Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

About

@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

With its 2013 budget, the Singaporean government has devised a series of programs and incentives to promote quality growth and build a more inclusive society, especially for its children, low-income workers and the elderly.

Presented to the public on February 25, the budget aims to tighten policies on foreign workers, provide a three-year transition support package to small and medium businesses, strengthen productivity incentives, and develop capabilities for new growth industries.

Specifically, the government is responding to the growing public call for a reduction in Singapore’s reliance on foreign labor. Towards this end, the government is increasing levies for foreign workers in all sectors and offering U.S. $5.3 billion in support to businesses. It has launched a manufacturing plan worth $500 million and is setting aside an additional $90 million for the Satellite Industry Development fund. Both moves are expected to generate new jobs over the next five years.

A controversial but popular proposal under the Wage Credit Scheme will allow Singaporean employers to raise wages in the next three years with the government co-funding 40 percent of the increases. The program will cost $3.6 billion over a three-year period. The wage subsidy will end in 2016, when Singapore is scheduled to hold its next general elections.

Additionally, businesses that spend a minimum of $5,000 in productivity activities in a given year will receive a dollar-for-dollar matching cash bonus, according to the plan. A corporate income tax rebate of 30 percent of tax payable capped at $30,000 per year of assessment will also be given to assist companies. A one-year 30 percent road tax rebate for goods, vehicles, buses and taxis will save businesses yet another $46 million.

In addition to promoting growth, the government also aims to build an inclusive society by promising to promote social mobility, sustain a fair and progressive system of taxes, strengthen social safety nets, and provide direct assistance for living costs.

Educators welcomed the announcement that the government will more than double its spending on the pre-school sector over the next five years to more than $3 billion.

Residential property owners will benefit from lower taxes as well. The Workfare Income Supplement will provide additional benefits to older workers. Through the Public Assistance Scheme, couples will now receive $90 more per month. About 10,000 government pensioners will benefit from the proposal to increase the Singapore Allowance to $280 per month and the raising of monthly pension ceiling to $1,210. Retirees living in three-room flats will receive $3,000 in benefits while a middle-income family living in four-room flats will receive $1,500.

Meanwhile, registration fees for mid-range and luxury cars are to be raised.

Some have called the proposal a “Robin Hood” budget because of the higher taxes imposed on the wealthy to generate funds for the government’s various populist schemes. Others have described it as a “corrective budget” which seeks to reverse the economic losses suffered by Singaporeans in the past decade. Still others prefer to name it a “bridging budget,” which seeks to address widening social inequalities in the prosperous city state.

Ravi Philemon, executive director of a charity and member of the National Solidarity Party, expressed disappointment in article he penned for The Online Citizen.

“The three biggest hurdles this nation faces are inequality, falling total fertility rate, and a rapidly ageing population. In tackling these three problems, Budget 2013 did not go far enough,” Philemon wrote.

In an opinion piece published on Sgpolitics.net, Ng E-Jay was even less optimistic. “(It) contains nothing new,” Ng wrote. “There have been no radical suggestions, no sacred cows slaughtered, and indeed, no fundamental changes made. All its measures have been tried many times in the past, under different guises and at different levels.”

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam assured the public in a speech that the government will continue to play an active role in “enabling Singaporeans to achieve their fullest potential, and in enabling them to lead fulfilling lives.”

Shanmugaratnam added a word on the responsibility of every citizen to create a more prosperous country. “It is not about incentives, grants and subsidies. It is about a spirit of responsibility that will determine whether we will transform Singapore by the end of this decade.”

Written for The Diplomat

Indonesia’s Bill on Mass Organizations

The Indonesian parliament is set to approve a bill that would amend the law governing mass organizations. Human rights groups and experts have warned against the repressive provisions of the new legislation.

The latest draft requires mass organizations to adhere to the country’s 1945 Constitution and the principles of Pancasila, a state philosophy about the belief in one God.

Specifically, Article 21 of the bill stipulates that mass organizations are “obliged to maintain the unity of the state, uphold morality and ethics and nurture the country’s religious and cultural norms.” Further, Article 61 prohibits “receiving or giving illegal support from and to foreign agencies”, and “promoting teachings that are against Pancasila”.

Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, reminded Indonesia that state regulations should not harm the principles of “pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness.”

Heiner Bielefeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, added that “freedom of religion or belief has a broad application, covering also non-theistic and atheistic convictions.”

Media groups have also voiced opposition to the proposed regulation. “How can journalists not mention ideologies, which are against Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution, in their publications?” asks Amir Effendi Siregar of the Independent Coalition for the Democratization of Broadcasting.

Meanwhile, local groups worry that the bill will give broad powers to the government, which corrupt authorities may use to undermine the independence of mass organizations, especially those critical of government policies. They also raised concerns about some of the restrictive administrative requirements governing foreign organizations.

For example, the bill empowers the government to review the activities of local mass organizations every three years, and every year for foreign organizations. Authorities can also use financial audits of organizations to grant or deny permits to existing groups. There is also a proposal that would allow the government to suspend associations without a court order.

Under the proposed bill, foreigners who want to establish a mass organization must be residents of Indonesia for at least seven consecutive years and deposit more than $1 million of their personal wealth in the association. Once accredited, foreign associations are forbidden to carry out “practical political activities” or fundraising or activities “which disrupt diplomatic ties”.

To put all of this in perspective, it is important to note that mass organizations flourished in the country after the downfall of President Suharto in 1998. Today, there are at least 19,000 registered mass organizations under the Ministry of Social Affairs while the Ministry of Religious Affairs oversees more than 9,000 groups.

The initiative to replace the 1985 Mass Organizations law was initially supported by many people who wanted the government to regulate local groups such as the often violent Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).

Indeed, the new law would ban activities that promote “racial conflict, blasphemy and violence”, which are covered by the country’s penal code, as legal analysts have pointed out.

Indonesian legislators have dismissed the opinions of UN experts and hinted that they might approve the controversial measure next month. But local opposition to the bill is growing.

The National Commission on Human Rights, Indonesia’s national human rights institution, has voiced its apprehension over some of the bill’s provisions. Meanwhile, the Coalition on Freedom of Assembly, which is made up of 22 mass organizations, is urging the government to withdraw the draft legislation.

They argue that the new law could subvert the rights to freedom of association, expression and religion, which are essential in a democratic society.

To prevent an unnecessary confrontation with civil society groups, the Indonesian government would be wise to delay approval of the bill. Then, after taking other views into account, parliament would be able to adopt broader human rights standards in a revised draft of the law.

Written for The Diplomat

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