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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s speech at the National Day Rally last night was long on feel-good buzzwords but conspicuously short on ideas to navigate the perilous socio-economic landscape looming ahead.
Apart from assuring Singaporeans that the “best is yet to come”, Mr Lee failed to tell the nation how the government would tackle the myriad of pressing problems that plague the country such as economic contraction, stagnant productivity, increased lay-offs, worrying levels of debt, income inequality, and continued dependence on foreign workers.
Our economy has been contracting in past years with few positive signs in the foreseeable future. Exports have been falling and the services sector reported in July two consecutive quarters of decline.
Shops continue to shutter and companies relocate. Nearly as many businesses (42,000) exited Singapore in the first half of this year compared to the whole of 2015 (49,000).
This has accelerated the rate of retrenchments. The number of jobless Singaporeans climbed to 60,000 by the first half of this year – a seven-year high. To add insult to injury, the number of jobs created are overwhelmingly taken up by foreigners.
More worryingly, the reason cited for the exodus of businesses is that salaries are too high in Singapore. This means that the downward pressure on wages will get more intense even as Singaporeans struggle to make ends meet in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
At the same time, we are unable to raise our game in terms of productivity growth despite the billions of dollars that have been spent in what has turned out to be wasteful government programmes. An unproductive workforce is the biggest threat to our economic progress.
On top of this, our real-estate sector has come under heavy pressure. Commercial property and private home prices have taken a beating because of the deadly combination of retreating demand and over-supply.
On the international front, the marine and oil and gas (O&G) sectors are face crippling problems due to low oil prices. As these industries are prominent features in our economic landscape, it seems certain that our economy will encounter upheavals in the near future.
The O&G downturn also threatens our financial institutions which are heavily exposed to some of the companies in the industry. Swiber Holdings’ recent troubles and the questions surrounding DBS’ loans to the company are signs of a more trouble ahead.
Our banks are also facing heavy exposure in China whose economic health has, of late, been faltering. The anaemic growth in the US and the EU is another area of enormous concern.
Given these dangerous red flags, it is disconcerting that the Prime Minister chose to engage in a PR exercise in the Rally last night rather than address these issues head on.
How is Singapore going to re-engineer our economy to meet the challenges ahead? What is the PAP going to do about creating jobs for Singaporeans and providing financial respite for those who have been retrenched? What plans does the government have to reduce income inequality? What are the contingency plans if one or more of these crises visit our economy?
These are the questions that Singaporeans want answered, not hearing more ways on how the Elected Presidency will be controlled or what the PAP’s succession plans are.
Mr Lee’s address last night is a worrying display of the government’s lack of direction. The hackneyed speech embellished with the usual political trope about celebrating PAP rule and counting our blessings did little to obscure this fact.
It is alarming that, at such a crucial juncture in our country’s development, the PAP chooses to pat itself on the back and rely on a system long past its expiry date rather than take creative and meaningful measures to deal with the problems.