The 2011 general election was the trigger for significant soul searching and policy rethinking by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). It has tried hard to reconnect with the ground through the Our Singapore Conversation and numerous policy adjustments in ‘hot button’ areas – health, transport, education, housing and social security. Yet, one could argue that the PAP has not regained political traction as it has hoped. I attribute this to three main disconnects in its engagement with Singaporeans.
A NEW LOOK AT POLICY MAKING?
Government policies are well intentioned. The Central Provident Fund (CPF) scheme, healthcare subsidies, the Pioneer Generation Package are all examples of policies aimed at addressing the long-term needs of Singaporeans. But they are also complicated and hard to understand. This leads to a high “wash-out” of goodwill because what people do not understand or relate to, they tend not to trust easily.
The highly competent government officials who think of every category of need and every contingency are to be applauded. However, the complicated nature of policies is not only a function of sound policy making. It is also a function of two legacy issues in the policy landscape.
The first is the need to work within systems that have been in place for a long time and which have been periodically adjusted. A good example is the CPF. Other than the obvious difficulty working with legacy issues while trying to do new things, it has also the effect of confusing the public who have difficulty reconciling their historical understanding of systems with new measures.
The second is the need to march policy to the right side of political principles of promoting self-reliance and family as the first line of support while trying to strengthen social security systems. This has the effect of over complicating policies to ensure that additional support given comes with ‘safe guards’ to avoid breaching these defining principles.
Resolving the first issue would require massive political and bureaucratic will to scrap old systems and start anew. This may not even be justified and could do more harm than good.
In contrast, resolving the second issue would require political transformation but may result in more good than harm especially as new social policies have arguably made these legacy principles seem irrelevant.
POLICY THRUSTS VERSUS POLITICAL TRUST
The government has placed great store on the policy shifts that have been made to date. However, the public seems underwhelmed. This may be because while the government emphasises policy thrusts, the public is focused on political trust.
The public reaction to the Population White Paper and the raising of the CPF minimum sum are examples of doubts on the government’s motives and reasoning behind policy decisions.
This is serious and growing political problem for the incumbent and one that will not be solved by policy adjustments. It will require confidence building at the political level. Passing the trust test will depend on the political acumen of PAP politicians and not the policy or operational competency of government officials.
Both the Population White Paper and the raising of CPF minimum sums are public policies that reflect the complexity of policy making at the national level. But they do not adequately address the basic emotional needs of the citizens of a country at a crossroads. Singaporeans want to feel that they matter in their own country. Singaporeans do not want the government to only ‘be right’ but to also ‘do right’.
This means not just putting national interests but also the concerns of Singaporeans at the centre of policy making. The new generation of political leaders will have to reconcile reassuring Singaporeans that they are the ultimate beneficiaries of government policy while avoiding unsustainable or unhealthy moves towards positive discrimination.
NEW WINE IN OLD BOTTLE
The PAP has made a sustained effort since the 2011 general election to engage with the ground, update its policies and to increase its investments in social issues. It has also appointed new political leaders and publicly introduced potential election candidates. Such moves are implicit signals of a ‘New PAP’ – one that is concerned about social and not just economic issues, one unembarrassed to provide Singaporeans with social spending and one which wants not to be seen as elitist.
Yet, there is considerable cognitive dissonance between what the PAP views as the ‘New PAP’ and the public perception of the same. This is for three primary reasons.
First, with public sentiment shifting towards emotive nationalism, political leaders still come across as objective technocrats rather than patriots. Singaporeans want to hear, see and feel that political leaders recognise that leading Singapore means taking care of the interests of Singaporeans.
Second, the moves to govern the social media and artistic spaces through rule changes by the Media Development Authority give the public the impression that the PAP rule is still characterised by information control and censorship. Political leaders may have to choose their battles more wisely. In such issues it is impossible to separate policy from politics and the latter will define any discourse. Interventions therefore become the issue rather than the subject they address.
Third, the use of the defamation law, however justified, is politically outdated as a mechanism for political leaders to safe guard their reputations. They should perhaps let their record be their reputation and trust that reasonable Singaporeans will be able to judge fact from any malign. When the defamation law is used, the public expects the political leader to show magnanimity not enmity.
The practice of breaking defamers financially may have been seen in the past as a sign of strong leadership but today it is perceived as bullying. Political leaders will have to gauge carefully whether by winning such suits in a court of law they are losing support in the court of public opinion. The question is which is more strategic politically.
Taken together, the public perception is that while the PAP has done new things, this is but new wine in an old bottle. To prove the case that the PAP has transformed from within it will have to show more empathy, less of a need to control and have greater faith in the good sense of the people.
THE REAL STRUGGLE
As we enter the second half of the current term of government, there is a sense that we are also entering the final lap of the political race to the next election. Policy adjustments have now spanned all the main areas. In parliament, the Prime Minister has started the countdown to the next general election with a combative stance towards the opposition on constructive politics. While many real policy changes have resulted since the last election, it is an uncomfortable truth that many real political changes remain to be realised.
The upshot of complicated policies and the muddied perception of the ‘New PAP’ is that public discourse is in danger being captured by critics at the margin who fall into three categories.
One category are the utterly ignorant who have not bothered to educated themselves on the facts or who are poorly equipped to understand the policy system and hence resort to erroneous simplifications or totally false analysis.
Another category are those with a political axe to grind. These individuals cast every policy into an alleged wide web of conspiracy of government against the interest of the people.
What we are now beginning to see is the conflation of the two categories into a new collection of political provocateurs bound together solely to attack the PAP by creating as much doubt, distrust, cynicism and anxiety as is possible in the citizenry.
They offer many criticisms, few facts and no solutions. It would appear that baiting the government to take counter-action is the best way to get public sympathy if not legitimacy and shrill suggestions that Singapore is facing a ‘dooms-day’ scenario the best way to play up fear in our future.
This is neither helpful nor healthy for the public discourse on important issues which concern every citizen. Citizens need and deserve facts, intelligent analysis and rational arguments not vitriol and demagogy disguised as patriotism and martyrdom. The noise created by these critics at the margin sucks the oxygen away from more rational and balanced critiques of policy and national direction.
The real struggle is not between the opposition or this new collection of political provocateurs and the PAP. The real struggle is about whether Singaporeans will allow themselves to go down a seductive and slippery slope of anxiety, despair, fear and anger about our future or will we choose to have faith in themselves and what they have already have and can achieve by working together, staying rational
and committing to being invested in the Singapore project.
The former road needs only the suspension of objectivity, giving in to emotional and irrational, even if human, fears and conspiracies and a relinquishing of personal responsibility to play an individual role in making our collective future.
The latter road is a harder road which requires hard work to be informed, staying positive and a willingness to participate and endure a process of public debate of policies based on facts, good ideas and an ability to make tough trade-offs.
In short we need good politics to get the good policies. For the PAP this means not only better communication but greater transparency and willingness to tolerate better still engage in meaningful debate.
For the opposition this means stepping up their game to offer effective alternative ideas not to just be an alternative. It also means not free riding on the antics of extremist political provocateurs.
For Singaporeans it means focusing on the issues and engaging with their members of parliament regardless of political stripe, to push forward their concerns and ideas.
Most importantly there must be, and Singaporeans should insist upon, the recognition by the PAP and the opposition that both have a responsibility to ensure that Singaporeans take the harder road regardless of who gets, or loses, political points because if they do not, and we slip down the murkier and more sinister path laid out by the provocateur’s then we all lose and we could lose all. That is the real dooms-day scenario.