Singapore: Indications for Change?


Dr Chua Beng Huat

The year started on an economically upbeat note, although structural unemployment remains at 4-5 per cent. As Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has made economic turn-around as a condition of his departure from office, the improved economic conditions have led to speculation as to when he will leave office. Since neither the next electoral outcome nor his ascendancy to the office of Prime Minister is in doubt, Prime Minister in-waiting, Lee Hsien Loong, has mapped out the position of ‘his government’, in a major speech. He assured Singaporeans that under his watch, the PAP government will continue its ‘liberalization’ of the ‘civic’ society, a term preferred to ‘civil’ society. As one Straits Times columnist points out, any mention of the liberalization of the political sphere is glaringly absent; the only mention of politics was as a warning to foreigners to keep out. The Liberal-minded can find little that is heartening in the speech, even though the government has little choice but to further liberalize - ‘liberalization’ cannot be rolled back except with substantial political cost. This is especially the case as the government’s Midas touch with economic growth has apparently disappeared in view of global downturn and competition during the past few years.

However, there is one item that should be noted: the Prime Minister promises that the registration of civil society groups will be automatic. The registration of those groups, which are explicitly ‘political’, will take a little longer, but is unlikely to be denied. This is a significant policy reversal, as hitherto, the Registrar of Society has had the right to deny registration without showing cause. This reversal fulfills a government promise in 2000 to review registration practice. While this still leaves liberals dissatisfied, it has been welcomed by some groups, such as secondary school parents’ groups, who are seeking registration.

In the area of social administration, the Organ Donation Act was amended to expand the ‘harvesting’ of organs for medical transplant purposes. Individuals will be automatically considered to be a donor, unless they specifically opt out. This legislation excludes Malays because a Muslim individual cannot donate organs without the explicit permission of two relatives who are responsible for him/her after his/her death. Some creative re-interpretations of Islamic injunctions are being suggested so to include Muslims, especially since, among the different races, Malays are statistically more prone to kidney failure.. If not volunteering for organ donation, they will be placed on the lowest priority list for transplants.

This year the Chinese Lunar New Year fell on 22 January and for the first time in close to thirty years real fire crackers were light in Chinatown, albeit under expert supervision.

WATCHPOINT: Any further mapping out by Lee Hsien Loong of his vision for Singaporean politics and government will be scrutinized with great interest for clues as to Singapore’s future.


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