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2021: The Year of Resignation

This time last year, we were looking forward to getting out of this Covid-19 pandemic – because the Pfizer vaccines have arrived! 

This time last year, we thought we already had a prime minister-in-waiting, never mind that Heng Swee Keat goofed over “the East Coast plan’’ during the 2020 GE. 

This time last year, the Workers’ Party was basking in glory, with two GRCs and a single seat in its possession and its chief given the title of Leader of the Opposition. 

Who would have thought that this Christmas would still be as dull as the last one, even after two vaccine shots and a booster? Or that the PM-to-be slot would be empty because Mr Heng is stepping aside in favour of someone with a longer runway? As for the WP, it can’t be easy for the party to defend its reputation and image now, given that its own millennial representative is not just a disappointment but looks ready to deal it more blows.

How things have changed – or not changed in the case of Covid-19 – in the space of one year. I call it The Year of Resignation. 

Resignation 1

How many are still referring to a road map to get out of the Covid-19 maze? After so many twists and turns and deciding which fork in the road to take, I’d wager that we’ve become somewhat resigned to the current state of affairs of tapping tokens and mask wearing. Terms like the circuit breaker and stabilisation phases wash over us. 

We might be confused by the number of people allowed to gather here and there but we know we should, more or less, stay home. And working from home looks set to be the norm, given how recent bursts of permissible workplace activity had to be tamped down when the infection numbers changed. 

We’re hostages to the vagaries and variants of the virus. Daily charts of infections and deaths became so familiar that they don’t seem much missed now in the effort to transit to the endemic phase. The anxiety and confusion has lessened, as more and more people crowd the malls and say “I want to go out’’ and even endure the inconveniences of overseas travelling. 

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While the State scrambled to put together rescue packages for workers and companies affected by Covid-19 outbreak last year, they seemed to be rolled out this year as a matter of course, with packages for this or that group depending on the changes in social distancing measures. I have lost count of how much money was contained in these rescue packages that have come after those three big Budgets announced last year which required a draw down on our reserves. 

What’s new this year is that a line seems to have been drawn between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, with differentiated measures on social distancing for both groups. So we have a new minority group in Singapore which many people would rather not see nor hear from lest they infect others with their anti-vaccine rhetoric. 

Resignation 2 

He can’t resign since he hasn’t even taken on the job, but he’s turning the job offer down anyway. To think that there was a sigh of relief when the issue of who would succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was cleared up after so many years of dithering. Heng Swee Keat, who had helmed so many budgets, seemed to have been the consensual choice of the fourth generation leaders. But there was a general sentiment that he wasn’t as tough or firm or as quick as he should be on his feet. His public performance at GE2020 when he moved to helm the East Coast GRC hot seat did him no favours even if he might have pulled up the share of the People’s Action Party vote. Nor did PM Lee’s announcement that he would stay on as PM until the Covid-19 situation was under control, rather than keep to his deadline to hand over the reins when he hit 70 in February next year. Intellectually, back of the envelope calculations show that Mr Heng, aged 60, has a point about making way for someone younger. But there is little doubt that there are political forces at play as well. So eyes are now on Messrs Lawrence Wong and Ong Ye Kung, who are both on the high-profile Covid-19 ministerial taskforce. 

Singapore is busy watching their moves on the game of snakes and ladders, wondering if either would put a step wrong or who would make it to the end first. Mr Chan Chun Sing, whom Mr Heng had earlier pronounced his deputy, appears to have dropped out of the game, taking a much lower profile with his education portfolio. Then again, just as Mr Wong has suddenly surfaced in the public eye as a contender, who’s to say that Mr Chan might not have another throw of the dice? 

Resignation 3 

This is a real resignation. In November, Ms Raeesah Khan resigned from the WP and as an MP after she confessed to lying in Parliament about accompanying a sexual assault victim to make police report. That was not the end of it. The public started watching a season of sex, lies and videos when the Committee of Privileges started its hearings on the circumstances leading up to the lie and to the final confession and, more intriguingly, who else played a part in this. 

The WP, fresh out from the shadows of former chief Low Thia Khiang and buoyed by voters notwithstanding its messy town council accounts, found itself having to explain why it had let the lie fester for three months. While the six instalments of special reports and videos by the committee was a high water mark in parliamentary transparency, they also left many uncomfortable about the line of questioning taken by PAP panel members. The fact-finding committee will have to produce a final report for Parliament and include recommendations on how Ms Khan should be dealt with. The question is whether Mr Singh et al would have to bear some of the blame – and how. The bigger question is how the public would perceive the WP now – with disgust or with sympathy. 

There are plenty of other events that I haven’t recounted. Three come to mind: CECA, FICA and Chinese privilege.

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All three have to do with something more primordial, on ethnic identity and outside influence. We have the People’s Progress Party and the institution of non-constituency MPs to thank for bringing the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Co-operation Agreement under the spotlight and squeezing a few more numbers and details on Indian migrant workers from the G. Mr Leong Mun Wai was bruised, battered and tainted (maybe unfairly) with a racist mark along the way. He could have been better prepared for sure. In my view, better to bring above ground something that has been simmering underneath – than to have it explode in our faces over time. 

The Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act was introduced, debated and passed in a jiffy in October. The wonder was that it wasn’t introduced earlier, in time for GE2020, given the G’s musings about the extent of foreign influence on the media and the psyche of Singaporeans. We were told to be wary of “foreign agents’’ or becoming an agent of one, and “hostile information campaigns’’. A new category of Politically Significant Persons was introduced who required more active oversight. As always, what laws aim to do is laudable, and the worry is always in the details and how the law is exercised. The first case would be interesting. 

The issue of  “Chinese privilege’’ might well be seen as a foreign import. Some members of minorities are insisting that they had been subjugated because of how the majority race treats them, whether consciously or unconsciously. A lot of debate and discussion centred on whether there was such a “privilege’’, especially after a polytechnic lecturer was caught on video hectoring a mixed race couple. Identity politics will continue to feature in Singapore, especially since discrimination laws are expected soon. It is my hope that we would recognise our shared national identity first, before taking on others. 

As I said, this isn’t an exhaustive list. But I am backstopping it with Loh Kean Yew’s badminton win. We have a champion. Our national anthem was played. Our flag was raised. And that’s a great way to end the year.

Thank you, LKY.  

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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