Pay freezes, housing leases, and the climate needs us

I tried really hard to make the title rhyme

Hi and welcome to another issue of GE20Watch, an election watch newsletter that curates the latest news about Singapore’s upcoming General Election.

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It’s been a rather dry 2 weeks for election-related news due to the Committee of Supply debates and the global panic over Covid-19, which Singapore has handled well thus far. Still, here’s some notable news that could have an impact on the GE.

Pay cuts and frozen salaries galore

The President, ministers, and senior political office holders will take a one-month pay cut in order to ‘show solidarity’ with Singaporeans during the Covid-19 crisis. MPs will also have their allowance cut by one month. This follows after state investment firm Temasek announced it would freeze the salaries of its staff and senior staff could take a voluntary pay cut to raise funds for those affected by the outbreak, and other companies such as Singapore Airlines announcing salary freezes as well.

In addition, frontline staff dealing with the coronavirus such as healthcare officers in hospitals will receive an extra one-month bonus in recognition of their efforts during the crisis. Although largely symbolic gestures (oh, how will the best-paid ministers in the world survive!), these moves will surely earn some goodwill amongst Singaporeans and provide good PR for the government leading up to the election.

The spectre of housing arises again?

The issue of housing hangs over the government like the proverbial Sword of Damocles, as a new SCMP piece questions whether the issue of aging leases will prove to be an election issue. An aging lease means a HDB flat depreciates in value, and although a Lease Buyback Scheme allows flat owners to sell a portion of their remaining lease back to the government if they meet certain criteria, the proceeds are transferred to their CPF instead of being returned to them in cash, making it quite unattractive.

This could very well end up as an election issue as the economy tapers downwards and Singaporeans become increasingly in need of cash. The Workers’ Party has released its own paper proposing the creation of a Universal Sale and Lease Back scheme open to all homeowners with a remaining lease tenure of 39 years or less, and reselling them at lower prices with shorter leases or under a proposed Public Rental Market (PRM) scheme. Former GIC chief economist Yeoh Lam Keong, veteran architect Tay Kheng Soon, and property consultant Ku Swee Yong have also released their own policy paper advocating for a one-time lease top up back to 99 year after a flat hits 50 years, and to fund the rebuilding of HDB flats every 100 years. So there is no shortage of possible alternatives, and you can expect the opposition to raise these issues during the election.

Still, there is some good news on the housing front: single unwed parents below the age of 35 will now be allowed to buy 3-room BTO flats in non-mature estate!

The issue of climate change heats up further

In a piece of good news, the government announced that Singapore will halve the amount of absolute emissions it produces by 2050 from its peak in 2030, and achieve net-zero emissions ‘as soon as possible’ in the second half of the century. The magic number is 33 million tonnes of carbon emissions by 2050. This is the first time the government has referred to a target of absolute emissions instead of emissions intensity (which is the volume of emissions per unit of GDP, so your emissions can technically increase if your GDP increases faster).

This move was hailed by many environmental activists and can be seen as a payoff for their efforts. However, youth climate group Singapore Climate Rally pointed out that the government’s target still did not align with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s target of peaking emissions by 2020, halving by 2030, and reaching net zero by 2050, which is necessary to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Image may contain: 2 people, possible text that says 'POLITICS THESTRAITSTIMES Budget debate: Singapore wants to halve emissions from 2030 levels by 2050 peaking emissions by 2030 instead of 2020 reducing our absolute emissions instead of "emissions intensity" but but still no commitment to achieve net-zero by 2050'

Meme courtesy of Singapore Climate Rally Facebook

And also on the climate-related front, the Young PAP, which is the PAP’s youth wing, have released their own position paper on climate change, which includes some bold proposals such as raising the carbon tax to $100/tCO2e (tons of carbon dioxide or equivalent), embedding climate change into the curriculum, and sharing greater data on emissions and climate change with civil society. Might this signal a shift in how the main party will swing for climate change? The youth vote is certainly up for grabs.

The PSP loses a founding member

And lastly, the vice-chairman of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), Michelle Lee, has resigned from the party in order to ‘spend more time with her family’. The party also denied rumours that she was asked to leave due to internal disagreements. The loss of a senior member of the party may hurt the PSP slightly, although it is still early days yet, and they should be able to find a replacement. If internal rumblings of discontent are true, however, things should get interesting.

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