ST Editor: Mistrusting PAP Government is the new normal

When Catherine Lim wrote an open letter to PM Lee (‘An open letter to PM Lee from Catherine Lim‘) expressing her views that Singapore is in the midst of a crisis where the people no longer trust the government, she received a quick succession of rebuttals from members of the establishment.

The first rebuttal came from civil servant, Jacky Foo, who is the Singapore Consul-General in Hong Kong. He insisted that Ms Lim was wrong and that Singaporeans do trust and respect the government (‘SGs trust their leaders – PAP Govt has won many GEs‘). He even cited a study, the Edelman Trust Barometer, to show that trust in the Singapore government was high.

Then came MP Puthucheary whose letter was published on ST Forum, attacking Ms Lim personally (‘Puthucheary: Catherine Lim inconsistent in her words‘). He said Ms Lim “cannot be trusted to be consistent” and insinuated that she was one of the “jaundiced commentators on the sidelines”.

Today (22 Jun), Han Fook Kwang, the ST Editor-at-Large, wrote a fair article essentially supporting Ms Lim’s views (‘When mistrust is the new normal’, Sunday Times). It remains to be seen if Jack Foo, MP Puthucheary or some other PAP politicians will also be jumping in to make similar accusations against Mr Han.

Mr Han is of the opinion that “mistrust” with the government is going to be the new norm in Singapore from now on. He said that this is part and parcel of what to expect in a democracy.

Mr Han noted that way back in 2011 GE when the PAP lost a GRC and saw its share of votes drop 6.5%, the PAP already declared that Singapore is in a “new normal”.

“Most people agreed with this assessment but I wonder how many, including the People’s Action Party, understood what it really meant. How different would the new be from the old?” Mr Han posed the question.

He noted that in many established democracies, the ruling party almost never enjoys more than half the electoral support. In their most recent elections, the winning political party has:

Germany – 42%
France – 29% (first round)
Britain – 32%
Switzerland – 27%
Japan – 43%
“These countries have become so used to having their political leaders supported by a minority of voters that they consider this the normal state of affairs,” Mr Han added.

“Anti-government messages and public demonstrations are commonplace. So are low levels of public trust in governments and their leaders.”

Mr Han also noted that Jacky Foo did not cite the survey, Edelman Trust Barometer, completely.

He said of the survey quoted by Foo, “But delve deeper into the survey and the picture isn’t that rosy. When the question posed was whether leaders here tell you the truth regardless of how complex or unpopular it might be, 26% said they would.”

Mr Han said that it would be a mistake to think that mistrusting the government “is a Western tradition”. He then quoted an aged-old story of Confucius to show that the mistrust of government is deeply entrenched even in Chinese history.

Confucius said, “Remember this, a tyrannical government is worse than tigers.”

Hence, looking at the new situation confronting Singapore after 2011 GE, Mr Han asked, “If a low level of support for political leaders and high level of mistrust are normal, what makes Singapore so confident it can buck the trend?”

Mr Han noted that while a strong government with widespread support has been dominating the Singapore scene in the past 50 years, “there is no guarantee it will always be so”.

“There is no reason to believe that the Singapore electorate is so special and so different from others that it will behave differently and continue to have high levels of trust in government,” he said.

“Neither is there any reason to believe that the Government here will always be so exceptional as to always command respect and trust from the people.”

He observed that if the anti-government rhetoric seems to have reached crisis levels, it is only because Singaporeans are not used to their new-found freedom to express themselves, especially in the online space.

“As Singapore society matures, its people will develop many interests, including politically diverse affiliations,” he said.

“It will then be increasingly more difficult for any one party to represent their different needs. That has been the experience elsewhere, and it will be no different here. If any party tries too hard to please everyone, it risks pleasing no one.”

Mr Han thinks that eventually, there will be a new political equilibrium with different parties representing the interests of a diverse population.

He said that Singapore is not in a crisis but merely making the transition to a new political landscape.

“But, for now, normal looks abnormal,” Mr Han concluded in his article.

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