The quick backstory of what Singaporeans have seen since the results of the 7 May 2011 general elections shows a People’s Action Party government correcting policy mistakes that got voters so worked up that they brought the ruling party’s share of vote to a historic low of 60.1 per cent and threw out two ministers and a senior minister of state from a group representation constituency (GRC).
Some unpopular ministers left the Cabinet, and hot-button issues like transport, immigration and housing are now being tackled with some urgency and eagerness.The phrase “inclusive growth” keeps cropping up in politicians’ speeches and interviews.
Roots vs Reality
But what we have yet to see is the policy makers taking a close and hard look at this government’s ideological roots and whether the policies that grew out of these firm beliefs are still relevant. And more important, whether they are realistic to a population that find their lives squeezed by demands at home and at work.
For instance, there is a crying need for a public debate on whether the policy of letting transport be run by public-listed companies is still the right way. The mess that SMRT found itself in with last year’s disruptions can be traced back to this policy.
Saw Phaik Hwa was recruited to run trains, buses and taxis with essentially one KPI: Bring in more revenue by squeezing more money out of the retail space in MRT stations. She did an admirable job with retail revenue making up more than 40 per cent of total income.
But she forget that her organisation was also a public transport operator. Worse, her board and the regulator didn’t remind Saw that she had the dual role of making money and providing an efficient, reliable and comfortable transport service.
If they had, then the second scary lapse at the Bedok MRT depot would not have happened. The nonchalant attitude she displayed after a train was vandalised at the Bishan depot clearly showed a transport system heading towards a crash.
That crash came about in December last year when two major train disruptions and the subsequent inquiry prised open a can of worms that were eating away at what was once described proudly as the world’s best transport system.
Still, no effort is being made to ask: Can the dual aims of making money and providing a public transport system continue to work?
Healthcare cost is another ideological issue that needs to be taken off the policy holders’ shelves, dusted and given a close and critical look. Just today, there is a letter in The Straits Times which tells the tale of an elderly patient who has to pay USD 1,200 for 90 tablets of a drug that he has to take for his postrate cancer. But generic versions of the drug are available at USD 160 for 100 tablets in accredited on-line pharmacies, the letter writer says.
You can expect more such real-life complaints to rise as an ageing society takes its toll on Singapore.
Soul-searching is also needed for Singapore’s other policies like housing and immigration and whether they are trapped in the ideologies of the old. And whether these beliefs, though they have brought the country from marshland to metropolis, are still sustainable.
The starting point of this appraisal should be that every sacred cow can be scrutinised and slayed, if necessary.
Rational vs Emotional
I happened to read a blog post by Minister of State (National Development) Tan Chuan-Jin reacting to a netizen’s complaint about the price of public housing. Is the housing situation really so dire; Is the HDB flat so out of reach, Tan asks and then goes on to give a calm, rational and, I must say, compelling, explanation of how prices of flats are fixed.
From a rational and textbook point of view, Tan’s explanation should have easily settled the matter.
But nope, the story line did not go this way. The reactions to his blog post show a public not satisfied with his explanation and take us to the heart of an issue that the leaders, despite the hammering they got at GE 2011, have yet to come to grips with.
The experience of a lady who has just started a charity project is instructive: “I found out quickly that there is no point talking to the people I am helping about why and how they got into their situations. What they are looking for is an immediate fix, like paying their utitility bills or putting food on their table.
“I do that first. Once that is done, they are prepared to listen to me on how to get out of their helplessness.”
The leaders have gone to great lengths to communicate and engage with the stakeholders. They are on nearly every available platform; the traditional face-to-face sessions have also not been forgotten.
But, they have yet to master the art of communication to a diverse audience.
There is nothing new to tell in the Singapore story. Many know this story well enough… it is a small country, a nation with scarce resources, that nobody gave it a chance of success; its policies have worked very well to take it from third world to first world status. Even western journalists, once the biggest critics, are now eating out of Singapore’s hand.
This story, if told in a rational and calm way can only make for boring reading. But you can tell this is in a compelling way if you become a story teller. Unfortunately, we have only one such story teller in Singapore: Lee Kuan Yew.
Look back at the speeches he has made, read his books. There is really no new material there, but they are still good stories.
The language he uses, the anecdotes he gives and the connections he makes with the audience show that a yawning communication gap exists between people like him and present-day leaders.
Dig in or test it?
There is a great opportunity to test the effectiveness of the government’s actions post GE 2011. With a by-election looming in Hougang, the PM can go further and hold a few more, giving Singaporeans a chance to say what they think of governance in this new normal.
It is time for a few of the older MPs to leave the scene and bring in new faces. Although such tests go against the PAP ideology, there is precedence. In 1992, Goh Chok Tong took that step to test the popularity of a government under a new PM.
Governing Singapore is getting tougher by the day. The good times of high economic growth are not likely to last. Social pressures that come with a growing income divide, an ageing population and a free and easy online world all make the future a difficult one.
With such dark clouds forming in the horizon, ideological traps are the last thing the government wants to be caught in.
P N Balji has more than 35 years experience as a journalist. He is now a media consultant.