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.
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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.
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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.
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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.