Workers’ Party’s Manifesto: What I like and What I don’t

redwire-singapore-he-ting-ru-wp-general-election-2

He Ting Ru, one of my favourite new politicians, partly because she puts paid to the notion that opposition candidates are necessarily substandard. But more importantly, because she is a “crazy cat lady” with eight!

“The opposition has nothing new or concrete to offer.”

I am tiring of this lazy, ignorant, biased statement. So I have put my unemployment to good use and done some homework.

Having just gone through the WP’s manifesto, I have selected here the many statements that I like and also the three that I don’t like—including the one that I REALLY dislike. (Scroll to the bottom for those.)

I have selected policies that I believe are significantly different from PAP policies. Like political parties everywhere, they both indulge in a lot of waffle—so forgive me for not humouring vapid commentary about helping SMEs, boosting productivity, broadening our definitions of achievement, encouraging flexible work arrangements, enhancing healthcare systems, strengthening regional stability, assisting Singaporeans abroad, etc. etc.

Those are all noble, lofty pursuits. Below are the ones I believe are practical and implementable. (Caveat: as with many of the PAP’s proposed policies, a more thorough analysis of the trade-offs and fiscal impact is necessary.)

Note: I have read up on the WP, since it is shaping up to be the most likely opposition in a possible two-party system; if, however, I detect enough interest in this post, I’d be happy to glean the other opposition parties’ manifestos.

What I like

Immigration and workforce
“Foreign spouses of Singaporeans should be given priority for citizenship, as they naturally integrate with a Singaporean family.” (p.8)

“Targeted Training and Job-Matching Schemes for Female Workers. The labour force participation rate is significantly lower for women than men…we propose targeted training and job-matching schemes be introduced for women 30 years of age and older. Additional cash grants and special employment credits…” (P.10)

“We propose it be made mandatory for large companies to implement workplace and job redesign for senior workers. We also propose targeted measures and incentives for SMEs.” (P.11)

My thoughts: I hear too many stories of foreign spouses having immigration trouble. This is completely unacceptable. The focus on boosting female and senior labour force participation is also great, and something the PAP has been very late to the game with. More broadly, I like that the WP is eager to recast many of these constituencies—the elderly, single mums, the poor—as active, economic contributors to our society. Rather than “policy problems” that must be managed, as is the PAP’s way.

Employment/jobs
“Employment Security Fund (ESF). We propose a mandatory unemployment insurance scheme similar to schemes in other developed countries. The ESF would require an additional 0.1% of basic salary to be paid into it….” (P.12)

“National Minimum Wage. We propose a national minimum wage be established and pegged to the Average Household Expenditure on Basic Needs, so that workers can earn a living wage to meet the needs of their family.” (P.13)

“Educational Credential Assessments (ECA). We propose all Employment Pass and S Pass applicants with university degrees and diplomas earned outside Singapore be subject to mandatory ECA. The cost of the ECA should be borne by the applicant…..” (P.13)

My thoughts: The ESF would go some way towards compensating the losers from globalisation, something essential for an open economy like ours. Similarly, while I used to be strongly opposed to a minimum wage—on the grounds of market distortion—I am increasingly of the view that we need to consider a well-thought out policy. Tim Harford, “the undercover economist”, has written a good piece about minimum wage misconceptions.

Finally, there is a lot of dissatisfaction about foreigners supposedly lying to gain employment. The ECA will sort the wheat from the chaff and thus, among other things, go some way towards improving foreigner integration.

CPF
“Transparency in CPF Monies Investment Returns. CPF monies are currently used by GIC for investment, while the government guarantees returns back to the CPF. We propose CPF members be given full transparency on the nature and performance of their CPF monies that have been so invested. We further propose that the difference between the investment returns of GIC and the net interest payable on CPF member balances, on a 10-year moving average basis, be reported to CPF members. The government could return one third of this difference to CPF members’ Special Accounts as special dividends to enhance retirement adequacy when the difference crosses a predetermined threshold in years of high return.” (P.13)

Taxation
“Progressive Top-bracket Income Tax. We propose personal income tax be made more progressive, as our effective top tax personal income rates are significantly lower than almost all locations with which Singapore competes for offshore banking and similar economic activities. We propose further tiering above $320,000 (currently at flat rate of 22%). This cut-off has not been adjusted for more than a decade even though incomes at the higher end have soared.” (P.14)

Education
“10-Year Through-train School Programme (10 YTS). To offer more diversity in the education system, we propose a 10-Year Through-train School programme from Primary 1 to Secondary 4 as an option for parents who wish for their child to bypass the PSLE…The 10 YTS will pair up existing primary and secondary schools and therefore complement, not replace, these primary and secondary schools.” (P.20)

“Equitable funding for schools. There is a gap in disposable funds between elite schools and neighbourhood schools. This is because elite schools usually charge higher fees, enjoy greater economies of scale and have wealthy alumni….We propose neighbourhood schools receive additional government funds in order to ensure that all schools are adequately funded to become good schools.” (P.21)

“Equitable Support for Single Parents. We reiterate our call to grant single unwed mothers the full 16 weeks of paid maternity leave. In addition, single mothers should be made eligible for both the Working Mother’s Child Relief as well as the Foreign Maid Levy Relief. Excluding single mothers from these schemes unnecessarily penalises vulnerable children and single mothers. The government should extend the same help to single fathers.” (P.22)

My thoughts: Yes, Yes and Yes. Judging by my peers, PSLE has proved to be a very poor indicator of future success. Or anything else. And we need to do a LOT more to ensure our children compete on a level playing field.

Social protection
“Social Protection Steps. We should move towards measuring relative poverty to provide a clearer picture of low-income families who are unable to keep up with the living standards of the majority of society. We reiterate our proposal to establish Social Protection steps pegged at 30%, 50% and 80% of the annual median monthly household income per member….” (P. 25)

“Caregivers Support Scheme. Full-time informal caregivers who fall in the lower socio- economic stratum should be given yearly CPF top-ups to reduce the pressure of being underemployed and less prepared for retirement. More research should also be done to find out how to improve utilisation of formal care services such as senior day activity centres to augment informal care.” (P.25)

My thoughts: One of the PAP’s biggest sins is its refusal to establish a poverty line in Singapore; and thus effectively maintaining the pretense that poverty doesn’t exist. Tissue sellers are “entrepreneurs”??? The greatest euphemism for beggars ever.

Healthcare
“Enhanced Primary Care Subsidies. We propose the monthly household income cap to qualify for subsidies for primary care at general practitioner (GP) clinics under the Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS) be raised to the median monthly household income per member….” (P.26)

My thoughts: Sensible. The current CHAS cut off is $1,800. Makes sense to keep it in line with median monthly income (S$2,380 in 2014). If anything, could go even further.

Housing
“20-25 BTO Pricing. We propose HDB flat ownership should be delinked from land costs by adjusting the debt service ratio formula for calculating BTO selling price to 25% of median monthly household income of applicants servicing a 20-year mortgage after the 10% down payment….” (P.28)

“Removing the Ethnic Quota. As our society has now attained a level of multi-racial integration, we propose the ethnic quotas governing citizens’ home ownership of HDB flats should be removed to allow all Singaporeans freedom of choice of home locations, regardless of race.” (P.29)

Transport
“Government Contracting Model. The government has been moving away from the profit-based privatisation model of running public transport towards the WP’s National Transport Corporation (NTC) proposal to run public bus and MRT operations on a not- for-profit basis of maintenance and cost recovery…”

“Promoting Bicycle Sharing and Car Sharing. We propose a bicycle-sharing scheme to be developed for short journeys where bicycle-docking stations can be set up between residential areas and transport nodes, and within heritage trail and park connector routes. The scheme should be integrated with mobile applications and EZ- Link cards for registration and payment purposes.” (P.33)

My thoughts: The government is slowly nationalising our public transport system. At least the WP has always been consistently honest about the need to. Meanwhile, cyclists are not going to disappear. We need a better plan.

Town management
“A Unifying People’s Association. The People’s Association (PA) should be depoliticised and reorganised to serve as a unifying institution….Government grassroots serving as eyes and ears of the ruling party cripple the growth of natural community leadership and hinder the development of community living.” (P.34)

Culture
“Mandatory Impact Assessments. We propose Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), Social Impact Assessments (SIAs), and Heritage Impact Assessments (HIA) should be made mandatory by law for all development projects affecting green areas, existing infrastructure and the building of new infrastructure before those projects are approved.” (P.35)

Democracy
“Single Constituency Members of Parliament. We propose Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) be abolished, as they dilute the individual voter’s voice. Instead, the elections should be run on single seats, with individual MPs fully accountable to constituents. The Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme would then be unnecessary. The Nominated MP scheme should be abolished.” (P. 36)

“Fixed-Term Parliaments. We propose the term for Parliament between elections be fixed. The Prime Minister should not have the unfettered discretion to dissolve Parliament and call for elections before the end of the fixed term. Early dissolution of Parliament should be allowed under special circumstances such as a vote of no confidence or with the assent of a two-thirds majority in Parliament.” (P.37)

“Strengthening the Franchise. We propose lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. This will encourage young people to have an early interest in political governance.” (P.37)

“Independent Election Commission. To ensure political neutrality, parliamentary elections should not be organised by the Prime Minister’s Office. Instead, we propose an independent Election Commission….” (P.37)

“Independent Electoral Boundary Review Committee. To ensure political neutrality, the delineation of electoral boundaries should not be done under the Prime Minister’s Office. We propose an independent committee…” (p.37)

Governance
“Enhanced Gateway Process. We propose the current threshold of $500 million threshold of the Gateway Process to monitor capital expenditure for public infrastructure projects be reduced to $100 million. The results of these approvals should be made public, as should regular reports and updates after approvals. Non-infrastructure projects with budgets of more than $100 million, such as the Youth Olympic Games and the SEA games, should also go through the Gateway Process. (P.38)

“Office of Ombudsman. We propose the independent Office of Parliamentary Ombudsman be established. Any citizen aggrieved by the action of any public servant may, instead of commencing an expensive lawsuit, lodge a complaint with this office…” (P.38)

Justice
“Judicial Discretion for Capital Cases. We propose trials for capital cases should be conducted by a tribunal of two judges whose decision to impose the death sentence must be unanimous. On appeal, the death sentence should be upheld only if all three judges in the Court of Appeal confirm it unanimously….” (p.39)

“Dedicated Anti-Terrorism Law. We propose the Internal Security Act, which provides for detention without trial in cases of alleged subversion, be abolished. Singapore shall be brought in line with international practices to try such cases, including espionage, with modified procedures to protect official secrets if necessary. In cases of alleged terrorism, the government should be enabled by a dedicated anti-terrorism law to make swift arrests and detain suspects without trial. However, these suspects must be afforded real avenues to challenge the legality of their arrests through the courts and an advisory board. These bodies should be empowered to order the person’s release if not satisfied as to the legality of the detention.” (P.39)

My thoughts: I would prefer if we abolished the death penalty, but this is one small step. Second, throughout my life, there has always been one point on which I fervently disagree with most liberals I know: the need for some sort of detention without trial, purely because of the terrorist threat. The WP’s proposal here appeals to my inner Rumsfeld.

Public sphere

“Free and Competitive Local Newspaper and Broadcasting Companies. We propose the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act be amended to abolish clauses giving the government powers to approve the holders of management shares and to control the shareholdings and voting power of newspaper companies….” (P.40)

“Internet Regulation. We propose the repeal of the Broadcasting (Class License) Notification – which requires websites that report regularly on Singapore to register and post a bond of $50,000 subjecting them to government regulation of content – that was gazetted in 2013 without public consultation….” (p.40)

“Review of Public Order Act. We call for the repeal of the sections of the Public Order Act (POA) that govern the right to public assembly, issuance of move-on orders, and restrictions on filming of law enforcement operations, to remove obstacles to the promotion of an active citizenry. We propose peaceful demonstrations be allowed subject to prior notification to the police to ensure minimum disruption to traffic and public convenience….” (p.41)

“Independent Body for Arts Licensing. We propose an independent body with representation from the arts community should be set up to oversee arts licensing….” (p.41)

“Declassification of Archives. We propose a structured de-classification system for archived material where material in the National Archives will be automatically declassified after 25 years of the date of record. In the interest of national security, material marked “Secret” will still be subject to requests and approval. All cabinet papers should be automatically released after 40 years. A panel of experts should be set up to consider requests for early declassification.” (P.41)

Defence
“National Service for First Generation Citizens. We propose first generation male citizens between 21 and 40 years of age who have not served full time national service should be required to serve up to 40 days a year over 10 years in the SAF, SPF, SCDF, public hospitals or the social services….” (p.46)

What I don’t like

Immigration
“Our approach involves keeping the non-resident population constant at around 1.5-1.6 million as long as we achieve the 1%. This allows for a temporary addition of foreign workers to make up for shortfalls if we are not able to achieve the 1% target.
In the best-case scenario that we have modelled (details available in our Population Policy Paper), the trade-off compared to the government’s policy would be 0.5% less in annual GDP growth but 1 million less in population. This prioritises long-term economic stability over short-term economic growth.” (p. 9)

My thoughts:

Essentially, the WP wants zero foreigner growth, assuming Singapore achieves 1% resident population growth.

I remember when Lee Hsien Loong grilled Low Thia Kiang in parliament about this, I was too occupied to think too much about it. On hindsight, I’m glad he grilled him.

Zero foreigner growth would be the death of Singapore.

I have been as critical as anybody of the PAP’s ultra-liberal immigration policies of the past twenty years, simply because they have failed to manage inflows, integration, infrastructure and social equities. All that has directly led to the worst xenophobia I have ever seen in Singapore.

(To put things in perspective, from 2001-2010, Singapore had SIX TIMES the immigration rate of the UK. And just look at what’s happened there. I have written more extensively about racism and xenophobia here.)

However, the response to that is not to aim for zero foreigner growth—which is what the WP is proposing if Singapore achieves 1% resident population growth. Yes, we must make it harder for foreigners to come here, bringing Singapore in line with the immigration practices of other developed countries. But we must never have zero as stated policy.

Let me give you three reasons why this is wrong. The first is moral. If a person from another country absolutely needs to move here—perhaps because he/she has been banished from Malaysia or if it is a family member of somebody in Singapore—we cannot make that person’s move contingent on one foreigner leaving Singapore.

The second is economic. There will always be jobs for which a company needs to hire an able foreigner, whether head of a media organisation or brain surgeon. We can never assume that there will be a Singaporean who can simply step up. Globally-competitive companies need to have the option to bring in a foreigner IF no local can be found.

The last, and possibly most important, is the signalling effect. Singapore’s success has always been dependent on us being open. Already some foreign businesses, investors and residents feel that Singapore is anti-foreign. We must never develop that reputation. If we prevent other country’s people from moving here, what if those countries decide to stop selling us food?!?

I like the WP. I want to see more of its politicians in parliament. But I hope that this zero foreigner growth thingy is not a firm policy. I hope they are just politicking, the same way the PAP has been politicking on this issue—tightening immigration post-2011, when everybody knows post-GE2015 it is going to open the gates again.

CPF
“Lower CPF Payout Eligibility Age. We propose lowering the CPF Payout Eligibility Age to 60. This will give CPF members the option to start receiving CPF monthly payouts earlier if they need to, instead of having to wait until age 65….” (P.13)

My thoughts: I’m not sure this CPF change is prudent or necessary.

Social policies
“Stop at Two. We opposed the legalisation of casinos in 2005. We propose there be no more casinos built beyond the existing two. A permanent moratorium on new casino licences should be implemented after the current 10-year moratorium expires in 2016. Casinos should not issue annual levy passes, and the cost of entry should be kept at $100 for every 24 hours. These annual levy passes incentivise frequent gambling, which should be discouraged.” (P.24)

My thoughts: Stop treating Singaporeans like children. That ship has sailed: we have the casinos, now we have to deal with them. Singaporeans should not be discriminated against. We need to manage any negative externalities in other ways, just as we do with other “sins” like alcohol.

Top image credit: REDWIRE Times

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15 responses

  1. Sudhir,

    I started reading with the mischievous idea that I should find at least one bone to pick with you over the WP’s manifesto. Damn! I couldn’t find a single point of disagreement with you. I disagree with WP’s manifesto exactly where you disagreed too!

    All in all, however, it’s a good manifesto, don’t you think> It certainly would make me comfortable voting for them…. if they stood in my constituency.

    Alex Au

  2. Re: the casinos.

    As the rumor mill goes, casino 3 is not off the cards yet. The growth spurt it gave got civil servants at mnd excited. The large chunk of land across from the marina barrage is a possible development site, after the expansion of marina bay and after the keppel psa land is returned. No more seems like wp’s call.

    • OK. But I don’t like the sound of things like “permanent moratorium”, however impractical that is. If there is a case for a new casino, let’s do a proper cost-benefit analysis, including economic and social costs, before deciding what to do. The WP’s proposal sounds a bit too extreme.

  3. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on the WP’s manifesto. People need to get over the fear that all other parties other than the PAP are bad for the country! Good job Sudhir! Maybe you should think of starting a party!! 😉

  4. Hi Sudhir

    Thanks for a balanced analysis here.

    However the following are the things that I dislike about WP’s manifesto:-

    1) The WP wants women to give birth to more children. At the same time, the WP and ask for women and elderly to work, but is asking for 0% increase in foreign manpower.

    Who will take care of the children & elderly when both parents are working?

    This is definitely not a well-thought proposal.

    2) I do not think that the 10-Year Through-train School Programme (10 YTS) is a good idea. This will mean that the academically poor students will not be identified, so that more coaching and assistance will be rendered to them. Each child should know where they stand before they can improve.

    • Hi Sharon, you’re right, the devil is in the details. My guess is that–by reducing foreign workers in construction and some low-cost service industries, more maids can be accommodated. Also, heavy commitment towards flexible working might mean that mum’s/dad’s can work at home more, reducing need for childcare.

      PSLE–maybe there are other ways to identify poor students, instead of one, big stressful exam at age 12.

  5. I think you are a little harsh in judging the WP’s position on zero foreigner growth. The implied 1% population growth should equate to a long run growth potential of around 3% which is plenty enough for a small country with constraints in land and labour. That is not just me saying – ask the academics and even Mr, Tharman himself. That is the “new normal”. In effect one can say the PAP has taken the WP’s policy position which is not the first time they did it,.

    I suggest like many you may have been seduced by the 6% plus GDP growth which is way beyond the long run growth potential and could only be sustained by a large increase in foreign workers. This kind of growth is unbalanced and has huge socio-economic trade-offs which are what has been staring at our face the last 5 years.

    • I am very happy for more moderate economic growth, and agree with much of what you write above. I just disagree that “zero” should ever be a stated policy goal. “Reduced”, “moderate” or “targeted” foreigner growth is what I would like to see. Not “zero”.

      • Ok, suppose now there is like 30% of the population is foreigners. Do you wish for it to grow up to 35%, 40% or eventually overtake the number of locals in the country? If you ask me, i’d prefer it stay at the what it is, or if better a lower percentage of the singapore population.

    • I stumbled upon your commentary while googling the various parties’ manifestos. While I may not agree or fully understand some of the economical implications in your commentary, I’m glad to read something that is well thought through and balanced. What a fresh breath of air rising above the vapid ranting online.

  6. This is from somebody I know, an investor in the tech industry.

    I do not agree with his overall harsh view of the WP. We often disagree on politics because I want many more opposition candidates in parliament (mostly WP) and he doesn’t think it’s a good idea.

    But in the spirit of open debate, here are his comments–“As has been our experience in the tech startup sector; our businesses hire a good no of locals”:

    We must stay open to foreigners. Your piece did not make reference to 2 specific points that I think would disabuse many of the whole scaling down argument –

    1 – for some industries you need a critical mass of talent that we can’t easily find in Singapore, in order for an industry / vertical to crystallise that will hire Singaporeans. So in fact there are verticals where we would have to ADD foreigners and once a tip is achieved, then the jobs will start sprouting for Singaporeans. (As has been our experience in the tech startup sector; our businesses hire a good no of locals).

    2 – It seems the WP and their crew think of foreigner nos as something you can reduce on a straight line. Beyond a point of hostility, I think there will come a tip where the nos (of foreigners we want to have here) will fall off a cliff. The foreigners we want may not want to come here.

    The WP is all about brinksmanship with the economy. I suppose it helps them to screw up the economy, there’s more blame they can heap on the govt, and unfortunately few people in the unsuspecting audience see the game that’s being played. It may sweep the WP to power in a decade (maybe even less) but leave us with a gutted economy.

    The WP either lacks understanding of what the economy needs, or lacks the courage to tell the citizens the truth about it, or is cynically manipulating the population on the matter of the economy.

    I would not support them because they have fractured the country and undone much of the work that went into building a society with a sense of commonality. In this they have been irresponsible. Their brinksmanship with the economy also frightens businesses. Many of the problems we face are due to our advanced level of development and the global situation. To blame it solely on the PAP is to be glib. They will face the same issues if they were in the hot seat, and not having an even handed approach, do worse.

    Some of their policies sound workable. I would like to amalgamate some of their ideas that can help make society better here (e.g. enhanced SRS / employment security fund / coordinated approach to growing SMEs), but work within the PAP to make them materialise.

    Remember – if we are not economically viable, this country hits the wall. The WP’s campaign accelerates our rush to the wall.

  7. Pingback: SDP’s Manifesto: What I like and What I don’t « Musings from Singapore

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