|Elections may not be due anytime soon but the government is already embarking on radical moves to win back voters.
April 20, 2013
INSIGHT: BY SEAH CHIANG NEE
WITH election three years away, the problem-besieged government is striving hard to win back votes lost in recent elections.
In quick succession, it announced several measures in response to rising complaints of Singaporeans, including the high costs of public housing and new cars as well as congested public transport.
It was poor planning of these issues that forced Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to apologise to the nation in the 2011 election campaign.
The most radical proposal involves resolving the spiralling costs of public housing that may cut prices of new homes in non-mature estates by 30%.
Analysts said that if it could pull it off without damaging the confidence of the whole property market, the ruling party could regain a bit of its lost support.
It was the mass building of cheap flats that helped put the People’s Action Party (PAP) in power in the 60s, but the current housing setbacks are threatening its downfall.
In a recent interview with the Straits Times, Minister of National Development Khaw Boon Wan announced a critical policy rethink to make it cheaper for young Singaporeans.
The minister wants to target new flats in non-mature estates to cost around “four years of salary” – instead of the current 5.5 years – which could reduce prices by 30%.
This was followed more recently by the Transport Ministry’s announcement that from June 24, mass transit commuters to the city area before 7.45am on weekdays will travel free of charge.
It will be a one-year trial to reduce congestion by staggering travelling during morning peak hours.
This made people sit up because it is very rare to see the profit-minded PAP government provide free service even to the neediest of causes.
In addition, Transport Minister Liu Tuck Yew announced that the government is looking into opening up competition for bus routes over the next two years.
Currently, public buses are run by only two companies, both government-controlled. Allowing outsiders into the trade would mark a new milestone.
In an earlier related move, the authorities increased the downpayment for the purchase of a new car by up to 50%. The loan period was also cut from 10 to five years.
This forced down the value of a COE (certificate of eligibility) that is needed to buy a car, and therefore, the price of the vehicle.
Meanwhile, the government has pledged that it will not be changing its decision on the tightening of foreign manpower policies for the foreseeable future.
Should affected companies close down, assistance will be provided to them and their workers to find alternatives, said Manpower Minister Tan Thuan Jin.
So far, the details of the change in public housing policy have not been released. As a result, many people regard it as merely a definitive statement of intent, rather than achievement.
However, Singaporeans are generally giving the ruling party credit for trying, but preferring to wait for the results to materialise before passing judgment.
In recent years, the level of trust that Singaporeans have placed on their leaders is low compared to that accorded to the first generation PAP leadership.
There were other praiseworthy efforts, like Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s Wealth Tax announced
in his 2014 budget, which included higher registration fees for high value cars and additional levies on foreign workers.
The revenue raised was partly used to subsidise 40% of pay hikes that employers may give to low-income workers. It was aimed at narrowing the gap between the rich and poor.
These problems are among the most serious faced by Singaporeans, next to excessive immigration.
They are giving the republic the dubious distinction of being one of the most expensive cities in the world – as well as contributing to the extreme reluctance of young Singaporeans to have children.
The list of problems the government faces today is long and will take a lot more efforts than the present ones – and political will – to resolve.
On top of the list is excessive immigration, especially the admission of more than 140,000 S-Pass professionals and middle-ranking managers to work in the city-state and thus undercutting locals.
Some people are cynical about the effectiveness of the new measures on housing and transportation as long as mass import of foreigners continues.
They now make up nearly 40% of the population. A recent White Paper on Population projected a 6.9 million
population by 2030, up from the current 5.3 million.
Khaw has suggested that the authorities may even do away with the income ceiling for Build-To-Order public flats for first-time buyers.
This would make them open to all first-time Singaporeans. He declared that “their Singapore dream of owning their own homes, like their parents’, is safe”.
Khaw, who is also chairman of the PAP, said to do that, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) “will no longer be a price follower, but instead act to be a price setter”.
This set off a chorus of public complaints from people who had suffered from high prices all these years.
“Public housing prices should never have followed the trend of the free-wheeling private market,” said a writer. “But past ministers in charge – with an eye for profits – just turned a blind eye to it for decades.”
Because of that, another added, resale HDB prices had increased by 80% over the past six years, putting them out of reach of many new buyers.
“You are the story or you are also writing the story,” he said.
o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information