Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Year that was 2012 - Part 2

Recalling this year from the domestic perspective means reflecting on events in Singapore that perhaps would lead one to look back on either as troublesome events; or as events which give hope and renewed optimism for the future.  In 2012, there has certainly been more of the former than the latter. 

The cautionary tales are easier to recall.  We have in 2012 seen too many instances of sexual fallibility (not necessarily corruption – still sub judice) that have occurred in the civil service, politics and possibly even academia.  It has dominated blogosphere, and there is no need to re-visit the sordid details.  The fallout will unfortunately still dominate discussion for the foreseeable future.

Rising prices and affordability of housing are still an issue for Singapore.  HDB has built many new units this past year.  But prices still do not seem to fall.  That is a worry – especially with economic growth slowing down.  EC flats are selling for over $2m – but they are snapped up.  Are the ‘right’ people buying them?  What is the purpose behind the purchase?  Interest rates are too low, stimulating demand.  Are different property bubbles forming across the entire real estate spectrum? 

Do not misunderstand me.  Like the next person I am pleased when my property rises in value.  I think about my wife and child.  But we are still talking about affordability for first-time home buyers or singles.  This still needs to materalise, and hopefully new measures will be announced soon.

Inflation is still with us – and the fear is that wages will not increase at the same rate as rising prices.  Reduced increments to annual salaries will feel like a pay cut to the workforce.  Will this be a problem that continues into 2013?  The recently released Singapore Public Sector Outcomes Review has presented a better picture, with real income rising by 2.7% in the past year amongst middle and lower income households.  The Gini coefficient has shown little change last year.  It was 0.475 compared to 0.472 in 2010.

Public transport has made headlines for a variety of different reasons.  Nationalizing the MRT may be necessary for the future.  Too many corners have been cut and passengers’ interests sacrificed for the sake of profitability and shareholder return.  Will there be more strikes and instances of passive insubordination for the future?  There is much to do.   

What 2012 has taught us is the Singapore citizen needs to constantly exercise discipline, to change and not embrace a risk appetite that constantly challenges social norms and moral parameters; and surpass them.  Discipline is a tough sell.  It means the control of appetites, and the active resistance to temptations that call at the door of the most successful and powerful.  The mighty have fallen and Parliament has lost two MPs.  Think of the grassroots leaders and volunteers of the affected branches who come in week in week out to help out, to try to make life better for constituents.  One incident like that, followed by a shock resignation, and suddenly another seat falls into risk.  Much good work on the ground has been negated.  The party in power has everything to lose in this ward.  There would be pressure to call a by-election, and if one is called, the PAP has to fight extremely hard to get an overwhelming mandate.

The exercise of discipline is a call that must extend beyond public life, to all spheres.  These are the values that we must hold fast to, and develop as a country.  It is also a degree of separation which local must draw with the many foreigners.

What are the events of 2012 that give renewed hope for the future?  The engagement between government and people is changing, and will continue to evolve.  The national conversation must still result in strong outcomes, where those in power cajole and persuade those that they lead into agreement.  It must not result in non-resolution, and a conversation cannot result in convulsion.  The education policy appears to be changing; with more tertiary opportunities being offered.  Every child should aspire and be given a chance to complete a university degree.  At all other education levels, one hopes that parents will manage their expectations of the school system, as well as their own children.  A pressure valve definitely needs to be released very soon.

The move to increase productivity is laudable, and one hopes that the Singapore economy will grow qualitatively as well as quantitatively.  SMEs may complain that they need more foreign labour to manage wage costs, but in the long term, such a strategy will mean lower productivity and the organization runs the risk of atrophy.  The transition into the new paradigm will undoubtedly be challenging.

The electorate is changing, and looking ahead, more citizens will want to engage the government, and each other, on their own terms.  As the Singapore democracy matures, those in charge will have to look for ways to galvanise support and remain conspicuous in the stream of consciousness of citizens.  Above all, reconsider whether the weapons of yesteryear should be used in tomorrow's battles. 

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