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Singapore election: opposition parties pull no punches in opposing PAP

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 29/6/2020 Dewey Sim in Singapore
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Supporters of Singapore’s opposition Workers’ Party during a 2015 rally. Photo: AP Supporters of Singapore’s opposition Workers’ Party during a 2015 rally. Photo: AP

On the eve of campaigning for the July 10 elections, Singapore's main opposition party is looking to remind voters they could end up with a one-party parliament, while the current government has fought back by insisting it was an electoral tactic and that it was geared up for a tough fight.

The Workers' Party's secretary general Pritam Singh on Sunday said the opposition faced the threat of a "wipeout" with no members elected to parliament. He was speaking as he unveiled the party's manifesto, titled "Make Your Vote Count", which advocates for policies such as a minimum wage and an abolition of the retirement age. The party's six MPs were the sole opposition lawmakers in the previous parliament.

But Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, from the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), on Monday described Singh's comments as tactical and using reverse psychology, The Straits Times reported. There would be a "hard fight" because of the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, Lee told reporters: "So there are real problems on the ground which cause people concern, and we can feel it."

Singapore's main opposition parties have in their policy proposals focused on the bread-and-butter issues that are in sharp focus for citizens amid the coronavirus pandemic, largely mirroring the PAP's approach in its manifesto.

But they have not pulled punches in questioning the long-held orthodoxies of Lee's administration, including policies the ruling party has firmly opposed. In their manifestos - unveiled ahead of Tuesday's official start of the nine-day campaigning period - the opposition parties' policy proposals include freezing a planned sales tax hike, renegotiating trade agreements and lowering the minimum voting age.

a man standing in a room: Singapore Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh. Photo: Facebook © Provided by South China Morning Post Singapore Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh. Photo: Facebook

Political analyst Woo Jun Jie said it was "natural" that opposition parties questioned the PAP fundamentals, as many of them were ideologically distinct from the ruling party.

"Furthermore, taking such a position can help them win votes from those who may be unhappy with the PAP, whether because of these policies or others," he said. Woo added that the opposition manifestos reflected some resistance to the PAP government's pro-growth economic policies.

Bilveer Singh, a political-science professor at the National University of Singapore, said while challenging the incumbent's fundamentals was "part and parcel of an old habit", the move was welcomed as it not only displayed maturity on the opposition's part, it would also force the PAP to defend " and better " its policies.

The Progress Singapore Party, expecting to contest 24 of the 93 parliamentary seats that are up for election, on Monday unveiled its economic policy-heavy manifesto titled "You Deserve Better". In the document's foreword, party chief Tan Cheng Bock criticised the Lee administration's "patchwork of policy tweaks" and said the manifesto was an "alternative plan" for Singapore.

The manifesto launches by the Workers' Party and the Progress Singapore Party, which are together contesting close to 50 per cent of seats, followed Prime Minister Lee's unveiling of the PAP's manifesto on Saturday.

Lee said the party, in power since 1959, would focus more on short-term issues such as stemming retrenchments and making sure the health care system was not overwhelmed by the pandemic.

The Workers' Party said it was firmly against the PAP administration's previously announced plan to raise the country's goods and services tax (GST) to 9 per cent from 7 per cent by 2025. The position echoed its MPs' position when the matter was discussed in parliament in 2018.

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Lee's deputy and designated successor, Heng Swee Keat, earlier this month said despite the current economic turmoil the hike needed to be carried out by 2025 so the government could afford long-term investment in sectors such as education and health care. He also ruled out implementing the hike next year.

But the Workers' Party suggested in its manifesto that the tax rise might not be necessary at all.

"This tax hike will be yet another burden on hardworking families who are already struggling with the high cost of living in Singapore," it said.

The party urged the government to release "its revenue and expenditure projections for the rest of the upcoming decade for the public to make a more informed decision on raising GST".

The PSP meanwhile proposed a freeze on all tax hikes for five years and the exemption of basic necessities from the sales tax.

Founded last year by 80-year-old former PAP stalwart Tan, the party also hopes to re-examines free trade pacts that involve liberalisation of labour movement.

Hazel Poa, the party's vice-chairman, on Monday said it would advocate for a review of Singapore's Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with India, which critics have for years claimed gave Indian nationals a free pass to work in the island nation.

The government has previously slammed those claims as false and meaning to "create anxiety" among Singaporeans.

Like most of the 10 opposition parties expected to contest the polls, the PSP is also pushing for a major review of the country's heavy reliance on foreign labour.

Poa told reporters it hoped to see a quota for employment passes - the grade of work permit usually given to high-skilled workers who can command a salary of S$3,900 (US$2,800) a month or more.

Like the PAP, the Workers' Party included a section on its plans to address climate change in its 42-page manifesto.

a man standing in front of a store: Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (centre) leaves his party office after announcing the People Action Party's team for his Ang Mo Kio constituency for the upcoming general election in Singapore. Photo: AFP © Provided by South China Morning Post Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (centre) leaves his party office after announcing the People Action Party's team for his Ang Mo Kio constituency for the upcoming general election in Singapore. Photo: AFP

The party said it wanted the country to set a target of securing 10 per cent of its energy from renewable resources by 2025, which it said would put Singapore on par with developed nations such as South Korea and Belgium.

Gerald Giam, one of the party's 21 candidates, said the use of styrofoam "should be banned where there are other eco-friendlier alternatives".

The PSP and the Workers' Party support lowering the country's minimum voting age to 18 from the current 21, though only the latter included the matter in its manifesto.

It said "enfranchising younger Singaporeans will empower them to meaningfully participate in public life earlier and lend their voice to public conversations and ensure that a longer-term view is reflected in national political choices".

There was a heavy focus on economic policy from smaller parties, like the Singapore Democratic Party, which is contesting 11 seats. It has questioned the government's US$65 billion coronavirus stimulus, saying it represented a "bailout" of government-linked companies rather than direct aid to citizens.

Among its policy recommendations is a retrenchment benefits scheme in which citizens who have been laid off will receive a payout for 18 months.

The Singapore People's Party, which is contesting five seats, said it backed a freeze on the GST rate and lowering of the voting age to 18.

The Elections Department on Sunday said 226 people had been granted political donation certificates, a document required for a candidate to contest the polls.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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