The general election campaign so far: the issues

Abdillah Zamzuri speaking at a rally in Bishan-Toa Payoh, where the Singapore People's Party and the Democratic Progressive Party are fielding a joint team

Abdillah Zamzuri speaking at a rally in Bishan-Toa Payoh, where the Singapore People’s Party and the Democratic Progressive Party are fielding a joint team

At about halfway through our extremely short election campaign period, there has been no major surprise. Perhaps more importantly, no major blunder by any politician yet. It is proving to be a hard slog of a contest for all parties. My initial sense of the likely outcome remains unchanged. I don’t think the vote share nation-wide will be much different this time from the general election of 2011, where the People’s Action Party (PAP) obtained 60.1% of valid votes.

This is the first of three essays on the issues, the candidates, and the demographic and media landscape.

The issues so far are not new; they were present, albeit with different emphases, in the 2011 general election. Then, people seemed to be angrier about a few of them: housing wait-time and escalating home prices, transport congestion, healthcare. Underlying them was a growing concern for a widening income gap. It is to the government’s credit that they have actively attended to some of these issues between the last election and now. Housing has virtually disappeared as a campaign theme this election; what is left of the cost angle of housing has been folded into a larger cost of living issue. Transport has receded too, but not gone away; it has bled into the immigration issue. Healthcare is one area where because infrastructure lead time is so long, the government has not sufficiently dealt with the capacity frustrations, though its Medishield tweaks have taken some sting out of this.

People are certainly less angry about the above issues than they were in 2011, but I’m not sure that they have been completely mollified. Here and there, people continue to mention these, not as issues in themselves, but as touch-points for underlying frustrations about costs and population policy. What was acute pain has become a chronic unhappiness.

Immigration and CPF

Instead, this election has seen the rise of immigration as perhaps the chief arena; it was there as an theme in the 2011 election, but it leapt up the rankings after the government published its White Paper in 2013 projecting a 6.9 million population and triggering widespread resistance.

Another relatively new issue is the holding back of Central Provident Fund money and CPF’s relatively low interest rates compared to the returns the invested money is getting. Looking at how Singaporeans are living longer and longer, the government does not want citizens to withdraw their pension fund savings at age 55 as allowed under the previous policy. Naturally this has made a lot of people unhappy, especially the middle-aged. Since the older voters have been PAP’s vote-bank, how this is going to affect this election may be interesting to watch.

(I have quite a lot to say about these issues, but I think I’ll leave it for another post after the elections.)

The way the opposition parties have been taking up these two issues — immigration and CPF — has been somewhat disappointing. Too often, candidates in their speeches lapse into over-simplistic caricature of foreigners “taking your PMET job”, though so far I haven’t heard any outright xenophobic statement with slurs on ethnicity or national origin. But then again, I haven’t yet attended a Reform Party rally with Gilbert Goh speaking. On the whole, party leaders are more careful how they approach this topic, but their less experienced colleagues, working themselves up at the microphone, present a bit of a risk.

My disappointment with the way the parties have so far been dealing with the CPF issue is greater because here I don’t even see the party leaders dealing with it intelligently. They are using it as a way to bash the PAP rather than providing thought leadership. Longer life expectancy is a real problem, but the CPF question is only part of a broader issue. It is linked to the fact that large numbers of people don’t have enough savings outside of their CPF, which ought to be a good entry-point for a discussion as to the reasons why. The discussion could fruitfully explore:

  • the cost of living, the enormous amounts sunk into home purchases, and the continuing demands faced by the sandwiched generation for spending on healthcare for aged parents and tuition for children.
  • the wide income disparity that the PAP seems to consider normative and are too reluctant to reduce — thus many people have no choice but to live from paycheck to paycheck.
  • how people can continue working well into their sixties, which in turn should raise the issue of whether jobs are available (immigration again), whether skills are relevant (continuing education is not even a topic!), and whether people have the physical health to continue working (primary healthcare has been neglected).

Rather than simply attack the plans to push back CPF withdrawals, opposition candidates should be signalling their responsible approach to politics by speaking of the CPF in a holistic way, framed within the context of financial distress and why Singapore’s political and economic model has led us to this situation. As for the low(-ish) interest rate paid by CPF, it appears to be true that the government pockets the difference in investment returns, but if they didn’t, the issue of whether taxes should rise to make up for the revenue should arise.

Town council management, municipal issues

Is the controversy over the management standards at Aljunied Town Council an issue? Without any opinion poll, I don’t really know, but what I am hearing from people around me is their sense that it is not. Much as the PAP tries to play it up, I think firstly, it’s been bogged down by too much detail and secondly, it fits too neatly into the trope of PAP as bully. If at all it has any effect, it will be localised within Aljunied. I very much doubt if it is being factored in by people in other constituencies, even ones where the Workers’ Party are contesting.

The PAP continues to make Aljunied Town Council an issue, nonetheless. They were quite direct about it in the lead-up to Nomination Day, but since then have tended to speak of the Workers’ Party management of the town council in more elliptical ways, linking it to a question of integrity and competence. They probably sense that there is a risk of overkill.

From what I have read in the mainstream press — I haven’t yet attended any PAP rally — the ruling party’s candidates tend to focus on hyper-local, municipal issues in their campaigning. They speak about “sprucing up” the estate (Cheryl Chan, Fengshan), park connectors and cycling paths (Grace Fu, Yuhua), and take credit for putting in “a market and a mosque” (David Ong, Bukit Batok).

This is not as pointless as it may sound. The PAP is probably aware (though it will be loathe to admit it) that its most reliable supporters are those who are politically unaware, and for whom issues like interest rates, investment returns, means-testing for healthcare, the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty or how public transport should be regulated are as distant as the moon. Talking about very real, tangible, local improvements may be more meaningful to them.

Whenever the PAP touches on broader themes, they speak in very general terms.

The Government thinks long-term and implements policies in a systematic way, whether it is about jobs or education, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday.


“If you look at policies over the years, we have been very systematic, whether it is about jobs or preparing our children for the future,” he said.

— Straits Times, 5 Sept 2015, Government thinks long-term and is systematic: Heng

Singapore needs “strong leadership and a strong, united people”, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say in a speech, and that if Aljunied voters sent the PAP team to parliament, there would be five more persons the prime minister could choose from to form his cabinet, said Lim Boon Heng, PAP chairman. Lim is not standing in this election.

Cost of living

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) said the cost of living is the key issue they want to raise. Indeed, it is ripe to do so. Party leader Chee Soon Juan pointed out at his very first rally speech on 3 September that the Economic Intelligence Unit now ranks Singapore as the most expensive city in the world, when in 2001, we were 97th. I went home to check this fact, and found a source.

The Southeast Asian city joins Tokyo, Osaka and Kobe as one of the world’s top ten most expensive cities, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual cost-of-living survey, increasingly proving that Asian cities are no longer just a cheaper outpost for expats and multinationals. Though a European city – Zurich – is still the world’s most expensive, Tokyo was the runner up, with Singapore now listed as the world’s 9th most expensive city. Singapore was listed as the 6th most expensive last year, but remarkably was ranked 97th in 2001.

— Wall Street Journal blogs, 14 February 2012, Singapore among the world’s most expensive cities. Link.

(Do note that this article was written in 2012, when Singapore was only the 9th most expensive.)

In their speeches, however, the SDP isn’t consistently hammering home this message or elaborating on it in a way that is pithy, empathetic and memorable. Hence, I’m not sure it’s getting any traction.

Check on the government

All parties are making the need for a check on PAP’s overweening power the key issue in this election (as with previous elections). I am sure they are getting a sympathetic hearing, but I am not sure if people feel it as urgently as they should, and urgency is what is needed to get their candidates elected. Quite often, there has to be some kind of a scandal or starkly unpopular policy decision to make people feel the need strongly. This may explain why the parties are so tempted to play up the immigration issue despite their better instincts.

Just as the issues have evolved since the 2011 campaign, so has the talent balance. The Workers’ Party especially has been able to field candidates with backgrounds that, as recently as ten years ago, one would expect to have gone automatically to the PAP. That’s the theme for the second part of this three-part essay.


See also:
Part 2: The general election campaign so far: the talent balance
Part 3: The general election campaign so far: demographic and media landscape

7 Responses to “The general election campaign so far: the issues”

  1. 1 yuenchungkwong 6 September 2015 at 15:49

    > Singapore now listed as the world’s 9th most expensive city. Singapore was listed as the 6th most expensive last year, but remarkably was ranked 97th in 2001.—– this sort of international ranking to a great extent reflects the exchange rate: in 2001 US$1 was around 1.7S$, last year 1.25 right now 1.4

    things I buy often, like food, petrol, shampoo, have risen in price in the last few years, but it is difficult to say where the inflationary pressure originates; computers and mobile phones are cheaper, presumably because they are made in China

  2. 2 yuenchungkwong 6 September 2015 at 15:55

    > The Workers’ Party especially has been able to field candidates with backgrounds that, as recently as ten years ago, one would expect to have gone automatically to the PAP.

    being selected by PAP is too difficult; for the effort one has to make against the chance of getting into parliament, WP now offers a better deal

    I do wonder why so few previous candidates come back; is the supply so good that WP can afford to turn away experienced campaigners in order to field younger, better educated people? were the past candidates very unhappy about their experience and refuse to return?

  3. 3 Richard Lee 6 September 2015 at 16:35

    While they might have been changes in the approach of the Opposition Parties, the PAP has remained consistent in its strategy and policy for nearly 10 yrs.

    “Suppose you had 10, 15, 20 opposition members in Parliament. Instead of spending my time thinking what is the right policy for Singapore, I’m going to spend all my time thinking what’s the right way to fix them, to buy my supporters votes” – PM Lee, may06

    As expected PM Lee has mobilised his fellow MIW, Govt Depts, the PA etc to help him keep this promise .. especially evident in the last month or so.

    Pity he isn’t so good with his promises from GE 2011.

    With other PAP, we note Goh Chok Tong’s activity (none) in parliament for his multi-million salary.

    Goh can lay claim to being the real architect of modern Singapore with his 1994 “Competitive Salaries for Competent & Honest Government” … which made PAP ministers by far the best paid in the known universe.

    It’s no coincidence that Singapore’s GINI started going through the roof from that point and we now have the highest GINI of the ‘rich’ nations.

    In Jan 2013, Chan Chun Sing claimed that “incomes at the bottom rise” when the income rise for the lower 20th percentile rose 0.1% / yr from 2002 to 2012. In that time, Singapore became perhaps the most expensive city in the world.

    I think the most likely outcome of GE 2015 is PAP will have less than 50% of the vote but still have a huge majority. In Gerrymandering at least, PM’s office are still World Champions.

    This begs perhaps the most important issue for GE 2015. When I spoke to George Yeo after GE 2011, we were both agreed that PAP has to change, and fast, for the good of Singapore. He said the change had to come from within while I said it would only happen with a strong & vocal Opposition.

    The truth is both these things need to happen. The PAP have trapped themselves with their GRCs and are in danger of losing their best people cos they are teamed with obvious multi-million Dignity Seekers.

    And by best, I don’t mean their ‘heavyweights’. There are obvious Incompetent Dignity Seekers among Senior Ministers.

    The important PAP ministers for Singapore are those who can work WITH a strong & vocal Opposition instead of constantly against them. These are Competent & Compassionate people who truly have the Good of ALL Singaporeans at Heart.

    May all voters do their DUTY and vote the Incompetents out and only the Competent & Compassionate in .. both PAP & Opposition.

  4. 4 Wondering 6 September 2015 at 20:52

    “…the Economic Intelligence Unit now ranks Singapore as the most expensive city in the world…”

    Here’s a more recent article on this from BBC. It’s dated 2nd March 2015.

  5. 5 Kelvin Tan Tuan Wei 7 September 2015 at 09:33

    Another relatively new issue is the holding back of Central Provident Fund money and CPF’s relatively low interest rates compared to the returns the invested money is getting. Looking at how Singaporeans are living longer and longer, the government does not want citizens to withdraw their pension fund savings at age 55 as allowed under the previous policy. Naturally this has made a lot of people unhappy, especially the middle-aged.

    The CPF issue is anything but new, Roy et al and his brand of statistics may have distorted people’s perceptions.

    The truth is that, the minimum sum scheme was introduced in the previous century by Lee Yock Suan I believed. And when GCT was still the PM, the govt implemented the removal of the “withdrawing 50% of CPF” at 55, during his NDR in 2003.

    This issue was not mentioned at all in the 2006 and 2011 GE. I am personally quite amused that, so many Singaporeans somehow woke up after Roy latched on this issue at Speaker’s Corner. Do these Singaporeans, who are unhappy about this, not realized that these changes were implemented years ago? How come they were not unhappy then, and then suddenly became unhappy now?

    Perhaps that is the true reason why this issue of not being able to withdraw CPF at 55 did not really became a serious issue this current GE.

    • 6 yawningbread 7 September 2015 at 12:10

      Thank you for pointing out the timeline. You’re probably right that Roy Ngerng’s efforts contributed. But another factor may be the ageing population. Perhaps it is only now that large numbers are approaching retirement age and suddenly realise they’ve got the short end of the stick. Or, that the financial situation has deteriorated (widening income gap?) and they need the cash.

      • 7 yuenchungkwong 7 September 2015 at 14:31

        from my article section 1984

        3. CPF: with people living longer, the idea of delaying CPF money release was raised in 1984, and initial reaction was negative; again LKY was annoyed; soon the idea of the minimum sum was adopted, that your savings deposited with CPF board cannot be fully withdrawn at age 55 like before; later this was subjected to a compulsory annuity scheme, which would have been workable if most people can still get a substantial part out in cash at 55; with the weak salary increases in the past decade or so (partly because of foreign labour, e.g., IT used to have the highest paid new graduates, before the industry bought in PRCs and Indians) and low interest rates, more and more people found themselves not meeting the minimum sum requirement, and every increase in minimum sum value makes more people unhappy.

        It is useful to point out that the CPF scheme was meant to have the government help you to save for retirement: you agree to have part of your income held by CPF Board, in return for the amount and the interest it earns to be tax free; however, over the years there were tax changes lowering direct income tax while adding on indirect taxation, so that the benefit of tax exempt income is smaller than it once was. People therefore find it a less advantageous bargain.

        Previously, once the prescribed retirement ages were reached, the government gave back the CPF money to the people; whether the amounts were adequate for people to retire on was not the government’s responsibility. Once we have the government prescribing a minimum sum and a resulting regular annuity payout considered adequate for retirement, the issue of retirement adequacy is linked to government decision making. If the amount prescribed is too low, it shows poor government number crunching; if the amount is too high, more people could not withdraw any cash at age 55 and get upset. This is a typical example of government trying to make people “do the right thing” and ending up being blamed for things not being right.

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