SINGAPORE — Even amid a global pandemic that has stretched on for another year, there have been plenty of news developments to captivate Singaporeans. From a botched political succession to parliamentary shenanigans to a secondary school tragedy, here are the top 10 news stories of 2021.
1. The Raeesah Khan saga
The former Sengkang Member of Parliament has sparked one of the biggest crises in Singapore opposition politics since independence. Following her admission that she had lied repeatedly in Parliament about her interactions with an alleged sexual assault victim, she resigned as a party member and MP.
The Workers' Party (WP) admitted to knowing of Raeesah's lie days after she said it in August, raising questions as to why it remained uncorrected for three months. But then came her testimony before the Committee of Privileges, where she claimed that WP chief Pritam Singh and other senior party leaders had urged her to keep up the deception.
Further revelations have come following Singh's often combative 9-hour testimony before the COP, where he crossed swords with Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong, who sits on the COP. Singh, WP chair Sylvia Lim and vice chair Faisal Manap have denied Raeesah's claim before the COP, while Raeesah has insisted she is telling the truth.
So far, the COP has released six special reports and will continue to hold more hearings. Meme makers have had a field day with the footage of the hearings.
2. Heng Swee Keat steps down
The wheels came off Singapore's well-oiled political succession when Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, once acclaimed by the late former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew as his most capable aide ever, abruptly stepped aside as leader of the country's fourth generation of leaders. In a move that shocked and baffled Singaporeans, the 59-year-old cited his age as a key reason for the move.
Eight months on, the ruling People's Action Party has yet to anoint a successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The race is said to be between three men: Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and Education Minister Chan Chun Sing.
3. COVID curbs: when is a U-turn not a U-turn?
It is a process that has taken more twists and turns than an F1 race: the ever-evolving, ever-changing COVID-19 safe management measures, as Singapore transits into the endemic phase of the pandemic.
At the beginning of 2021, dining-in at F&B outlets was initially allowed in groups of eight. Within the space of a year, Singapore has gone from groups of five to two, then banned dining in, then reverted to groups of two before banning it again, then gone back to groups of two before being allowed in the current groups of five for those who are vaccinated.
In particular, families were left confused and infuriated by the multi-ministry task force on COVID-19, when they were initially disallowed from dining together as it was considered "too risky".
Meanwhile, events of up to a thousand were green lit, and multiple Vaccinated Travel Lanes were opened. The space for the unvaccinated has also shrunk dramatically: with some exceptions, they are no longer allowed in, among others, shopping malls, libraries and restaurants for dine-in.
A marathon Parliament sitting that was meant to clarify Singapore's policies on free trade agreements and the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) is now remembered for just one thing: Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan's apology to Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Leong Mun Wai for calling the latter "illiterate", a remark inadvertently caught and broadcast by a hot mic.
Finance Minister Lawrence Wong was initially fingered by netizens – which he swiftly denied – before Dr Balakrishnan owned up. Online glee aside, the issues raised by Leong remain unresolved, while a simmering resentment at foreigners felt by many netizens is never too far off, judging by online comments.
5. Vaccinated Travel Lanes begin
After almost two years of heavy restrictions on travel, and following multiple failed attempts to launch a travel bubble with Hong Kong, Singapore began the process of restoring quarantine-free travel with the launch of the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme in August.
As of December, it has been extended to a total of 27 countries, with some 15,000 travellers entering the city-state daily. And despite the emergence of the Omicron variant, a freeze on the sale of new VTL tickets and several countries re-instituting COVID curbs, the pent-up desire for travel remains strong.
6. Singapore-Malaysia Land VTL
It was a long time coming: 21 months after one of the world's busiest border crossings was effectively closed, the Causeway was reopened via a land VTL on 29 November, on the same day that a joint air VTL for travel between Changi Airport and Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) took off.
Pre-pandemic, some 300,000 people crossed the Causeway in both directions each day. For now, it has been restricted to about 2,900 travellers daily. And while tickets on the designated bus services are hard to come by, many Malaysians have been grateful for the opportunity to reunite with family and loved ones.
7. River Valley incident
It was a horrifying incident that prompted nationwide soul-searching about the pressures of Singapore's education system, and the state of students' mental health. On 19 July, a 16-year-old student of River Valley High School was arrested for his suspected involvement in the death of a 13-year-old boy, and later charged with his murder. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed his shock at the incident.
In a Ministerial Statement to Parliament, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said that the victim was found lying motionless in the toilet with multiple wounds and pronounced dead at the scene. The suspect, who was discovered holding an axe, previously attempted suicide in 2019 and had been remanded in the Institute of Mental Health.
8. TraceTogether saga
Twice in 2021, Dr Balakrishnan found himself embroiled in a parliamentary controversy. The first time was over his now infamous words in June 2020, “(The) TraceTogether app, TraceTogether running on a device, and the data generated (are) purely for contact tracing. Period.”
It turned out this was not the case, when the response to a parliamentary question in January revealed that police are indeed empowered under the Criminal Procedure Code to obtain TraceTogether (TT) data for criminal investigation. It was later enshrined in law that police use of TT data would be limited to probes into seven categories of serious offences.
Dr Balakrishnan, who was Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative, claimed that he had overlooked the CPC at the time, having discovered his oversight in October 2020. He took full responsibility for the fiasco.
9. SPH CEO takes umbrage
It was the moment that spawned a flurry of memes from gleeful netizens and opportunist companies: Singapore Press Holdings chief executive Ng Yat Chung taking "umbrage" at a hapless reporter's question about SPH's goal of "editorial integrity" as it announced plans to spin off the conglomerate's ailing media business.
Ng later apologised for his comments, saying, "Being a direct and blunt-speaking person, I apologise for any offence I might have caused and regret any distraction from the merits of the proposed restructuring." Even Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam weighed in, calling the incident "very unfortunate".
10. Transgender student Ashlee
It was an incident that laid bare the lack of clarity in the Ministry of Education's (MOE) policies on LGBTQ students. Ashlee, an 18-year-old transgender female student at Millennia Institute, claimed in a viral Reddit post that her school had sought to prevent her from receiving proper medical treatment and to ban her from school unless she cut her hair in a “male” style and wore the male school uniform.
She was also threatened with expulsion if she wore the female uniform in school, she said, adding that she had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria by a doctor from the Institute of Mental Health.
MOE denied that Ashlee's treatment had been interfered with, noting that it is "not in a position to interfere with any medical treatment". Ashlee later alleged that she had been barred from attending classes again over the school's dress code.
Three individuals were later arrested following a short protest outside the MOE headquarters against alleged discrimination of LGBTQ+ students at MOE schools.
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