Thursday, May 19, 2011

From value to values

May 17, 2011
By Willie Cheng

THE results of the 2011 General Election have been and will continue to be much analysed.

But for those of us in the social services sector, what is perhaps most significant about this election is the preference the electorate displayed for soft, heart-based approaches over hard-headed economic solutions. One might say the election signalled a shift from value to values.

The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) government has always been very clear that economics is the basis of its political strategy, and that economic growth forms the main plank of its election platform. On that score, it has consistently delivered.

Annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth has been heady these last few years, soaring to 14.5 per cent last year. In the last five years, per capita GDP has grown 32 per cent to US$43,867 (S$55,000). Singapore is the second-richest Asian nation and among the top 15 in the world.

Backed by such a sterling economic performance, why did the PAP lose votes, its share of total votes falling 6.5 percentage points, from 66.6 per cent in 2006 to 60.1 per cent in this general election?

To be sure, there were some bread and butter issues such as the rising cost of living, competition from foreign labour and overcrowded public transport. But these economic factors do not, in my view, fully explain the vote swing.

The financial needs of the bottom 20 per cent of workers are supplemented with Workfare and regular handouts such as the Grow and Share payouts, which amounted to an average of $3,000 per family. Even if this group of voters was not mollified by the financial aid, that still would not explain the size of the vote swing against the PAP.

I believe that this was the result of a significant number of the middle and upper classes speaking up through the ballot box for those from the lower-income group.

[That would be idealistic. It's more likely that they spoke for themselves. Those with household income above $8k who cannot buy HDB flats directly, and yet are panicking over the rising prices and COV in the resale markets or priced out of the private market. Who find themselves crowded out of the trains, but cannot afford a car. Who see more foreigners taking jobs next to theirs if not theirs.]

Unfortunately, Singapore has one of the widest income gaps as measured by the Gini coefficient. While those at the top of the economic pyramid have seen their incomes soar over the last few years, real wages in the bottom quartile have essentially stagnated.

The stories that emerged in the opposition's campaign of elderly people struggling to eke out a living only served to highlight this underclass.

But even well before the election, I had noticed increasing concern about the social divide and social mobility among the intelligentsia. Increasingly, the more well-off felt greater sympathy for, and perhaps guilt over, the less fortunate. Many wished to do something about the problem and chose philanthropy as a first step. That is partly why, I think, donations and volunteerism rates have been rising in Singapore.

This growing concern for the poor and the marginalised goes together with increasing preoccupation with higher-order values. The values prominent in this election included compassion for the needy, equity, fair play, checks and balances, and accountability.

In 2005, despite vocal opposition from some community groups, the Government went ahead with the construction of two casinos. The decision was driven by economics: 35,000 new jobs and, at that time, a faltering economy which needed a boost. The economic benefits have materialised as forecast.

But for the opponents of the casinos, the Government's decision amounted to a selling of the soul. One opposition candidate, a former civil servant, cited the casino as an example of the PAP government 'losing its moral compass', which he cited as one of the reasons for his joining politics.

While official statistics are not available, anecdotes of heartlanders being drawn to the casinos to their financial peril have only added to the numbers of disaffected Singaporeans who want to see changes in the way policies are decided. Some made this clear at the polling booth.

The Prime Minister has said that the Government has heard the electorate and will evolve and adapt to the new reality. But true change also requires an active citizenry. If Singaporeans have decided that certain values are important, it's up to them to keep speaking up for, and living by, those same values.

The writer is involved with several non-profit organisations and writes extensively on the social sector.

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