An eventful year for Singapore politics

PAP retained Bukit Batok in by-election, there were a couple of health scares to endure, and Singapore mourned the loss of its longest-serving president


AFTER the high of the general election and Singapore's golden jubilee celebrations in 2015, few could have expected that the following year in Singapore politics would turn out as eventful as it did.

The 13th Parliament of Singapore was barely a fortnight old when, on Jan 27, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong informed the House of a slew of proposed changes to the country's political system.

The Elected Presidency (EP) system would see the most significant impact, as the government pushed for a stricter qualifying criteria for candidates and to have a mechanism in place to ensure that minorities could periodically serve as head of state.

What followed was months of intense debate and discussion as a nine-member Constitutional Commission deliberated at length before submitting its report to Mr Lee to outline how the EP system should be updated.

After a marathon debate in November, amendments to the Constitution were passed that would see the eligibility criteria for private-sector candidates raised to the most senior executive of a company with at least S$500 million in shareholders' equity.

In another first, the next presidential election - to be held by August 2017 - would be reserved exclusively for candidates from the Malay community, paving the way for the Republic to have its first Malay president since Yusof Ishak in 1970.

The year didn't pass by without any controversy. In March, the then-member of parliament for Bukit Batok, David Ong, resigned from both his seat and the People's Action Party (PAP) with immediate effect, citing "personal indiscretions" for doing so.

That shock decision ultimately triggered a by-election in the usually sleepy ward, and what transpired was a straight fight between the ruling PAP's Murali Pillai and opposition veteran Chee Soon Juan, the chief of the Singapore Democratic Party.

The heated campaign threatened to get ugly at times as the verbal attacks reached a crescendo, but when all the votes were counted after Polling Day on May 7 it was Mr Pillai, a commercial litigation lawyer, who helped the PAP retain Bukit Batok with 61.2 per cent of the valid votes.

Less than five days after Mr Pillai's morale-boosting win, Singaporeans were shocked to hear on May 12 that Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat had collapsed at a Cabinet meeting following a stroke.

The two-term politician suffered the stroke due to an aneurysm and underwent emergency surgery that very evening at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

The well-wishes poured in incessantly as Singapore prayed for Mr Heng's speedy recovery, and he did exactly that. After just six weeks in hospital, he was discharged after making what some doctors described as a miraculous and remarkable recovery.

Mr Heng, a key member of Singapore's fourth generation leadership, returned to work on Aug 22 but has yet to make a public appearance as he continues his rehabilitation at home and stays away from crowds.

His was not the only health scare that Singapore witnessed in 2016. A day earlier on Aug 21, Mr Lee gave the country the jitters midway through his National Day Rally speech when he suddenly felt ill and stumbled on stage due to prolonged standing, heat and dehydration.

The rally, which was being broadcast "live" on TV, was halted indefinitely as Mr Lee was attended to by his medical team backstage. He later returned, about 80 minutes later, to finish his speech. His doctors, however, put him on a week's leave.

Singaporeans were put on a roller-coaster of emotions once more, just 24 hours after Mr Lee's brief fainting spell, when it was announced that former president SR Nathan had died at the age of 92.

Mr Nathan, the sixth and longest-serving president, had suffered a severe stroke three weeks prior and was warded in intensive care at the Singapore General Hospital.

He will be remembered for many things over the course of his storied career, including the distinction of being the first elected president to give approval for the government's drawdown of the nation's reserves in 2009 to deal with the impact of the global financial crisis.

The year gone by also saw Mr Lee travel around the world to visit some of Singapore's most important partners and friends to renew and boost bilateral ties.

He visited at least 16 countries over the last 12 months, the highlight of which was undoubtedly the trip to Washington, DC in August to be hosted to a grand state dinner by US President Barack Obama.

Mr Lee racked up the miles as he jetted to countries such as Peru, Israel, Jordan, Russia, Mongolia and Japan to make official or working visits, and attend global and regional summits - all of which helped to boost the tiny city-state's foreign relations.

With the new year around the corner, all eyes will now be on three upcoming events - the release of the Committee on the Future Economy's report in January, Mr Heng's delivery of the Budget 2017 statement in Parliament (probably in February), and the presidential elections (likely to be called in the later part of August).

The issue of leadership renewal is also sure to grab much of the attention in the coming year as Singapore awaits the emergence of the person who will eventually take over from Mr Lee as prime minister after the next GE - to be held by 2021 - is over.

In what was his final major speech for the year on Dec 4, Mr Lee - the main speaker at the PAP's biennial conference that day - hailed the GE2015 results as good for the PAP and a "tremendous plus" for Singapore, because it assured the nation of at least another decade of predictability, political stability and good governance.

"It enables Singapore to complete a crucial transition in our nation's history - the transition from the generations who participated in 1965 or who at least experienced 1965 to a completely post-1965 generation of Singaporeans and leaders," he said.

"It is a transition which we must succeed in, because it will show that Singapore will not just be exceptional once-off for one generation, and then turn ordinary and fade away, but that we have institutionalised a system of governance, a society with the values, and the resolution so that Singapore can continue and can endure."