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(Singapore) Singapore neglecting smart nation roots in COVID-19 fumble (ZD Net)

writes for ZD Net: For years it has pushed an ambitious plan to lead the global stage with its unabashed adoption of technology, but Singapore now appears to have forgotten its smart nation roots amidst a current COVID-19 outbreak. In managing the spread, the government could have leveraged the strides it made in using data and technology–instead, it has chosen simply to revert to tighter restrictions that may erode public confidence and have long-term impact on local businesses. 

go to ZD Net website: Singapore neglecting smart nation roots in COVID-19 fumble | ZDNet

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Singapore – Lee’s unforced error on Singapore succession (East Asia Forum)

Michael Barr, Flinders University

In July 2020, Singapore’s government was in denial about the shortcomings of Heng Swee Keat, Singapore’s prime minister-in-waiting. Despite mounting evidence that Heng was incapable of operating beyond his talking points — whether in Parliament or on the election hustings  Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stayed loyal. This changed on 8 April 2021, when the two men announced that Heng’s appointment would not proceed.

Lee’s unforced error on Singapore succession

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Singapore – No plan B for Singapore’s leadership succession (East Asia Forum)

Bridget Welsh, University of Nottingham Malaysia

When Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong went on Christmas leave last year, he chose not to appoint then prime minister-designate Heng Swee Keat in his stead. This was a clear signal that he was unwilling to hand over the reins. This came after the People’s Action Party (PAP) performed poorly in the July 2020 election, losing 8.7 per cent of the popular vote. Despite that result, the party had refused to make any major changes to Singapore’s political line-up.

No plan B for Singapore’s leadership succession

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Indonesia/Singapore – Resolving Indonesia and Singapore’s UNCLOS dispute (East Asia Forum)

Aristyo Darmawan, University of Indonesia

Over the last several years, Indonesia and Singapore have been dealing with different interpretations of Article 51 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — specifically, whether Singapore has traditional rights to conduct military exercises in Indonesian archipelagic waters or not.

Resolving Indonesia and Singapore’s UNCLOS dispute

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(Singapore) Singapore’s navy tests a new layer of surveillance: unmanned vessels (Defense News)

Singapore is testing unmanned surface vessels with a locally developed, AI-driven navigation algorithm that could be used for maritime security operations in the congested but strategically important waters around the southeast Asian island nation.

https://www.defensenews.com/unmanned/2021/03/01/singapores-navy-tests-a-new-layer-of-surveillance-unmanned-vessels/

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(China/Singapore) Survey shows 70% Chinese have favourable view of Singapore (ThinkChina)

By Kwek Jian Qiang

https://www.thinkchina.sg/survey-shows-70-chinese-have-favourable-view-singapore

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(Singapore) Singapore’s uncertain economic recovery in 2021 (Chang Yee Kwan, East Asia Forum)

Singapore’s COVID-19 response has fared relatively well, with total fatalities standing at 29 and one currently in critical condition. After a range of ‘circuit-breaker’ measures were implemented from 7 April to 1 June 2020, no subsequent restrictions to socioeconomic activity were re-introduced following the reopening of the economy on 2 June 2020.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks during a CEO Dialogue forum via video link, ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit, hosted by APEC Malaysia, 19 November, 2020 (Photo: via Reuters TV).

With stringent border controls and compulsory testing of visitors to Singapore, concerns over a second wave of infections never materialised and companies were systematically allowed to resume operations in phases.

Between 18 February and 17 August 2020, the government announced fiscal commitments totalling S$100.9 billion (US$75.9 billion), with a projected budget deficit of S$74.2 billion (US$55.8 billion) for fiscal year 2020, in the annual budget and four supplementary budgets. Major measures include wage subsidies, tax and rental relief for companies to reduce job losses, monetary transfers and expansion of financial assistance programs to individuals and households to mitigate economic hardship from COVID-19, incentives for skills training and employment creation for citizens. The COVID19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020 was passed on 7 April 2020 to regulate socioeconomic activity and commercial liability for the duration of the pandemic.

The signs are encouraging for a strong economic recovery. Official reports estimate that the Singapore economy contracted by 5.8 per cent in 2020 and then reach positive growth of 4–6 per cent in 2021. The signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on 15 November 2020 and Singapore’s hosting of the World Economic Forum annual meeting in May 2021 provides added promise for expanded opportunities in trade and economic cooperation. Unilateral permission for air travel to Singapore will also aid economic recovery and cooperation.

Regulatory approval of COVID-19 vaccines in Singapore on 15 December 2020 further boosts optimism for a robust economic recovery in 2021. But Singapore’s economic recovery still remains ambiguous for a number of other reasons.

Early in the pandemic, Singapore became a model for the tracing and containment of COVID-19 transmissions. But a substantial increase in infections among migrant workers in dormitories re-emphasised the structural inequalities between these migrant workers and residents, particularly those in lower-skilled occupations. For residents, this was revealed in the use of means testing for assistance schemes when parliamentary members highlighted potential inconsistencies and vagaries in eligibility for individuals and companies.

The opaque implementation of fiscal measures adversely affects accountability and quality of governance, especially when aggregate unemployment has continued to increase disproportionately between labour groups and median incomes have also fallen. With the gradual reopening of the economy, previous unequal access to public assistance schemes suggests that various individuals and companies are operating at sub-optimal capacities.

The pandemic also highlights shortfalls in Singapore’s social safety nets. Policymakers continue to place primacy on employment in the formal sector as the key means for individual security. Social risk pooling remains limited as illustrated by the pricing of premiums for MediShield Life, the national basic health insurance scheme. It continues to be based on commercial principles where premiums increase disproportionately with age, exacerbating inequality.

There is argument that regular universal budget-financed transfers are necessary to facilitate greater social resilience in the face of a crisis as its absence otherwise potentially reduces appetite for the risk-taking necessary for a robust economic recovery. A persistent preference for means testing, even in a pandemic, for access to public financial assistance over a regular universal budget-financed social pension suggests that individuals bear more risk than is desirable for society.

The fiscal measures introduced in response to COVID-19 are potentially less effective at facilitating economic growth than the size of the budget deficit suggests. A major factor behind this is the prevailing reporting idiosyncrasies of the Singapore budget, including the inappropriate classification of revenues and expenditures. It understates revenue estimates and overstates expenditure meaning the stimulus effect of the budget will be more muted.

general election was called on 10 July 2020 amid the pandemic. The ruling party retained its parliamentary majoritywith 83 of 93 seats and 61.2 per cent of the popular vote, compared to 2015 when it won 83 of 89 seats and 69.9 per cent of the popular vote. The result was surprising given that in previous elections, crises and budgetary handouts tended to increase electoral support for the ruling party. Post-election analyses raise a myriad of factors that influenced voters. Policymakers will need to address and integrate these concerns in Singapore’s post-COVID-19 growth strategies.

The protracted duration and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic places uncertainty on a robust economic recovery in 2021 for Singapore. This is unlikely to be mitigated by the use of parametric changes that adjust, but do not fundamentally alter, existing structural inequalities and risk-sharing. Policymakers need to have conviction to pursue more fundamental changes that will yield the conditions that are conducive and complementary to successful recovery in 2021. As a start, changing the pricing of MediShield Life premiums in line with social insurance principles would demonstrate policymakers’ commitment to substantial reform.

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Singapore’s 2020 risk management strategy (Michael Barr, East Asia Forum)

Singapore held an unnecessary general election on 10 July 2020, just after a COVID-19 lockdown as the pandemic continued to run out of control. The choice to move the elections forward from April 2021 has never been properly justified, forming part of a broader pattern where the Singapore government has been trying to deal with the pandemic in a minimalist fashion.

Migrant workers look out of windows in a dormitory, amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Singapore, 15 May 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su).

While not embracing Trumpian denialism, the Singapore government used its calibrated, science-based responses to avoid as much disruption as possible and instead played a game of risk with infections.

The main priority of the government was to keep the economy going. There has been severe reluctance to close or inhibit the operation of businesses, travel and schools. Instead, the government has trusted in what some cynics might say Singapore does best: introducing high levels of social regimentation (social distancing, mask-wearing), tracking people’s activities (contact tracing) and relying on its modern health system to save as many as possible.

Despite some risky behaviour and missteps, only 29 people have died and the economy has survived in much better shape than might otherwise have been expected. But the risks and the nature of the government’s missteps have been significant.

The decision to bring the election forward was an unnecessary risk aimed at making it harder for the opposition to campaign by banning rallies and imposing restrictions on ‘walk abouts’ — the opposition’s standard campaign tactic. Despite the population being mostly satisfied with the government’s handling of the pandemic up to that point, the ruling People’s Action Party lost nearly 9 per cent of its overall vote, four new parliamentary seats and two up-and-coming ministers. It also suffered a massive swing (27 per cent) in its heartland constituency of West Coast, nearly costing it five more seats and two more ministers.

The government’s casual disregard for the presence of 300,000 foreign workers in crowded, barely sanitary dormitories was particularly concerning. It was not until April 2020, when it was too late, that authorities even considered supplying sanitiser, masks and temperature checks in the dormitories. It has now been revealed that nearly half of these workers have been infected. The only reason Singapore didn’t have one of the worst death rates is that the super spread happened in a population that is overwhelmingly young.

Not all the government’s actions regarding the pandemic leaned towards risk taking. The government has a new, fourth generation leadership (4G) in cabinet waiting to take over from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. But the first thing Prime Minister Lee did when he called the election in June was to assure Singaporeans that he and his 3G colleagues were not going to hand over to the 4G leaders any time soon.

Lee would postpone his own retirement again so that citizens could rest assured that Singapore would be in safe hands throughout the pandemic. This turned out to be a wise electoral move since his own chosen heir, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, was an embarrassment throughout the election. He became an international figure of jeer for his clumsy campaigning and then ran uncomfortably close to losing his seat.

Another example of the government’s risk aversion in 2020 can be found in the sense of paranoia that it has regarding almost any expression of dissent outside the confines of an election campaign. In contrast to any idea that Singapore might be opening up and softening its approach to dissent, this pattern of behaviour makes clear that the next generation is so insecure that it is tightening the screws in an attempt to continue micromanaging public opinion.

The world watched in faux amusement as the Singapore Police charged a lone ‘protester’ for illegal assembly on the grounds that he posted a photo of himself on social media holding up a smiley face. Prime Minister Lee’s two estranged siblings are protected to a considerable extent by the ties of blood, but such protection does not extend to either his sister-in-law, his nephew or to anyone outside the family who quotes any of the offensive things his brother or sister might have said.

Government paranoia might be escalating on the domestic front but at least 2020 finished with good international news. Lee Hsien Loong effectively expressed relief at the election of Joe Biden and hoped that perhaps the United States might be able to restore its standing in the region and be a constructive influence once again.

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Analysis

SINGAPORE – Developing Singapore’s next-generation military (Samuel Chan, East Asia Forum)

Developing Singapore’s next-generation military

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