Yet judging by the President’s address and the addenda appended to it by the various ministries, radical changes in policies should not be expected. President Tony Tan, and subsequently the ministries, set the tone by making the usual noises about the need to build a “just and fair society” marked by “compassion”, “values and ideals” and “inclusive growth” that have become the staple of the manifestos of the ruling and opposition parties alike over the last decade.
Many would fault the Government for being singularly sluggish in living up to these aspirations, though the ruling party would point to various measures such as Workfare, ComCare, Medifund, a light-touch over the media and increased political engagement as evidence that it has a progressive agenda. This comes down to a gaping gulf in expectations: the Government is single-mindedly wedded to a hegemonic and anti-welfare conception of the role of the state, whereas a good number of citizens feel that the Government can afford to loosen up the purse strings and on civil liberties more quickly.
Therein lies the Government’s credibility gap. Despite its harping on the need to close the income gap and reach out to citizens, few believe that it would do more than what it perceives to be the minimum to stave off criticism. This has the result of triggering weary doubts at almost every announcement: for example, the Government has said repeatedly that it has “slowed the inflow” of immigrants but most remain sceptical; in any case it may be difficult to distinguish a change in policy from a drop in immigration caused by the recent economic slowdown.
The Government needs to do more in order to close that credibility gap, but there is little sign that it is overly worried. It usually attributes citizens’ misgivings to their poor understanding of policies. Dr Tan’s promise that the Government will more actively tap Singaporeans on policy suggestions was accompanied by the implicit critique that the latter needed to “think through issues” and a warning that in the sphere of new media “harsh, intemperate voices often drown out moderate, considered views”.
The Bills lined up for the current session would reinforce doubts that the Government is serious about living up to its rhetoric. The proposed changes to the Goods & Services Tax (GST) and the Income Tax are largely business-friendly ones; there is no discussion about making income taxes more progressive or lowering the rate of GST, a regressive tax which has been successively hiked in recent years. A review of the current practice of cutting the CPF contribution rates of workers after they turn 50 would be welcomed by some employed older workers but does not address the problem of low-income workers scarcely having any chance of meeting the minimum sum in their CPF accounts.
In this context the opposition should make full use of the current session to hold the Government to account to its own promises. It remains to be seen whether the opposition can wield its new-found parliamentary clout effectively, though the public’s expectations appear to be relatively high. It is difficult to tell how the Government bench feels about the coming debate but at least one senior MP does not appear too worried – Mr Lee Kuan Yew left for an overseas visit last week and will probably miss most of the first week’s debate on the President’s address.