The delicate (and mammoth) task of managing expectations

Source: Todayonline  May 23, 2011

On Saturday, a new phase in Singapore’s political development officially opened with the swearing-in of the Cabinet after a watershed election just a fortnight earlier on May 7. Deep symbolism was at work with the accent being on a new style of government – one that is more humane, humble and with the people.

Three things struck me from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s speech. First, with more diverse voices in a more competitive political landscape, Singapore politics “should not become confrontational or worse, divide our people and society”, he had said.

We will surely see more contestation in the days ahead – not just of ideas but also of competing visions on the type of society Singapore ought to be. We can expect exuberant, passionate debate.

There will invariably be confrontation – it’s in the nature of politics. Our long consensual style of politics will now have to accommodate an adversarial competition mode, within and without Parliament. The determined quest to win hearts and minds will mean disagreement and tension.

Here, Singaporeans play the role of circuit breaker in determining when confrontation becomes divisive and works against good governance.

Second, to underline his commitment to take a “totally fresh look” at the issues facing Singapore, PM Lee emphasised that “nothing should be sacrosanct” including political salaries. Ministerial salaries have been a divisive issue and a deep source of disaffection ever since the pay formula was first introduced in 1994. It has undermined the Government’s legitimacy particularly when there had been policy lapses.

The expectation unleashed by the announcement of the review is of a downward adjustment of salaries.

How will we reconcile that with the compelling need to attract top talent in the absence of a strong culture of public service in our society? Will the review committee, headed by highly respected Mr Gerard Ee, adopt a process of dialogue, consultation and engagement? Will Singaporeans accept the panel’s recommendations even if they are not in full agreement with them?

Third, PM Lee pledged to “work together with all Singaporeans to create a just and fair society, which gives all citizens the best start in life, and leaves no one behind”. Singapore will be “a society that nurtures and inspires the human spirit, beyond material success”.

This is an important signal that the imperative of economic success will be leavened with non-material aspirations such as a more equitable society, a stronger social support system, and a society more tolerant of failure.

Post-material ideals and aspirations have taken on greater importance. Even as Singapore aspires to be a global city, it has to be a home for Singaporeans as well.


Events in the past month have been nothing but pulsating, and the ramifications will reverberate for a while. PM Lee and his Government have responded resolutely not just to the election results but also to the unprecedented expression of heartfelt ground sentiments during the hustings. The changes certainly have raised expectations of even more change in the future.

Will Singaporeans reciprocate with equanimity and be magnanimous, or have political positions become so polarised after the elections?

A quick reality check is also in order. There are trade-offs in preferring one policy over another, and in opting for a more deliberative process over an efficient one in policy consultation and implementation. The challenge is for Singaporeans and the Government to find a new equilibrium.

The boldness to re-evaluate policies that have served us well will be critical. Yet, there is a degree of path dependence (or policy stickiness) in our core policies. To expect revolutionary change is not only unrealistic but may well undermine the fundamentals of our society. The unhappiness over hot-button issues does not detract from the integrity of most policies that have served us well. Problems arose over how they were implemented, how they emphasised economic values over non-economic ones, and how criticisms from the ground were given short shrift.


There is one other issue that PM Lee should review sooner rather than later: The unlevel playing field of the parliamentary elections.

A longstanding bugbear is that the electoral process is skewed in favour of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). This includes the boundaries review process where the skimpy details on how and why electoral boundaries are redrawn only give rise to accusations of gerrymandering.

Should we also move to fixed election dates, as is the case in some other countries? Again, the status quo gives rise to criticism that the PM’s ability to call for elections gives the PAP an unfair edge.

In a similar vein, notwithstanding the multiracial ethos that undergirds it, the Group Representation Constituency is perceived to have been used by the PAP to get rookie candidates elected on the coat-tails of their team-mates.

A more informed and educated electorate values and is increasingly concerned with fair play and equity in the electoral process.

It is prudent to deal with these issues now, rather than wait until just before or during the next election when they become deeply politicised, making any rational and reasonable debate impossible.

Where change will be evident is in how consultation will be done, how policy buy-in is engendered, and how policy is implemented and tweaked in response to feedback.

To this end, PM Lee promised that his Government will listen, dialogue and engage all segments of society in a new spirit of inclusive and responsive governance. The approach to policy implementation will be “more flexible, thoughtful and compassionate”.

The nuances will be as important as the substance of policies and style of government. But it is abundantly clear that the themes of change, engagement and shared ownership are central in the new governance. Even then, managing the expectations of Singaporeans will be vital as we head into uncharted waters.

The writer is assistant professor of law at the Singapore Management University School of Law.