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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Singapore vows to create 'social safety nets'

Singapore will create a new culture ministry in a bid to "focus on building a cohesive and vibrant society" amid simmering discontent over immigration and income gaps, the prime minister said Tuesday.

Lee Hsien Loong restructured his cabinet and vowed to boost "social safety nets" as he announced in a statement the creation of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

One of the new portfolio's tasks will be to promote "harmonious communal relations", said the statement, which comes as tensions mount between native-born Singaporeans and foreigners, mostly mainland Chinese.

More than 37 percent of the 5.2 million people living in Singapore are foreigners, many of whom have taken up citizenship and employment in the city-state in recent years.

The government has tightened visa and citizenship rules following complaints that jobs have been taken away from Singaporeans and a strain put on transport, health care and other public services.

As part of the cabinet reshuffle an existing ministry will now focus on social and family development.

"We need to strengthen our families and enhance our social safety nets to help those in need," Lee said.

The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) suffered its worst electoral performance in May 2011 when nearly 40 percent of Singaporeans voted for the opposition, after a heated campaign heavily influenced by social media.

The PAP managed to hold on to 81 of the 87 seats in parliament thanks to a controversial system of block voting, but it was shaken by an outpouring of scorn against the government via Facebook, Twitter and independent websites.

Lee did not give details on what social safety nets he intends to boost, but government critics have been demanding greater attention to the fate of low-income Singaporeans, especially the elderly.

Young couples have also complained about a lack of public housing and childcare facilities despite a government campaign for them to produce more babies in order to reverse the decline of the native-born population.

Acknowledging the newfound power of social media, Lee said in his statement that "we have to improve public communication and engagement, so as to reach out more effectively to our increasingly diverse society".

The 60-year-old leader posted a less formal announcement about the cabinet changes on his Facebook page, set up last April along with a Twitter account.

"Reshuffled the Cabinet today," he wrote.

"These changes will help us to serve Singaporeans better. I hope that all Singaporeans will give my team your full support, and work with us to build a better Singapore for all."

Lee is the son of Singapore's founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, 88, who retired from the cabinet after last year's polls to give way to younger ministers.

Moves 'not forward looking': analyst

Political analyst Bridget Welsh described the changes unveiled by the prime minister as his "attempt for renewal and regeneration, to brand his own leadership".

She expressed concern, however, that some of the new appointees "have not been seen to engage the electorate in dialogue on policy issues and as such they are seen to be the PAP of old rather than a more dynamic crop of leaders capable of managing Singapore's increasing diversity".

The associate professor of political science at the Singapore Management University also noted that a de-emphasis of sports and arts was "worrying for the holistic development of citizens".

Overall, she said the changes do not clearly show how his leadership is forward looking, with the exception of greater inclusion of women.

"While the rationale will be presented in the days ahead, signals of exclusion of areas of creativity, personal holistic development and more media interventions without a clear framework raise more questions that answers. The reforms do not clearly show how they will move Singapore forward," she said.

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