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Changing trends in S'pore
Publication Date : 25-08-2013
Last week, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made the most impassioned speech in his career when he announced major changes in healthcare, public housing and education.
Halfway to the next election, the prime minister has made his biggest effort to address the unhappiness of Singaporeans over the rising costs of public housing and healthcare.
Together with immigration and jobs, which he left out, these two subjects are among the most pressing problems that have hammered the popularity of Lee Hsien Loong’s ruling party.
The Singapore government’s failure to resolve them had forced the Prime Minister to apologise to his people in 2011 with a promise to do better.
Last week, Lee made an attempt to fulfil his pledge with mixed results.
In a two-hour National Day rally address last Sunday, Lee made the most impassioned speech in his career as he announced major changes in healthcare, public housing and education.
To some, Lee’s speech is memorable because it targets the lower-income and senior citizens for special consideration.
It confirmed a changing trend started by his Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam when he presented his recent budget.
For the first time, a finance minister imposed a larger levy on owners of luxury properties than on the less well-off owners. Owners of luxury cars were also taxed more.
Several analysts, commenting on Lee’s address, said the wealthy in Singapore might have to pay more taxes in the future.
In both public housing and healthcare costs, Lee appears to target the needy for special consideration.
He said that the country, which just celebrated its 48th year of independence, was at a “turning point” and must make a “strategic shift”.
“We will do more to help the lower and the middle-income Singaporeans own homes.”
Lee gave a very polished performance for two hours and did not read his speech off a piece of paper.
At one point, he became emotional and was close to tears while talking about a handicapped girl who turned a tough life into a brilliant career.
“With his government besieged by so many problems, Lee was making the speech of his political life,” said an opposition supporter, admitting that “it wasn’t a bad effort, given the odds”.
Centrepiece was a plan to turn an expanded health insurance scheme, Medishield Life, to cover all Singaporeans to offset a large portion of rising healthcare costs for its ageing population.
Some observers see it as a possible experiment to see if insurance could eventually turn into the nation’s sole healthcare financing means – contracted to the private sector but under government control.
At the moment, the government is the insurer and no outsider is involved.
It is too early to pass judgments on these “strategic changes” since many details, especially the dollars and cents, are not known.
Blogger Alex Tan said that universal insurance for Singaporeans was a good step in the right direction.
“But how much are you going to make us pay?” he asked. “I will reserve comments for now until I see your price list.”
Some observers, however, believe Lee may have won over some fence-sitters with his speech.
In its comment piece, the editor of the often-critical Online Citizens said the speech had the potential to win over a large swath of middle ground voters.
A few other critics have disagreed, saying the mandatory insurance premiums merely introduced another source of expenditure, while others praised him for attempting to address the people’s demands.
Until now, the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) has largely been seen as unresponsive and out of touch with the people.
Worse still, it is often accused of taking special care of the rich and neglecting the poor.
Overall, however, his speech alone is unlikely to have moved the bulk of the critics or significantly altered the overall political trend – without the details.
The new Medishield Life is mandatory for all with no expiratory date (the old one expires when a member hits 90).
The premium, which comes from his Central Provident Fund (CPF), will be increased to an unspecified amount, Lee said.
The increased premium that Singaporeans will have to pay for this new compulsory healthcare insurance will probably decide how much support Lee will get from the public.
Lee had said that those who could not afford it would be sudsidised.
Then, there are the bigger bugbears like future immigration and measures to ensure Singaporean workers get a fair deal from foreign employers and stagnant salaries.
Other Medishield Life considerations are the type of illnesses the scheme will cover and the maximum payout amount.
Lee had also announced two other measures to help the less well-off.
Lower- and middle-income patients who need to see doctors at specialist outpatient clinics will receive more subsidies. Presently, half of their outpatient costs are subsidised.
A “Pioneer Generation Package” will be introduced to help elderly Singaporeans with their medical bills by paying for their premiums under Medishield Life.
In addition, Lee also announced major changes to education and public housing (of which I will write on in due course), but some Singaporeans were disappointed that he had left out two pressing problems – mass foreign influx and job dilution.
The episode also shows how distrusting young Singaporeans have become of the government.
An online writer said: “Making Medishield (Life) compulsory and covering the rest of one’s life, does not help reduce your healthcare costs.
“They are going to make you pay more premiums, a lot more without opting out! Anyone with actuary experience will know premiums go up if coverage is extended.”