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A female Speaker, a national dialogue - and plenty of action

The past 12 months were full of exciting, unpredictable events

[SINGAPORE] Singapore rang in the new year in 2013 with the political scene still flummoxed by what had transpired just a couple of weeks before Christmas.

One of the country's most important political positions - the Speaker of Parliament - remained glaringly vacant after Michael Palmer's shock resignation due to an extra-marital affair.

The People's Action Party (PAP) MP, who is married and has a son, confessed his blunder to the nation during a hastily convened press conference on Dec 12, 2012.

The woman at the centre of the scandal was Laura Ong, then a constituency director with the People's Association. She had resigned two days before Mr Palmer did.

With Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean sitting beside him, Mr Palmer - then a partner at law firm Harry Elias - said he had made a "grave mistake", describing the incident as a "serious error of judgment". He would resign from all his positions "in order to avoid further embarrassment".

The stunning revelation - which made headlines both at home and abroad - shook things up on several fronts.

Chiefly, it led to Halimah Yacob, a veteran unionist with over a decade of experience in politics, becoming the first-ever female Speaker in Singapore's history.

As for Mr Palmer, a second-term MP, he had to vacate his Punggol East seat, which sparked calls for a by-election to be called in the single-member constituency.

This would be the second by-election in less than a year - after Hougang in 2012 - with the Workers' Party's (WP) Lee Li Lian coming up trumps.

Given an unexpected second bite of the cherry after losing out in a three-cornered fight in Punggol East in the 2011 general election, she went on to secure 54.5 per cent of the votes against the PAP's Koh Poh Koon, a colorectal surgeon and newbie to the political scene.

While the WP celebrated its newest entrant into Parliament, the Punggol East by-election will be remembered for the fact that national issues - not local ones - dominated the nine-day campaign.

The government timed several major announcements to coincide with the campaign, among them cooling measures for housing, plans for more MRT train lines and the $2 billion annual parenthood package.

These issues dominated the rallies and walkabouts, and the fierce debates that captivated an entire nation didn't end with Ms Lee's victory.

Less than three days after the by-election, the much-anticipated Population White Paper was released, detailing the government's plans to invest in infrastructure ahead of time to support a population that could reach up to 6.9 million by 2030.

The document outlined how the overall workforce growth rate would be halved to 1-2 per cent a year until 2020, and subsequently to about one per cent per year until 2030.

The rail network will double by 2030 while about 200,000 new housing units will be built by 2016. More health and community spaces, as well as new parks and green spaces, will also be constructed. All these, the government said, would improve the quality of life for all.

Still, Singaporeans appeared to be fixated on the 6.9 million figure, even though the government went out of its way to explain that it was a planning parameter, and not an official target.

Thousands of people thronged Speakers' Corner at Hong Lim Park in February, May and October to protest against the White Paper.

Over in Parliament, the PAP and WP crossed swords on a number of occasions. Most notable was the saga surrounding the controversial sale of software by the PAP town councils to Action Information Management, a PAP-owned company. It resulted in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong asking the National Development Ministry to conduct a review of town councils. The review eventually found that the software sale did not compromise residents' interests and that public funds were safeguarded.

There was also drama in July when Environment Minister Vivian Balakrishnan charged that the WP's Sylvia Lim and Pritam Singh had made "false and untruthful" statements regarding the cleaning of two Bedok hawker centres.

In a nutshell, the PAP concluded that the WP-run town council in Aljunied GRC - where the hawker centres are located - had asked the hawkers there to pay extra for annual cleaning. This despite the standard practice for many years that the town council should foot the bill.

The year 2013 will also be remembered for the end of the first-ever Our Singapore Conversation (OSC), a year-long exercise to get Singaporeans from all walks of life to share more about the kind of future they wanted to have. In all, more than 47,000 citizens took part in over 660 dialogue sessions.

The culmination of the OSC led to PM Lee using his National Day Rally in August - the most important political speech of the year - to announce the need for a fundamental shift in how Singapore is governed.

"Singaporeans sense correctly that the country is at a turning point," he said in his first rally held at the new Institute of Technical Education (ITE) headquarters in Ang Mo Kio.

He unveiled major reforms in housing, education and healthcare, as well as a bolder focus on social policies. He also spoke of several upcoming infrastructure plans such as the iconic Project Jewel complex at Changi Airport, which will be ready in 2018.

The ruling PAP, on its part, adopted a significant resolution at its party convention that will help define its cause in a new phase of Singapore's development. These goals, said Mr Lee, the party's secretary-general, are to build a multi-racial, fair and just society with opportunities for all.

There were a number of milestones in the year where the nation celebrated as one.

In September, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew marked his 90th birthday with a simple party in Parliament as good wishes streamed in from all corners of the globe.

Prime Minister Lee joined thousands at the Jalan Besar Stadium and many more watching at home as they witnessed the LionsXII football team win its first Malaysian Super League trophy in July.

After the comprehensive 4-0 victory over Felda United, Mr Lee handed team captain Shahril Ishak the giant trophy as Singapore won much praise for its achievement from both sides of the Causeway.

The year would not end quietly, however, as the Little India riot on Dec 8 - the country's first in more than four decades - served up a timely reminder that such incidents could happen even in a stable society like Singapore's.

Quite how 2014 will turn out is anyone's guess at this point. With the PAP in the second half of its current electoral term, one can expect the government to build further on its policies and promises to reach out to the electorate ahead of the next general election that must be called by 2016.