New Straits Times
9 April 2003
WHEN Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong asked Singaporeans for their votes during the country’s general election in November 2001, he vowed that he would come up with fresh economic strategies that will ensure jobs for both graduates as well as the less-skilled.
That was a big promise: The prosperity of the nation with a population of four million was then in immediate danger and the citystate, long known for its wealth, was in serious danger of becoming an economic backwater. The economy of the once regional star had stopped humming as key electronics exports were wilting and companies cutting jobs; the tiny export-driven nation was slipping into its worst recession since separation from Malaysia in 1965, and at least 25,000 people were thrown out of work during the year with the unemployment rate seen hitting 4.5 per cent.
But since the 2001 elections, the economy continues to struggle and remains on the brink of another recession as its exports remain at risk over softening demand and geopolitical tensions. Hit by slumping demand for its semiconductors, disk drives and other products from the United States, its most critical trade partner, the economy grew at a slow pace of 2.2 per cent last year from the minus 2 per cent it reported in 2001. For the first three months of this year, growth was a disappointing 2.7 per cent. Growth for the full year, meanwhile, is not expected to exceed three per cent as the market for electronic goods remains sluggish. And the US invasion of Iraq is not helping Singapore’s cause either.
Neither was the economic review committee promised by Goh to look into the medium-term restructuring of the economy. The high-powered group of nearly a thousand members that included prominent private sector executives and top government officials, including co-deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan and Minister of Trade and Industry Yeo, and led by Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, had promised to leave no stone unturned and no sacred cows unexamined.
But there was little new in the committee’s 200-page recommendations that was made public after 14 months of deliberation. The committee had decided to stick to the tried and true, making some allowances to reflect voguish industries.
Meanwhile, the unemployment line continues to grow longer. The country’s de-facto central bank, the Monetary Authority of Singapore, expects the number to peak to 5.5 per cent over the next six months, or more than 100,000 Singaporeans, from the current five per cent.
And Singaporeans are starting to voice their concerns that Goh has not delivered on his promise of jobs for the unemployed. Several graduates are now forced to set aside their hard-earned university degrees and try to eke out a living as hawkers, drivers or even social escorts.
The graduates, however, are not the worst group hit by unemployment. Many job-seekers from the Malay-Muslim community are now complaining that their efforts have become even harder following the arrest and detention of more than 30 people for allegedly being members of the banned Jemaah Islamiyah. Although most do not sport any beard or dress in traditional Middle-Eastern garb, and even admit to being liberal Muslims, they are eyed with suspicion by every potential employer.
With the economic malaise, a host of problems not commonly associated with Singapore has also arisen. For the third consecutive year, the island state, traditionally known for chalking up healthy surpluses, is experiencing a budget deficit that is likely to worsen by more than 10-fold from the previous 12 months. The fiscal deficit for the year to March 2004 is expected to come in at S$1.2 billion (RM2.52 billion) from S$90 million in the current year.
Thus, Goh, who had to fight his way out of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s shadow when he took the helm in 1990, and has said he will step down before his five-year term, will have no choice but to seek the solutions needed to fulfil his promises made in 2001.