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What's Singapore's social policy vision?

The Straits Times | Tuesday, May 27, 2014

As a blueprint, though, of the Government's plans for the next two years leading up to the General Election that is widely expected to be called in 2016, it couldn't be a more important statement of intent.

It shouldn't surprise anyone if the President's Address when he re-opened Parliament on May 16 didn't get many people excited.

Traditionally, the head of state's speech to such a hushed audience in such a formal setting isn't designed to set hearts racing and minds stirring.

As a blueprint, though, of the Government's plans for the next two years leading up to the General Election that is widely expected to be called in 2016, it couldn't be a more important statement of intent.

If nothing else, it showed where its priorities lie.

Whether you like it or not, and whether the speech made you sit up, what it contained will affect your life in many areas.

So, what to make of it?

First, it was remarkable for being so silent on the economy - yes, the silence was deafening.

What to make of this omission from a government that wears its economic credentials on its white uniform?

Here's my take: As far as it is concerned, economic policy has largely been settled.

If you want to know more, look no further than the Finance Minister's Budget statements in recent years.

For those who might have hoped for a rethink of some of these policies - on the supply of foreign workers, productivity, taxation and the future of the small and medium-sized enterprises sector - it looks like there won't be much scope for further debate.

To be fair, there have been many discussions on these issues in recent Budget debates, and the Government has made clear its position.

There has to be some certainty in economic policy so businesses, employers and workers can plan accordingly.

However, in social policy, which dominated the speech, the situation couldn't be more different.

Here, many issues remain unresolved, and it is less clear what the overall direction of the Government is.

A lot was said in the speech, perhaps a bit too much in some areas.

But it isn't easy to discern an overall strategy that made clear how these issues will be resolved in the years ahead.

Perhaps this isn't unexpected, considering the transition that Singapore is undergoing at the moment.

When the focus all these years had been on economic growth, and attention is only now turned to the large social questions of the day, you can't expect instant answers.

The Government is feeling its way through this, somewhat unsure how much to help lest it undermines the work ethic, and uncertain how to meet people's expectations.

But even as it takes those tentative steps, public pressure to do more will increase as the population ages and the income gap persists.

It doesn't help that, unlike in managing the economy, the outcome of social policy isn't as quickly determined or measured.

You know quickly when economic policy isn't working - growth will slow down, unemployment goes up and the financial markets are ruthless in punishing non-performers.

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