In January this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that ministerial salaries were going to be cut by a not insignificant 36-37 per cent; then in February the Budget revealed policies and measures that were expressly pro-Singaporean and welfare-oriented, a welcomed effort to address growing unhappiness over excessive population growth and a widening divide between the rich and the poor—both fuelled in no small part by an immigration policy that has left our front door not just wide open, but without even a gatekeeper, or so it feels.
In March the newly elected Minister of State for Manpower, Tan Chuan Jin, declared that our foreign domestic workers be given a day off per week by law. And now Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Law Minister K Shanmugam have committed to amending the death penalty so that it is no longer mandatory for drug trafficking and homicide, albeit subject to certain stringent conditions.
These changes have come after years of campaigning and protesting on the parts of many. Sky-high ministerial salaries have been a gnawing source of resentment for a populace that has had to bear with near stagnant wages and burgeoning costs; migrant workers’ rights groups like TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too) and HOME (Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics) have been persistently pushing for proper rest time for foreign domestic workers to be legislated; opposition parties like the Singapore Democratic Party have been advocating a stronger welfare-model for Singapore; and the anti-mandatory death penalty movement, comprising a collection of individuals like lawyer M Ravi and groups like We Believe in Second Chances, the Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign (SADPC) and Think Centre, have been steadfastly trying to get this law changed through their relentless activism.
So the government’s moves to take a fairer stand on these issues was naturally greeted with a good degree of joy, relief and approval by these camps, and earned the PAP back some of the favour it has lost over the years through its high-handed, elitist approach, draconian laws, lack of transparency and dismissal of anyone’s voice apart from its own.
You would think that this means the fraught PAP―which in the last Election saw its margin of votes drop to its lowest since Singapore became independent in 1965, is now in a better position, having appeased to some degree the liberal camp, their most vocal critics.
Another pool of PAP critics
But another pool of PAP critics is surfacing—from amongst the PAP’s very own supporters, who feel that these recent changes are signs of weakness, of the party going soft, and feel like fans disappointed by their idol. When Minister Tan Chuan Jin insisted that foreign domestic workers be guaranteed time off, some employers reacted by making the ridiculous complaint that they would now have to give up their Sundays so their maids can rest, and were completely resentful of this new legislation.
When the Budget’s thoughtful basket of subsidies and incentives was revealed by Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, most welcomed it but some cried out loud that financing all this help was going to put a strain on our GDP and that the government was being too generous. Also, local business owners, particularly those in sectors that depend heavily on foreign labour, decried the new limitations on hiring foreigners and were not wooed by the perks to hire locally (because they lament there are no locals willing to be hired for certain positions), feeling like the government is being insensitive to their needs while rolling out the red carpet for foreign investors and companies. The antipathy felt by local business owners cuts across the business community, from small bar and restaurant owners to wealthy, high-end business owners whom you would typically count amongst PAP circles.
And when DPM Teo announced the slight easing of the death penalty, making it discretionary rather than mandatory in some cases, conservative voices from some quarters have catastrophised the situation, lamenting that with this the flood gates will open and wash in drug dealers from all corners of Southeast Asia who will station themselves at every HDB block in the land. Veteran Straits Times commentator Chua Mui Hoong expressed in her article, ‘Discretion is Fine but Stay Tough on Crime’, (posted on http://ifonlysingaporeans.blogspot.sg/2012/07/parliament-highlights-9-july-2012.html) that she was worried this move would undermine Singapore’s steadfast message on being tough on crime and make us look feeble (my words). “Where were the hardliners?” she cries.
Still around, though perhaps not as happy with the PAP as before.
And PAP’s traditional critics, while encouraged, are still a long way from being sold. SADPC, for instance, have lauded the move to make the death penalty more discretionary but is emphasizing that the government has to do more and wants a full abolition of the death penalty. HOME recently issued a statement on human trafficking that affirms all the government’s efforts comply with the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) but bluntly points out the areas in which it falls short of full compliance. The much criticised Internal Security Act is still very much in place, as is Penal Code 377A in spite of greater social acceptance of sexual freedom, as shown by this year’s successful Pink Dot. The PAP also took a lot of flak when it raised the issue of introducing an Internet Code of Conduct, a plan many netizens and protectors of press freedom felt was motivated by the desire to silence online criticism of the ruling party.
PAP in a state of flux
So where does that leave the PAP? In a state of flux. It is a party trying to change but not sure how. It knows it needs to let go, to move with the times, to reconnect with the people, and it is trying to do that gradually, cautiously, some will say tentatively. At the same time, it also holds fast to the tough stance the party is known for.
In trying to negotiate its way through these uncharted waters, it has not sent clear signals of where it is ultimately heading. Personally I, like many others, are pleased with the changes mentioned here, though I would like to see an overarching strategy that pulls them all together and takes things forward. Right now the changes are piecemeal and in trying to please everyone they might just end up pleasing no one.
Change is never easy and almost invariably leaves someone unhappy. But worse than that is for people to not know where you stand. The PAP needs to work out what it wants to become and more boldly go down`that path, like its first generation of party leaders did.
Will this cost them votes? Maybe. But as Minister Lim said, “(Better) to be voted out for trying to do the right things which may be unpopular, than to be voted in by people for doing the wrong things."
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