Singapore is a city often compared to Hong Kong, largely because of their similar economic success despite being small and having limited natural resources.
While Hong Kong has made a smooth transition from British administration to that under China, Singapore is facing political uncertainty with the serious, possibly terminal, illness of its founding father, Lee Kuan Yew.
In steering the city-state’s future without Lee, Singapore needs to tackle problems similar to those of Hong Kong – high property prices, widening income gap and meeting expectations from a population used to relying on a government to deliver strong growth and upward mobility.
And, like in Hong Kong, each of these problems has been affected to a large extent by the rise of China.
China’s decreasing appetite for foreign capital and expertise like those offered by Singapore has increased pressure on the island republic to work harder for growth. Meanwhile, affluent mainland tourists and property buyers with deep pockets have pushed cost of living higher in an economy not prepared for such a quick onslaught of money.
The country will need strong leadership like that provided by Lee in past decades to cope with the new challenges.
Lee, 91, remains sedated and on mechanical ventilation in the intensive care unit in a hospital, the Prime Minister’s office said on Saturday, in its latest bulletin. “His condition has slightly improved,” it said.
Goh Chok Tong, who succeeded Lee as Prime Minister in 1990 and is now Emeritus Senior Minister, said on Saturday that the city-state will have to face the reality of having no member of the Lee family at the helm or being groomed for it.
He said that it was not for the incumbent prime minister, the son of Lee Kuan Yew, nor the present leaders of his team to decide who will be his successor. That is an issue for the future.
The People’s Action Party (PAP), which Lee founded in 1954, has been in power since independence in 1965. In the 2011 election, it won 81 out of the 87 constituency-elected seats with a popular vote of 60.14 per cent, its lowest share since independence.
Today the electors share many of the same concerns of the people of Hong Kong – soaring property values, rising cost of living and wealth gap, overcrowded public transport and immigration.
These issues will dominate the next election that must be held within 15 months. The government could call one early, perhaps when Singapore marks the 50th anniversary of independence in August this year.
Over the last 10 years, housing prices in the Lion City have risen by more than 80 percent, in part because of purchases by foreigners, especially mainland Chinese; and non-citizens account for 40 percent of the population of 5.5 million. The city ranks 26th out of 136 economies for income inequality.
In his budget on February 23, Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam addressed many of these issues, with one eye on the upcoming election.
He increased the income tax rate for those earning a chargeable income over S$320,000 from 20 percent to 22 percent starting next year. It was the first such increase in 30 years and compares with the maximum of 17 percent in Hong Kong.
He also announced a 50 percent tax rebate of up to S$1,000 for the city’s 1.5 million middle-income earners and an average of S$600 in cash every three months for the bottom 20 percent of the poorest people aged 65 and older, from next year.
A majority of commentators believe that this was a better budget than the one announced in the same week by Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary, because it offered more help to those who are suffering economic hardship. Hong Kong resisted lifting taxes on the most wealthy.
Lee’s illness has prompted deep reflection among Singaporeans about his long years in power. Among them is Carlton Tan, who wrote this blog in ‘Asian Correspondent’:
“We simultaneously love and hate, respect and despise, cherish and abhor, the man. We are thankful for our decades of economic progress, but we wonder whether it was really necessary to sacrifice our freedoms. We are grateful for the stability and security, but we wonder whether we can maintain it without a strong civil society. We know hard choices had to be made, but we wonder whether those were the only choices we had.
“Might it not have been possible to have both liberty and prosperity? Economic growth and income equality? Peace and democracy? Perhaps no one else in Singapore’s history is capable of evoking such contradictory sentiments because no one else forced us to make such great trade-offs.”
In the areas of civil society and freedom of the media, Hong Kong people are more fortunate than their counterparts in Singapore. Lee believed that, with different communities and religions living so close to each other, his country could not afford the luxury of a western-style media that was a watchdog over the government.
Things that happened in Hong Kong, such as the Occupy protests and passionate public debate over relations with China, are unthinkable in Singapore.
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