Saturday, March 23, 2013

Treading between the painful and the popular

Treading between the painful and the popular

22 March

When they turn on the tap, Singaporeans know there will be water. They know it will be clean and safe to drink. The tap symbolises Singapore’s progress from water rationing to water security over the past 50 years.

But Singapore faces risks in continuing its remarkable success story in handling water and flood issues, as more Singaporeans seek a say in national decisions.

The risk in the water sector is simple: Will the Government make decisions that could lose votes in the coming years, but help Singapore in coming decades?

Or will it make decisions that win votes in the near term, but might hurt the country in the long term?

As voters speak louder, the Government will need to learn how it can strike a balance between populism and paternalism, in regard to water and other national issues. A failure to learn may impede popular participation or create problems decades later.


A comparison of water management in the 1970s and today illustrates this challenge. Decades ago, the Government adopted water policies that hurt in the short term, but helped in the long term.

In 1977, it cleaned the Singapore River. More than 40,000 squatters were resettled and 610 pig farmers lost their way of life. The farmers voted against the People’s Action Party (PAP) for many years after, recalled former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Yet this unpopular policy made the river clean enough so its water can be made potable. The Singapore River became the Marina Reservoir in 2010, with a capacity to supply 10 per cent of water used in Singapore. An unpopular decision with short-term pain led to benefits — greater water security.

Today, the Government risks adopting water policies that enrich in the short term, but could hurt in the long term. The PUB is investing S$750 million over five years to improve expand drainage capacity in 20 areas, after the flash floods in 2010 and 2011 and the last General Election.

This figure compares with an estimated S$23 million of damages from flash floods in June–July 2010. It dwarfs the S$470 million the Government has allocated to finance R&D and grow the water industry since 2006.

Although drainage works channel rainwater to reservoirs and boost water supply, technologies like membranes for reverse osmosis, used in NEWater processes, have played a bigger role in weaning Singapore off imported water.

In expanding drainage capacity, the Government is responding to the people, as it should. But it risks overlooking more important water needs, like R&D. Short-term gains may hurt in the future.


This generation of political leaders, not so accustomed to having to win the hearts and minds of the people at the polls, will need to tread carefully.

On the one hand, it needs to take into account views from the majority, the minority, the noisy, the silent, as people seek a louder say in making policy. Popular participation will give people a stake in the country. It preserves autonomy.

On the other, the Government and citizens need to take into account longer-term benefits, such as water security or fiscal sustainability; for the selfish, the future is a problem for future generations.

To address this challenge, the Government could share crucial information so it partners people in informed discussion about trade-offs: Flood-proofing or water security? Informed discussion could lead to novel suggestions and improve policies.

It could help the Government consider issues from new perspectives and people reinterpret their interests. For instance, people may consider the benefit of water security for their children and grandchildren to outweigh the cost of occasional flash floods to themselves.

Informed discussion will enable Singaporeans and their leaders to recognise problems, options and trade-offs. Informed discussion can even make hard decisions easier: People can accept decisions they disagree with if they understand why it is made and if they have been involved in it.

Yet, crucial nuggets of information are often hard to find in Singapore, impoverishing discussion. For instance, does the S$750-million drainage investment add to or repackage planned investment? What are the monetary and non-monetary returns on drainage works compared with that on R&D?

Without information, people cannot suggest improvements, reconsider interests or support a policy with which they disagree but understand.

The Government will need to learn to share information and exchange ideas with the people.

It has started Our Singapore Conversation to spark discussion with and among citizens about the future of Singapore. Similarly, it can learn to converse with citizens about the possible future of Singapore’s water story, strike a balance between populism and paternalism, and build “water for all”.


Terence Poon is a Master in Public Administration student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

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