Singapore: The Issues That Will Not Go Away


Dr Chua Beng Huat

October was crowded with issues that simply will not go away. Immediately after it had received heavy criticism for accepting a small hike in bus fares, along with other increases including a raising of the sales tax, the government decided to increase hospital charges. This would seem an intentionally arrogant act certain to provoke Singapore's citizens. Following criticism, the Ministry of Health said that it would work with the consumer watchdog, Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE), in examining and fully disclosing all future hospital charges, so as to reflect its effort in trying to keep medical costs down.

However, CASE had its own credibility problem. Twenty long-term volunteers resigned en masse in protest against its new chairman, who is a member of parliament and an assistant secretary-general at the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC), under which CASE is housed. Given the government’s interest in increasing volunteerism in all social services, the mass resignation must discourage would-be volunteers. For NTUC, the bad news by association continued. The ex-MP and NTUC deputy secretary-general turned chairman of the privatised, former NTUC taxi cooperative (Comfort) banned a journalist from all of the company’s press activities, because the latter had reported and taken issue with the hefty 1.4 million-dollar salary the former had received this year. With the global questioning of CEO salaries, this was disastrous public relations and the ban was withdrawn after a string of negative public comments in the press. The damage was done, however.

Dr Chee Soon Juan, the Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party, went to jail for a third time for ‘providing public entertainment without license’, which really meant that he tried to give a public speech in front of the Istana Negera, on the 1 May Labour Day, even after having been denied a licence by the Public Entertainment Licensing (police) Unit. That Chee considers his own act as one of ‘civil disobedience’ in defense of the constitutional right to free expression was not considered at all by the court. He was fined just under the five thousand dollars, which would disqualify him from standing in the next general election. He chose jail to continue his protest rather than pay the fine.

Members of the radical Islamic group, Jemaah Islamiah (JI) continued to be uncovered; an additional 21 members were detained under the Internal Security Act. The fear of JI intensified with the bombing in Bali (on 12 October) allegedly carried out by members of its parent organisation in Indonesia.

Negotiations with Malaysia on the issue of water have continued to get bogged down. Malaysian Minister of Foreign Affairs kept up a series of public announcements, which made negotiation pointless. After the Singapore side pointed this out, the Malaysian side softened its stance and negotiations continued for two days. However, third-party arbitration by the Permanent Arbitration Court at The Hague seems unavoidable. Singapore is seeking to become increasingly self-sufficient through water conservation measures, desalination and the recycling of used water into ‘Newater’, which was introduced to the public during the August 2002 National Day celebrations. This symbolic gesture of intended water self-sufficiency was not lost on the Malaysians, which probably accounts for their public posturing in the first place.

WATCHPOINT: Malaysia is seeking an upward revision of the price of water and to backdate that price back to the date negotiations commenced. Singapore is prepared to discuss such a price revision but only as part of a bilateral package. How will this apparent stalemate be resolved and what will be the consequences for relations between the two neighbours?


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