by Seah Chiang Nee, Insight: Down South, TheStar, 22 Dec 2007

Middle class Singaporeans are giving the government the thumbs down despite Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s prediction of a golden era in the coming years.

A SUCCESSION of unpopular policies – incredibly ill-timed, if not ill-planned – has reduced the government’s public popularity to the lowest level in many years.

It is ironic because the economy and the job market are on a roll, which should have resulted in a high level of optimism and improved feelings for the ruling People’s Action Party.

Instead the opposite is happening.

The sentiments among middle class Singaporeans have reached one of their lowest points despite Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s prediction of a “golden era” in the coming years.

Four recent factors have caused the plunge in public unhappiness.

(1) Cabinet’s 21% pay rise

The decision to raise the salaries of Cabinet ministers, already by far the highest in the world, by a whopping 21%, could not have come at a more painful time for Singaporeans who are struggling with widespread price increases.

(2) GST increases

The July increase in the Goods and Services Tax (GST) from 5% to 7%, led to an orgy of price increases covering most goods and services in Singapore.

The current inflation, the worst in 12 years, is partly imported but is blamed on the government because it has been increasing public fees, ranging from healthcare to stamps.

(3) Abandoned annuities scheme

After a public backlash, the government had to redraw a plan that would have Singaporeans put a part of their CPF (Central Provident Fund) into an annuities scheme that will pay S$250-S$300 (RM575-RM690) a month until death – or when they reach 85.

It was hugely unpopular because of the late drawdown (only 60,000 Singaporeans live that long) and, if the holder dies before 85, the unused money goes to others in the pool, not to his estate.

It was arguably one of the worst ideas from the PAP government and was abandoned. A new scheme is being considered to replace it.

(4) Shortage, over-crowdedness.

The gathering foreign influx (which has pushed the population to 4.68 million) is beginning to cause resentment – mostly against the government – as well as over-crowding and some shortages.

Singaporeans are likely to continue to have to bear and grin it since, like inflation, it is likely to continue into future years.

Shaping into the hottest topic is, however, the Cabinet pay rise – the second in two years – which would have brought down a government in most other countries.

It raised the Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s annual salary to S$3.76mil (RM8.64mil) and President S.R. Nathan’s to S$3.87mil (RM8.89mil), while Cabinet ministers start at $1.96mil (RM4.50mil) a year.

(By comparison, US President George W Bush earns an annual salary of US$400,000 (RM1.3mil) or one-seventh of what Lee gets).

Despite their compliant nature, Singaporeans have reacted angrily to the way their leaders pay themselves, feelings that I have not encountered in 25 years’ of reporting Singapore.

Even PAP supporters are wondering why their political leaders have embarked on such an obviously politically dangerous course.

“The question is why? Why would people, very smart and talented people, with all the money in the world to spend, money they are not likely to finish spending in their whole life, still crave for more money?” a blogger asked.

Another said: “Actually if they can justify it well, I wouldn’t mind them getting more pay, but where is the justification? Many people here earn in a month less than what a minister gets in just half a day.”

The year-end vibrancy of the top leaders who are benefiting from the windfall, contrasts sharply with a despondent mood among the poorer heartlanders badly hit by rising prices.

More people have been asking their members of Parliament for help. Reports of rising poverty have prompted one minister to say: “In Singapore, no one needs to starve.”

For months Singaporeans have felt pressured by the growing impact of the increasing number of foreigners here, including over-crowding and shortages, not to mention a reduction of opportunities.

For the government, this souring of the electorate’s mood is worrying because it is over major bread-and-butter matters – prices, retirement savings, jobs – which can erode its power base.

One of Singapore’s most admired writers, Catherine Lim, has added her voice to the public criticism on the way Singapore is heading.

A climate of fear that stops citizens from speaking out against the government could eventually lead to the decline of Singapore, she said.

Lim praised the government for its economic achievements but said its Achilles’ heel could be its suppression of criticism, using defamation suits against opposition politicians as well as bans on protests.

“A compliant, fearful population that has never learnt to be politically savvy could spell the doom of Singapore,” Lim told Reuters in an interview.

The 65-year-old Malaysian-born author said the worst-case scenario would be for a future leader to get away with corruption “because of the ingrained, unquestioning trust of a fearful, overly dependent people”.

Lim said: “You could have a case of younger Singaporeans creating unrest because they do not have an outlet.

“What Singapore wants is managed creativity. So, not only would those really creative people not want to come, but those who are here want to get out.”