Is the ground sour? Time for the 4G leaders to tackle it

source: Sunday Times 26 Aug 2018

By Han Fook Kwang Editor At Large

Singapore celebrates its 53rd year as an independent nation with much to be proud of. The city has been transformed, the economy is humming along even if it’s not quite buzzing the way it used to, and Singaporeans live in peace and stability.
What’s not to be happy about?

Yet, there seems to be a certain sourness on the ground, with more grumbling than usual about issues especially to do with the Government. In the many chat groups I belong to, more people seem to be getting worked up. The latest was over ministerial salaries, always an evergreen topic but recently stoked up by comments made by former prime minister Goh Chok Tong, now Emeritus Senior Minister.

Earlier this month, a doctor, who said he meets people from different backgrounds in his clinic, wrote to this newspaper that the feedback he gets from them about the Government has been “far from encouraging”.

“It is further aggravated when ordinary folk who are struggling to make ends meet conclude that those in authority lack empathy and that those making policies do not understand the sentiments on the ground,” he said.

“I am also concerned about the responses of the younger generation, who pepper their comments with vulgarities, showing little respect for the office of those who are given the responsibility to govern.”

The mood reminds me of the run-up to the 2011 General Election when public unhappiness over housing, immigration and overcrowded MRT trains caused the ruling party to suffer an unprecedented setback at the polls.
What accounts for this?

Unlike 2011, I do not think that the moodiness this time has to do with any particular policy.

The public housing shortage and spiralling prices have been tackled by the HDB’s building programme. More new MRT trains and buses have been added, relieving some of the overcrowding, and the immigration tap has been tightened.
Rather, I believe it has to do with the disconnect which that good doctor referred to.

But my sense is that this gulf between leaders and the people does not stem from a lack of empathy and understanding of what is happening on the ground.

Singapore is a small, compact place and it isn’t hard for leaders to know the public sentiment, provided, of course, that they are willing and prepared to listen.

The problem is a more fundamental one to do with how the country is to be governed and what needs to be done to ensure its continued security and prosperity.

The Government’s approach to these issues has remained
consistent over the years, even as many things have changed around it, including the social and political norms of the people shaped by education, affluence and technology.

Ministerial salaries is a good example. Although the Government has explained its rationale many times over the years and tweaked the actual numbers in response to the 2011 unhappiness, its fundamental thinking hasn’t altered: The best men and women must be found and attracted into political leadership and their pay should be commensurate with their ability.

How much is enough?

The free market is the best guide, so you have to consider what a potential candidate has to forgo to attract him into the political fold.

But I think this argument sits uncomfortably with some Singaporeans who have very different expectations of their political leaders.
I agree with commentators who have pointed out that overly high ministerial salaries poison the relationship between leaders and the led, reducing it to a transactional one.

Already, segments of the population don’t show the same respect that earlier generations of leaders enjoyed, which makes it difficult for the Government to win hearts and minds.
The clash between longstanding views and shifting norms is evident too in the debate over how to tackle inequality.
While there are many more schemes to help lower-income people, the Government is still as insistent as ever that too much welfare removes the incentive to work and will result in a weak and uncompetitive society.

Critics argue that because Singapore is much more affluent than before, the state can afford to be more generous in helping the poor and vulnerable.
How to bridge this gulf?

The Government might argue that its approach to these issues has brought Singapore to where it is today. Why fix it when it ain’t broke?

It is a compelling argument, one which critics should give weight to. If they disagree, they should offer alternative ideas instead of merely attacking the Government.
This gulf isn’t easy to bridge because it is not about policies but about a way of thinking about politics and society, and the assumptions that go with it.

How, for example, should leaders decide on issues that affect the people in a significant way?

Singapore leaders have not changed their view about the need for firm leadership even when it is unpopular to exercise it. Hence, the changes made to the Elected Presidency last year and the announcement that the goods and services tax will be raised.

Are these the actions of an elitist government out of touch with the masses or an example of far-sighted, decisive leadership?
While I believe it is the latter, I would say it has to do a much better job explaining to and persuading the people.
I do not think it has done so convincingly enough.
The souring ground needs to be addressed because it colours people’s perception of the Government and how they react to the next contentious issue.

This is what happened over the ministerial salary controversy. It lit a fire because the ground was already testy.
If not tackled, it might well rebound on the ruling party in the next general election, due by 2021.
The fourth-generation (4G) leadership should rise to this challenge.

It is an opportunity to define their leadership, win over a new generation of Singaporeans and establish a relationship of trust and respect with the people.

In the President’s Address earlier this year, which sets out the approach of the 4G leaders, they said: “…the new leaders are conscious that Singapore is at quite an advanced stage of development. We may feel that we have more to lose now. We may be tempted not to go for bold changes, but instead be content to tweak things at the margins. That would be the wrong approach.”

Will they move boldly on this front?

•The writer is also a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.