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2019: The good, the bad and the ugly

You’ve probably had your fill of reviews of what happened in 2019 or the decade – as well as predictions and projections for the future. Sorry. But here’s another one. It’s my own personal take on changes in Singapore, an opinion piece which anyone can agree or disagree with. Please note the word “personal”.

The good

This doesn’t affect me but it’s good that more people have access to public housing with rise in income ceiling from $12,000 to $14,000 for BTO flats and consequent rise for executive condominiums. What was even more heartening was how housing grants would now apply to first-time buyers of any type of flat, even resale flats. That’s a marked relaxation of HDB rules. 

Personally, I’ve always thought the HDB subsidy scheme was an unfair one – because it knocked me out of the public housing market. No nuclear family. Busted income ceiling. I would have preferred a housing voucher for every individual, and a little more if you’ve tied the knot or had children. Then you pick your choice of housing and top-up the rest. More equitable no?

Still, I think very highly of the HDB system and have always wondered what the fuss over the flat’s 99-year lease is about. That issue seems to have over-shadowed any housing policy or innovation we have experienced. I am staying in a flat which is more than 45 years old, depreciating by the year and would be quite happy to outlive it if possible. Many minds, including those outside the official channels, are working on this problem – which shouldn’t be a problem if the flat is a home and not an asset.

The other “good” thing that happened in 2019 is how we seemed to have licked the problem of public transport, with trains that run on-time and buses galore. Never mind the rail reliability statistics  that the G keeps trotting out to convince people that everything is running smoothly, public transport users know that the changes are real and for the better. By the end of next month, the first three stations on the Thomson-East Coast line will open for business. I’m just hoping the whole line will be finished before 2024, when it reaches my neck of the woods.

But we all know that there is a price or fee or fare to pay for efficiency and quality.  Can we keep paying the fares that we now do? The issue is less about what the transport operators are making or losing, but about how the changes, especially to the bus operating model, are being paid for by taxpayers, through subsidies from the Land Transport Authority that run into billions. Something’s gotta give.

What has been given up though is streaming in secondary schools. No more Normal or Express, at least for an initial  25 schools next year. From 2024,  we will give up the labels entirely. I have a vested interest in this because my nephew will be in Primary Five next year and will be among the first cohort of guinea pigs going through the new PSLE scoring system in 2021. Hopefully, he gets into a secondary school that has already done away with streaming.  In fact, I wonder if it is good to have the secondary schools make this transition all at once, instead of over a period of time. Because there will be some schools with Normal and Express students and some with the new subject banding classes. How liddat?

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The bad 

The projected economic growth used to be 0 to 1 per cent. Last month, the G announced that it has narrowed it further, from 0.5 to 1 per cent. I suppose we should be thankful for small mercies. I grew up in the days when it was normal for GDP growth to hit double digits and we’re pained whenever it goes down. Slow growth is now the new normal. Reading the news on the economy and the labour market, however, has been an exercise in gymnastics with the media floundering between warnings and rah-rah hype.

Facts are important but so are perceptions. And the perception is that retrenchments are on the rise (not true), that more PMETs are being laid off (not true but they form a bigger number of those retrenched) and that new graduates will have a harder time finding permanent jobs (need to wait for job hunting statistics). It doesn’t help that familiar retail names like Home-Fix, Sasha and DFS are closing shop or sizing down. I took a stroll through East Village at Simpang Bedok yesterday. So many empty units. I wonder how the shops in Orchard Road fared during this year-end season or are they hoping for a fillip next month when Chinese New Year rolls around? I wonder if new graduates will be picky about jobs or take the first job that comes? Or will they become Grab drivers?

Which, of course, brings me to the gig economy which caused such turmoil on Singapore’s pavements this year. I don’t think anyone can say that the G handled the pavement war between pedestrian and PMD rider very well. Never mind the panel and the codes drawn up, PMDs exploded in homes, caused fires and injured people.

The G had to play catching up: moving up the deadline for the “right” kind of PMDs, lowering the speed limit and finally banning them from pavements. I’m glad they have been removed from my path but I think even the most impatient pedestrian wouldn’t have minded giving delivery riders a bit of time to adjust their mode of transport. To think that there are 7,000 people who use PMDs to deliver food to door-steps. And more amazingly, to think the G came up almost overnight with $7 million to get them to trade in their devices.

It was uncharacteristic of the G not to anticipate the fall-out. It was also uncharacteristic for those affected to swarm Meet-the-People sessions to express their grievances. It is probably a cautionary lesson for the G to be careful about making sudden decisions that affect the wallet.

Now, I’m hoping that I’ve written everything factually because …POFMA!

I don’t like it even though I can see the need for some kind of law because of the real threat of disinformation (which, by the way, can also come from the powers-that-be). But the Singapore version tilts the power balance too heavily towards the G. I was hoping to see the G execute it in a way that would convince people of the dangers of disinformation to the fabric of society. But instead it picked four insipid examples which  seem more concerned about its own standing than the safety of society. You can read my piece here.

Disinformation is bad, and so too, leaked info. The health authorities, already red in the face the year before for the data breach of patients’ personal particulars, had to face a trial in the court of public opinion when it disclosed in January that HIV patients’ personal  data was in the hands of an American con man. Then came the data leak of 800,000 blood donors’ particulars in March, and the probable leak of 2,400 Defence ministry and SAF personnel earlier this month. The G made strenuous efforts to draw the line between public and private sector liability, insisting that public service standards were as high as those spelt out in the personal data protection laws for the private sector.

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When it comes to private information made public, the CPF Board takes the prize with its ripostes to individuals who complain about being denied their CPF funds for some reason or other. You can say that the CPF Board gave as good as it got, but there is such a thing as having some empathy for those who don’t know the CPF rules or who are in such dire straits that they took to complaining in public. Don’t liddat leh.

The ugly

The Workers’ Party town council saga which has been brewing for so many years still hasn’t come to an end. The High Court said in October that the town councillors had acted dishonestly and in breach of their fiduciary duties towards the town council, and that their conduct had “lacked integrity and candour”. It left the question of reparations for another time. Then the G stuck its oar in to ask why the fingered town councillors who are also MPs haven’t recused themselves from their town council posts. The opposition’s reply was that it was appealing the court decision and it was none of the G’s business anyway.  The WP later said the decision was made for them to stay on. So the National Development ministry sent a letter reiterating the demand with an added warning that further regulatory actions might be needed to compel compliance. The G can flog the issue with all its might, but the horse still hasn’t died.

Quarrels are always ugly, aren’t they?  Especially if it’s about race, religion or language. A brother-and-sister pair probably got more attention than they bargained for when they put up a vulgarity-laden video decrying the Chinese population’s insensitivity towards minorities because of an advertisement that had a Chinese male actor dressed up for the minority parts. The term, brown face, came into the spotlight here. Then there was the case of a man of privilege who disparaged a security guard for trying to levy a fee for the man’s condominium guest. Online vitriol spread far and wide with speculation about his citizenship, identity and even whether he had forged papers to work here (not true).  I thought it was a pity that the new anti-doxxing laws weren’t invoked. A greater pity: all the anti-foreigner angst (even though he’s a citizen) was brought to the fore. You can read my piece here.

My last and ugliest point about  2019 is the seemingly unending spate of bright kids who do bad things, like take pictures or videos of women in the shower, molesting them or engaging in some kind of lewd behaviour. Why liddat leh?

Before I forget, 2019 is also notable for NOT being an election year. If it took place, I don’t know if it would have been good, bad or ugly.




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Written By

An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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