Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Who's out of touch - our leaders or people?

Feb 24, 2013

While some feel the govt has become elitist, others say citizens are unrealistic

By Han Fook Kwang Managing Editor

What's happening to Singapore?

I get asked this question more frequently these days because many people are unsure what to make of recent events that have changed the conventional view about safe and unexciting Singapore where everything works predictably.

There's a feeling that things are not quite what they used to be following the Punggol East by-election, the outrage in some quarters over the Population White Paper, and the demonstration at Hong Lim Park.

That protest made the news on BBC television, via major news agencies and on the front page of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

A banker wanted me to talk to a group of fund managers who he said wanted to "get a gauge of how the political environment is changing in Singapore and how it would impact the investment climate".

So it's not just the man in the street or in cyberspace who's keen to know, but also people watching from the outside, some of them managing large sums and deciding where to place them.

Has the Government lost its touch in anticipating and solving problems and in gaining public support for its programmes? Why have there been so many policy missteps of late, which have caused much unhappiness?

I also get much feedback from readers with their own answers to these questions and their prescriptions for fixing them.

Of these responses, two narratives have emerged, and they are worth examining in detail because they represent views held by a significant segment of the population.

The first pins a large share of the blame on the Government and civil servants for being out of touch with the ground and the daily struggle of ordinary Singaporeans who have to cope with the stresses and strains of living in Singapore, especially the rising cost of living.

According to those who subscribe to this, policymakers don't seem to have the right solutions because they don't understand enough what is happening on the ground.

This extract from one reader's e-mail sums up the sentiment: "People feel strongly the government has become so elitist that it is not one with the common masses anymore. In their workplaces, they see only scholars moving up the fast track ladder.

"Granted that these scholars are academically superior, but does it automatically mean they can be good and effective leaders? Leaders must have character, vision, empathy and compassion, which are not exclusive to scholars. I sense Singaporeans feel the government is no longer serving them but has become an isolated, elitist group who serve and promote the interests of the elite.

"As a PAP supporter and a Singaporean who is anxious for Singapore, I feel sad there is so much anger, and hope the government has the courage to put things right."

The other narrative, from the other end of the spectrum, blames the people for having unrealistic expectations and having no idea how fortunate they are to be living in a country with such a competent government and a relatively high standard of living.

This is how one reader put it: "The people have been spoon-fed for too long. They live in a safe and stable environment which they take for granted. During the '50s and '60s, Singaporeans were completely focused on getting good jobs so they could make ends meet and they left the 'helicopter' decision of running a country to the government.

"Now citizen expectations are just not realistic. They expect their homes to be built and roads cleaned, but snub the idea of letting their children do these jobs. Let them leave and go to Australia, the US, Indonesia or China and they will come running back because they will miss the harmonious and meritocratic environment, and the security of not worrying about the safety of their wives and children when they are out doing their own thing."

Two very different points of view but both held by well-meaning Singaporeans concerned by what they see and who worry about where the country is heading.

So, who is out of touch - the leaders or the people?

It would be easy to ignore both for being extreme and unfair in their views. But my experience is that when enough people hold a particular view, there is usually a grain of truth in it, after discounting for some tendency to exaggerate the problem.

Yes, they may seem too sweeping in how they stereotype leaders and the people but the underlying sentiment warrants attention.

Policymakers need to demonstrate more convincingly that they truly understand how Singaporeans feel about the impact policies on housing, transport, education, health care, welfare and immigration have on their lives and especially on the rising cost of living.

They need to show they are not just interested in the big ideas - think global city and international hub for this and that - but also the small stuff that makes the average Housing Board flat dweller's life better every day.

They have to work harder to gain the trust and confidence of the people that they are, as that reader put it, "one with the common masses".

This last accusation, that the powers that be are no longer seen as being part of the people but removed and apart, is the most damaging, and needs addressing or everything they say or do will be viewed with suspicion and hostility.

But Singaporeans have to also prove that they are not a mollycoddled lot who have forgotten the realities of making a living in this competitive world and how this country made it against the odds.

They take for granted what has been done to secure the special but often overlooked conditions that have made Singapore succeed - its standing and security in the international arena, strong financial position and currency and the reliability and stability of its public institutions.

These areas don't get people as excited as public transport or immigration, but that's because they are ticking nicely.

There is one narrative though that isn't in dispute: We are witnessing today the inevitable evolution of Singapore society from a simpler one-party rule to a more complex polity.

The original model shaped out of the special circumstances surrounding Singapore's independence in 1965 lasted as long as it could, in fact longer than most expected.

Hence, the present ferment on the ground.

How successful this transition is will depend partly on how alive leaders and the people are to those two emerging narratives.

[The simple truth is that the PAP has never been politicians, have never had to win the ground, and had never had to appeal to the people. They are policy wonks, technocrats, and administrators at best. Leaders? in some vague sense. But true leaders, true political leaders? No.

So what if the people have unrealistic expectations or do not understand the complexities of running a country? Whose role is it to educate, inform, and communicate?


Whose role is it to persuade, convince, and rally?


Whose role is it to frame issues in ways that people can understand, put handles on intractable problems, and engage people to help solve those problems?


It's time for the PAP to do something they have never done before. Be political leaders.]

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