Thoughts on SDP’s Pre-Election Rally

Over the past week, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) has occupied much of the public’s mindshare, with its pre-election rally held at Hong Lim Park on 19 Oct.

As talks of an impending General Election heat up in our city-state, this looks to be an exciting year ahead. The SDP has made a good head start as the first opposition party to have declared that it has started campaigning for the general election, which must be called by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong no later than April 2021.

A total of nine speakers took to the podium to address the crowd last Saturday, including SDP secretary-general Dr Chee Soon Juan and chairman Professor Paul Tambyah. New faces were also spotted, such as marketing and communications professional Min Cheong and entrepreneur Robin Low, who are likely to be fielded in the SDP’s upcoming election line-up. A common theme across the nine speeches centered on criticisms towards the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) for breaking its election promises since GE 2015, citing issues ranging from cost of living, influx of foreign workers and the need for greater opposition representation in Parliament.

Here are four key insights based on the evening’s proceedings:

#1 Carnival-like Rally: A Refreshing Approach

The event was unlike your typical serious, sombre election rally with heavy topics dominating the conversation. It had a carnival-like atmosphere with pop-up booths, live-band performances and even a bouncy castle catered for children.

According to SDP Secretary-General Dr Chee Soon Juan, these festivities were intended to introduce “levity” and to encourage more young Singaporeans to be engaged with political issues. The event attracted a turnout of approximately 500 individuals who were predominantly in their 40s and 50s — perhaps not quite the diversity in audience profile which the SDP would have preferred.

#2 Focus on Bread-and-Butter Issues: Greater Voter Resonance

Since 2015, the SDP has placed greater emphasis on policies relating to bread-and butter issues, which aims to identify and tug the heartstrings of Singaporeans. Issues raised during the SDP’s pre-election rally last Saturday were on a similar trajectory — speakers focused on the rising cost of living and the need for more diverse voices in Parliament.

Such issues are relevant and are easier to strike a chord particularly among the young middle class and older generation of Singaporeans who are concerned about family planning, job security and retirement adequacy respectively.

#3 OPPOSITION COALITION: Team Work Makes The Dream Work

The SDP has consistently advocated the formation of an opposition alliance and has been forthcoming in their readiness to work hand-in-hand with other opposition parties despite their differences. During the rally, a video montage featuring well-wishes from fellow opposition party leaders —including the Workers’ Party, Progress Singapore Party — was played several times.

This is testament to the SDP’s vision of coming together to forge a united voice as one opposition, and to push forth their agenda of bringing greater diversity into Parliament. The formation of an opposition “coalition” has been touted as a potential game-changer for the upcoming general elections given the crowded, fragmented opposition landscape — evidenced by few established parties and many fringe ones which have struggled to make an impact at the polls in previous elections.

However, whether or not an informal alliance among the opposition will eventually come to fruition, and its impact on election outcomes, is yet to be determined.

#4 Hot Button Issues: Proposals Are Not New, HAS SEVERAL Inaccuracies

As expected, typical hot-button issues such as the Goods and Services Tax (GST) fare hike and the Central Provident Fund (CPF) scheme were raised by multiple speakers during the rally to stir emotion.

What is noteworthy is that these proposals were neither new, nor substantially different from what was presented during GE 2015.

CPF

On the CPF, the SDP made repeated calls for the CPF Minimum Sum Scheme (also known today as the Full Retirement Sum, or FRS) to be abolished and for CPF savings to be returned to account holders in full upon reaching the age of 55.

SDP member Mr Khung Wai Yeen, who spoke in Mandarin, cited the increase in CPF withdrawal age by the PAP Government from 55 to 62 in 1999 and to 65 today, claiming that this was an example of another “broken promise”.

Contrary to popular misconception that the CPF withdrawal age is tied to the retirement or re-employment age, Minister for Manpower Ms Josephine Teo has clarified on multiple occasions that CPF members can withdraw up to $5,000 unconditionally upon reaching 55 and by age 65, members can commence their monthly retirement payouts. However, today, more than 1 in 3 residents aged 65 and above continue to work and may choose to defer their payouts beyond 65, which allow them to enjoy higher interest paid on their CPF monies.

Over the last few years, the Government has also reiterated the significance of the FRS, which is aimed at ensuring that individuals can provide enough for their retirement given longer life expectancies. The government has also explained the need to update the FRS on a regular basis, by 3 percent annually from 2017 to 2020, to account for inflation and higher standards of living, and that these rates of adjustment would be reviewed periodically.

Notably, what the SDP has disregarded (or omitted in its speeches?), is the fact the Government has been conscientiously responding to public concerns or feedback over time through regular policy reviews and tweaks.

For example, Mr Khung cited the example of a resident’s request to reduce the payout term to 20 years which was rejected by the CPF Board, claiming that the PAP Government had “no right” to withhold members’ CPF savings. In fact, the Ministry of Manpower and CPF Board had recently announced on 9 Oct, the review of the Retirement Sum Scheme payout rules for senior Singaporeans, which was in response to feedback that the current payout duration up to the age of 95 was “too long”.

GST Hike

Separately, SDP’s CEC Member Mr Alfred Tan also took issue with the high costs of living in Singapore and called out the PAP’s justification of the impending GST hike, which has been attributed to the anticipated surge in government expenditure in the areas of healthcare, security and education.

Instead, the SDP proposed for a tiered tax regime where basic essentials such as rice, water, milk and school books are exempted from GST, while a luxury tax can be imposed on items such as jewelry and cars. Yet, Mr Tan did not elaborate on the mechanics of the tiered GST system in his speech, nor did he provide examples of how such a system has been implemented in other jurisdictions.

Economic projections have shown that a 2 percentage point increase in GST is expected to yield 0.7 per cent of Singapore’s GDP and additional tax revenues of S$3.2 billion, which puts the Government’s budget on stronger footing to close the expected revenue and expenditure gap. Second Minister for Finance and Education Ms Indranee Rajah also previously explained that the increase in GST is considered the most reliable and sustainable source of raising the Government’s revenue over the long term, as opposed to adopting other measures such as exempting basic goods from taxes, bringing back estate duties or imposing a wealth tax.

It is also noteworthy that the GST system has been uniquely structured in a way that any fare increases by the Government are introduced progressively, with sufficient help rendered to lower and middle-income households to cope with the higher costs of living, such as through the enhanced GST voucher scheme. It is therefore crucial for the public to understand this in totality, and that the Government’s move to raise the GST is backed by strong economic principles instead of it being a political tool. 

Looking ahead, with elections on the horizon, we should expect to see more opposition parties gearing up its efforts to establish a strong foothold in the minds of voters.

It is important that opposition parties, while being unsurprisingly critical towards the PAP government’s policies and processes, should also give credit when it is due. Ultimately, what we hope to see is a future with more constructive politics, and to build a meaningful public discourse in Singapore.