaints from job applicants or employees who have been discriminated against.

Yup, they’re missing again.

Another way in which gay people are discriminated against is through our censorship policy, as a result of which positive portrayals of gay people are mostly cut out from media. Thus, negative stereotypes remain unchallenged and persist in the population. Yet, in the chapter on Governance and Civil Liberties, there is no mention at all about freedom of expression. In the chapter on Arts, Media, Information and New Technology, there are some encouraging but vague statements about licensing being “taken out of government control and given to an independent body with representation from the arts community”, and about freeing newspapers and broadcasters from government control, with oversight instead by independent and professional organisations, including civil society activists. However, without strengthening a judicial commitment to defending freedom of speech, private oversight can be just as biased as government oversight. The manifesto is thus weak on this issue.

* * * * *

The second area which I thought rather missing was on taxation policy. Silence on this leaves the party open to charges that it does not know how to pay for the carrots it dangles before voters. The closest it comes to this question is on page 19 (in the chapter on Economic Policy) when it says under Beliefs:

There should be a re-distribution of wealth through fiscal and tax measures and social policy to ensure that the fruits of the economy are shared equitably.

You can read into it a willingness to consider more progressive tax policies, but it would have been better if the party had done its sums and indicated how much more revenue it would need to fund its various proposals. Then voters can have a better idea how steep or gentle should be the tax curve. As it is, the party by its relative silence is exposed to scare-mongering: its opponent can tell voters that the Workers’ Party is intent on raising taxes, painting a scenario of a “soak-the-rich” government.

* * * * *

The 63-page manifesto is too lengthy for me to even attempt a summary. You should read it for yourself at Workers’ Party website. Here, I would like to draw your attention to twenty proposals that I consider significant:

On politics, law, information and civil liberties

1.  “Ministers’ remuneration should be benchmarked internationally against the political office of developed countries”,  together with assets declarations (page 11).

2.  Mandatory sentences should be removed (page 14). Capital cases should be heard by two judges, who must be in unanimous agreement before a death sentence can be passed. On appeal, all three judges on the appeal bench must also be unanimous to affirm a death sentence (page 15).

3.  The Internal Security Act should be abolished (page 11), while “the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act allowing detention of suspected criminals without trial should constantly be re-examined and its necessity and use closely scrutinised, with the goal of abolishing its use in favour of having the usual trial process” (page 17).

4.  Accused statements to police should be videotaped (page 17) — quite inadequate in my opinion, it should be:  all police interrogation should be videotaped —  and “accused persons who are factually innocent but who have been mistakenly arrested and/or prosecuted should be compensated” (page 16).

5. The Films Act should be amended to liberalise ‘political films’ (page 59), though as I noted above, the manifesto says nothing about reducing other kinds of censorship.

6. There should be a Freedom of Information Act and a Privacy Act (page 59, 60). “Official secrets should be de-classified after a maximum period of time has passed or as soon as the information is no longer sensitive” (page 60) and “statistics and information collected by the government, particularly aggregated social statistics, shall, as far as possible, be de-classified and made available in the public domain to promote research and informed debate on matters of public interest” (page 59).

7.  All overseas Singaporeans should be able to cast postal votes (page 29)

On the economy and immigration

8. “Effective measures to curb property and land speculation should be in place to maintain the cost competitiveness of businesses, especially [small and medium-sized enterprises]”  (page 20).

9. Where practicable, government-linked companies should be broken up to reduce their “crowding out effect” on smaller local businesses (page 19).

10. “The Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) should be expanded to better narrow the income gap” and the proviso that the recipient must pay Medisave to be eligible should be scrapped (page 47). There should also be an unemployment insurance scheme to provide cashflow to workers during the difficult period of unemployment and retraining (page 47).

11. The contribution rate to the Central Provident Fund “should not be used as a tool to manage business costs” during economic downturns (page 51).

12. “The rate of immigration should not exceed the capacity of the country’s infrastructure and the comfort level of the local population” (page 26) while “a points-based system should be developed to assess individuals applying for citizenship and permanent residency” (page 27).

13. “The dependency ratio or quota for foreign manpower should be further finetuned to the specific industry, rather than broad sectors such as manufacturing or services” (page 48). If there are occupations which Singaporeans will not take up at all (e.g. as live-in domestic helpers), then the foreign worker levy should be reviewed with a view to removing it, which thus reducing employers’ costs (page 48).

On housing and transport

14. Prices of newly built public housing should be pegged to median incomes of those eligible (page 39) and “should be affordable enough to enable most lessees to pay off their loans in 20 years rather than 30 years” (page 40).

15. Public transport should be nationalised. However, private operators can run intra-town feeder services with mini-buses (page 43). “All public buses should be converted to use clean fuel, like compressed natural gas (CNG)” (page 43).

On healthcare, education and welfare

16. “A care centre for elderly can be built in each precinct for those elderly whose family members are unable to look after them” (page 23).  Transfers from government budget surpluses should be used to set up a Longevity Fund to help needy Singaporeans aged 85 and above (page 52).

17.  “The tuition grant for local undergraduates should be increased” as compared to the situation where “currently, the tuition grant for all undergraduates is the same regardless of
nationality” (page 32).

18.  For healthcare, there should be a “compulsory Basic Hospitalisation Insurance Scheme with co-payment of the premium from the government” (page 36). A council has to be set up to decide what should be covered by this insurance scheme (page 37), but it should include HIV and AIDS medication and treatment (page 38).

19.  “All discriminatory policies against single parents should be removed” e.g. housing subsidies (page 24).

20. Noise meters should be installed around potential noise pollution ‘hot-spots’ to ensure that noise levels remain within legal limits (page 57) and a dispute resolution mechanism should be set up at the Community Development Council level (page 57). I don’t think the latter refers only to noise disputes, but other inter-neighbour disputes as well.

* * * * *

Two major points of difference between the Workers’ Party and some other opposition parties are: (1) the Workers’ Party is not proposing a minimum wage but an expanded Workfare scheme, and (2) there is no specific mention of the Goods and Services Tax.

The manifesto is indeed quite comprehensive and there is no proposal above that I would disagree with in principle. In some places however, the party does not go far enough.

17 Responses to “Solid but with holes: the Workers’ Party manifesto”

  1. 1 Patrick 11 April 2011 at 11:41


    Do you really agree with the nativist sentiments expressed in the desire for decreased immigration limits? Believe me, I’d like for nothing more than to see a healthy spirit of political competition and I’ve been greatly heartened by the WP campaign thus far, but I find it absolutely reprehensible that denying foreigners the opportunity to seek a livable wage in Singapore is a key plank in the opposition platforms in this election.

    There isn’t much reason for a civilized society to exclude some people to their detriment to protect the sensibilities of a majority and discrimination in all its forms is absolutely unacceptable. I agree with you 100% that the WP (and the PAP, for that matter) is sorely lacking in its advancement of LGBT rights but why is it on one hand alright to deny gay people equality and yet on the other to deny immigrants that same right?

    Thanks for the commentary, you still occupy a vital space in Singaporean political discourse.

    • 2 yawningbread 11 April 2011 at 12:39

      I stand opposed to the xenophobic rhetoric that is spreading like cancer. I am aghast at the way Singaporeans and the govt treat low-wage foreign workers. I think the immigration trends of the last decade suffered from a lack of political debate and close examination in terms of the externalities that could be foreseen to have resulted, e.g. burden on housing and transport and impact on social attitudes, thus the “shock to the system” we recently experienced. But I do not think shutting off immigration is good for Singapore. The question should be: What is the optimal level?

      But to answer your first question directly: No. I strongly disagree. I would also ask that readers do not conflate those sentiments with the more nuanced and moderate approaches by most opposition parties, e.g. WP and SDP. They do not really echo the worst of the nativists, so please make a distinction. Don’t be unfair to the parties.

      • 3 Patrick 11 April 2011 at 14:47

        Thanks for the considered and sensible response – I admit to finding even the comparatively nuanced take on the issues by parties like the SDP and WP difficult to stomach; what the WP describes in point 12 of the original post as “the comfort level of the local population” still strikes me as pandering to the very worst elements of society.

        I wouldn’t dream of going so far as calling such sentiments racist, but seeing uneasiness with Chinese waitresses and Bangladeshi workers in void decks stealthily enter the mainstream is a terrible thing. I recognize that uneasiness with foreigners is hardly unique to Singapore, but discrimination is discrimination no matter where in the world it occurs and I truly believe we are a better society than this.

        I think it’s absolutely a credit to this country that foreigners want to come here to work and set down roots ( was worth celebrating) and rather than seek to curtail the inflow of people I believe the government’s role here is to find out how to integrate them as best as possible, which I didn’t think there was enough of a focus of in the WP manifesto.

      • 4 Poker Player 11 April 2011 at 15:32

        “I stand opposed to the xenophobic rhetoric that is spreading like cancer. I am aghast at the way Singaporeans and the govt treat low-wage foreign workers. I think the immigration trends of the last decade suffered from a lack of political debate and close examination in terms of the externalities that could be foreseen to have resulted, e.g. burden on housing and transport and impact on social attitudes, thus the “shock to the system” we recently experienced. But I do not think shutting off immigration is good for Singapore. The question should be: What is the optimal level?”

        Is there anyone who disagrees with you here?

        Let’s say you hear a Singaporean spouting “xenophobic rhetoric”. Wait for him to calm down and probe deeper and you realize that underneath all that letting off of frustration, he has views almost identical to yours.

        Whatever the optimal level, there shouldn’t be one for lawyers and law firms and yet another one for cooks, hairdressers and engineers.

    • 5 J 11 April 2011 at 14:56

      “but I find it absolutely reprehensible that denying foreigners the opportunity to seek a livable wage in Singapore is a key plank in the opposition platforms in this election.”

      There are two ways I can interpret this.

      One, denying foreigners who are here (or want to come here) the right to a livable wage. I do not recall any “opposition platform” mentioning anything about this, and I seriously doubt any large number of people support this.

      Or, denying foreigners the chance to come here and seek a livable wage. I cannot see anything reprehensible about that. Foreigners do not automatically have the right to come here and work [even if their life at home is much worse, it is not Singapore’s responsibility to take care of them].

      Please stop trying to equate a desired for decreased immigration limits to denying foreigners a livable wage. I can’t even see a link.

    • 6 twasher 11 April 2011 at 22:24

      Firstly, I’m not at all convinced that immigrating to another country should be considered a ‘right’. Should all Singapore citizens have a ‘right’ to immigrate to any country they choose? Is a foreign visa in any country I choose a ‘right’ of mine? Does that mean we shouldn’t have any restrictions on who we give out visas to? If we do have restrictions (which we do, and I imagine no one advocates having no restrictions whatsoever), then we must be deciding who to give out visas to based on certain reasons. Either this is (by your lights) discrimination or it isn’t, in which case, what’s wrong with people demanding that these reasons be better scrutinised and immigration tightened? Are there some reasons that are ‘non-discriminatory’ and others that are not? If so, what are they?

      Secondly, there’s a problem with the analogy with LGBT rights. There are already various asymmetries in the treatment of citizens and foreigners, like NS and CPF. One reason why many people do not consider immigration to any country you want a ‘right’ is that the present inhabitants are responsible for defending the country and public financing (some) amenities in the country. Thus, the contributions of foreigners and citizens are already non-analogous. One could interpret the contributions of citizens to thus give them some ‘right’ over who to allow into their ‘collective property’. This disanalogy does not exist for LGBT people — they too have been saddled with the same burden as other citizens, yet they get different treatment.

    • 7 Daryl 30 April 2011 at 05:31

      Patrick, I think you need to have a more nuanced grasp of what you’re referring to when you’re talking about ‘rights’. Your ‘right’ to migrate in search for a job is not at all equivalent to what most people understand as LGBT rights. Your equation of the two is not recognised by most theories of rights, and certainly not the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There is very little sense of a universal right to move absolutely anywhere one desires to in search for a job. However, immigrants already in SG ought to be able to work a living wage: that much I think, should be granted. (As ‘J’ notes, and ’twasher’ makes a similar point to mine.) Also, I think you forget that in most legal systems, citizenship is a mark of distinction that already carries with it explicit discrimination against others.

      I don’t think it’s merely an issue of pandering to majority opinion. (Which interestingly, you describe as both “protect[ing] the sensibilities of a majority” and “pandering to the very worst elements of society” — does that mean the majority of society is composed of the ‘worst elements of society’?) Regarding the immigration issue in entirety, I think it’s probably true that on the whole, immigration has been a good thing for Singaporean society, and we ought to plan it to ensure it continues to be a good thing.

      “but discrimination is discrimination no matter where in the world it occurs and I truly believe we are a better society than this.”

      I frankly don’t think we are better than this. The reason is that Singapore is a relatively immature democracy, and the PAP’s refusal to discuss issues (like immigration) with voters, and its attitude of ‘I can see the benefits of immigration, can’t you see why?’ rankles with people who I think have genuine concerns. For a society to accept large inflows of immigration, there has to be some attempt to educate the population in this matter — I don’t see the PAP trying very hard at all in this. The PAP also cannot have it both ways: it has tried very hard to promote a sense of national identity and the value of citizenship (in certain ways); it cannot also hope that despite this, citizens will not develop a special sense of what being a citizen means, and this implies claims that trump the claims of non-citizens. It has to address these issues head-on, without speaking down to the people (‘I think this is the best policy, and you’re damned if you can’t see it.’)

  2. 8 MrsK 11 April 2011 at 12:09

    I am very pleased with most of what WP’s manifesto has covered, which is rather comprehensive and speaks to Singaporeans’ needs today. Personally, I feel the gender clause should suffice to cover LBGT group, not the best but a good start for now. IF we take it any further, then even interest groups for the single moms, the singles, as well as the pregnant working moms etc who all possibly face prejudice in their marital status will also needed to be included. And the list goes on. Granted the society and the party is always a work-in-progress, it will take some time for a relatively conservative society like Singapore to mature and liberalize. And until the majority needs are addressed, realistically people will not have the desire and inclination to address the minority needs. And as long as PAP is in ruling power with no viable Opposition voices, the evolutionary process will take even longer, decades even.
    Great post once again, I enjoy reading your blog and analysis.

  3. 9 xianyong 11 April 2011 at 13:48

    On LGBT issues I think WP is exactly the same as PAP. Basically they do not want to change the status quo because (1) they don’t want to offend the conservative majority and (2) there are religious conservatives within the WP too (eg Gerald Giam).

    If LGBT rights is the most important issue for you, then I see no reason to vote for WP over PAP. At least there are some people in PAP who are willing to argue against 377A. No one in WP has done so, not even in their private capacity.

  4. 10 Arif 11 April 2011 at 15:46

    The WP will be doing themselves a disfavour if they play the LBGT card. Elections are about winning the majority vote and the majority of Singaporeans agree with the PAP stance on this matter, even though they may disagree on every other issues. Making 377A an election issue is the quickest way for an Opposition Party to ruin its chances at the ballot box.

  5. 11 prettyplace 11 April 2011 at 19:56

    Thank You YB.

    I agree with you that the third gender should be recognised.
    Its about time Singaporeans grow up.

  6. 12 Robox 11 April 2011 at 23:09

    On the WP’s stand on the mandatory death penalty, which to my knowledge is their first public stand on the issue:

    “Mandatory sentences should be removed (page 14). Capital cases should be heard by two judges, who must be in unanimous agreement before a death sentence can be passed. On appeal, all three judges on the appeal bench must also be unanimous to affirm a death sentence (page 15).”

    The WP must have such unstinting faith in the judiciary as it is currently constituted to believe – naively, in my opinion – that members of the Bench would actually dare differ in their opinions, especially if it also means to contradict the PAP government’s stand on an issue.

    Does the WP have any evidence, especially from the appelate courts, that this has ever happened in Singapore?

    • 13 Alan Koh 21 April 2011 at 07:34

      Justice Choo Han Teck dissented in the Singapore Court of Appeal decision of Lee Chez Kee v Public Prosecutor [2008] 3 SLR(R) 447, [2008] SGCA 20. While Justice VK Rajah and Justice Woo Bih Li affirmed the death sentence, Choo J was of the opinion that the appellant should get a re-trial. Woo J himself dissented from VK Rajah’s statement of law concerning admissibility of statements under the Criminal Procedure Code. Any perception that our judges engage in groupthink is out of touch with the times. Admittedly, Singapore does not adopt the seriatim method (that the UK House of Lords and Supreme Court, and the High Court of Australia use, usually with very very long judgments as the result), but where the situation calls for it, judges do disagree and give their reasons (usually persuasive) for doing so.

      Convictions for murder (see Daniel Vijay v Public Prosecutor [2010] 4 SLR 1119, [2010] SGCA 33) and death trafficking are set aside on appeal with some degree of frequency. That might be either comforting or disconcerting, depending on the position you take, but the current Bench is not the same as that of ages past, and is much more rigorous and conscientious than their predecessors. Legal culture has changed, and I think we should give our judges more credit.

      Having said that, the Workers’ Party’s proposals on this area are I believe fundamentally sound. Most jurisdictions do not decide capital cases with a single judge (no matter how competent its judiciary is), and there is probably something to be said for that practice. Having two judges is a return to the procedure between 1969 and 1991 or so, which is an acceptable compromise (though I would genuinely prefer 3, but that would require the Court of Appeal to comprise 5 or more judges since in principle an appellate court coram should outnumber the lower courts’, and that is a problem given the small number of judges). Mandatory sentencing is quite another issue altogether, and I must reserve my opinion given that I do not feel I fully appreciate the arguments on both sides of the debate as yet.

  7. 14 Raphael 12 April 2011 at 05:23

    Alex and Others,

    (1) WP is trying to be an alternative choice for government; not just someone who keeps the govt on its toes. As such, no matter how passionate you liberal people here are about LGBT rights, barring a gigantic demographic shift, the party will still be pandering to “the worst elements of society” as you characterize these people, because these “worst elements” are voters as well. In any case, the sentiment is mutual, so these people feel that you guys are “the worst elements of society”. Unfortunately, going against voters because some other voters think that they are “the worst elements of society” doesn’t help garner a party votes or membership.

    So WP adopts the politically safe choice.

    Also, to be realistic, the LGBT community in Singapore has one weakness vis-a-vis the LGBT community in the West. The LGBT community in the West was a minority that gained ascendancy by conquering the majority on the basis of majority oppression, with perhaps a tinge of Ad Misericordiam. On the other hand, the LGBT community in Singapore has set itself up as a minority fighting against another minority, and worse still, one which is already protected by law. And so the trump card that your Western counterparts have is had by your enemy instead.

    (2) Yes, it would be good if the Party had done its sums, unfortuantely, as you are well aware, having commented extensively on this issue on this blog, a big chunk of government’s accounts are under secrecy. That means that any opposition party trying to come up with a budget will be faced with the prospect of the govt hounding them with mystery expenses that they haven’t and couldn’t account for. That reflects badly on the government after the election, but in the heat of the polls, it sounds a persuasive justification of the incompetency of the opposition.

  8. 15 wikigam 12 April 2011 at 11:04

    LGBT Community here never initialized to fight with the minority. I view such minority are diffence category from our western counterparts. So we don’t keen in turning the trump card as our enemy.

  9. 16 reservist_cpl 21 April 2011 at 15:29

    I would also like to point out PP v Took Leng How, in which Kan Ting Chiu J dissented. If the WP system was in place, he would have been sentenced to 1 year of jail instead, which arguably might have been a safer conviction.

  10. 17 xx 30 April 2011 at 13:25

    WP is anti gay, gerald giam is ant gay, what do you think? voting in the opposition will make things better for GLBT? Dream on

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