The mood of a nation

This article quoted the speech by head of Civil Service, Peter Ho, to explain why the rising demand and expectation of a new generation is a result of Singapore’s constant pursuit of excellence in everything. May be it is time that the government should finally let go of its reign and let its citizens “grow up” with a light touch supervision. When the Hong Kong businessmen face the economy downturn, they will blame not the Government for their problems and take actions to counter the bad economy. In Singapore, the contrary happens where businessmen are expecting Government to do something for them. Food for thoughts! – Askmelah

The mood of a nation

… and what it means for the coming election
Source: Todayonline  Nov 03, 2010

If Mr Goh Chok Tong’s speech at the Nanyang Technological University last Friday is any indication, this coming election is likely to be fought on two big-picture fronts: The kind of Government and the kind of politics Singapore should have.

Drawing the battlelines, the Senior Minister told his audience that the pending polls was going to be a watershed event because it will showcase the country’s next potential Prime Minister and his team. The clear message: You are voting for the fourth generation of leaders who will help shape the destiny of this country after 2020.

As for the second front, Mr Goh framed it as a question: What kind of a political system do you want Singapore to have?

Reflecting on what he said was younger Singaporeans’ desire for western-type democracy, he asked: “Is a democratic system an end to be pursued in its own right, or is it a means to select a Government to look after our lives like a guardian or a trustee?”

Both are not new themes for a Government that has been running the country without interruption for the last 52 years. So, why raise them now?

The answer lies partly in a speech Mr Eddie Teo, chairman of the Public Service Commission, gave at the 2010 Singapore Seminar in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a week ago.

Mr Teo, who has emerged as one of the few establishment figures known for his razor-sharp assessments of Singapore life, did not disappoint.

He put a finger on the pulse of the citizens and gave his verdict: Their mood has changed. Their expectations have gone up many notches, they have become unforgiving, want zero defect from their government and regard explanations as excuses.

It all comes down to what he refers to as the price of success. “If we strive to be world-class, we will be judged by world-class standards. If we say that we have one of the best Governments in the world, the public will expect it to solve virtually any problem Singapore faces.”

Tied to this sentiment is the issue of Government salary. Mr Teo said: “Every time something goes wrong in Singapore, citizens ask: ‘If our public servants and ministers are so smart and paid so well, why can’t they prevent the problem from occurring, or solve, for good after it occurs.'”

This is now the mood of the nation.

If the way many Singaporeans have reacted in letters to the media and in private conversations with this writer, to a string of issues such the Orchard Road floods, Youth Olympic Games signatures, changes to long-haul bus fares, security breach at an MRT depot, rising housing prices and immigration, all point to a swing in the mood of the electorate.


The single biggest topic of angst is the rising number of foreigners.

The people I speak to are not against immigration per say. A friend told me the other day: “I have many foreigners who have become friends. Most times, I enjoy their company. But what I am against is the unchecked entry of these people into Singapore and how they have made our trains so crowded, our roads so congested, our houses so expensive to buy.”

It was in 2004/2005 that we saw the opening of the floodgates to immigration.

The Government saw a window of opportunity to ride on the economic wave and realising that immigration was the way to cash in on this growth, brought the foreigners in large numbers.

All this would have been fine if the economic crisis of 2008/2009 had not blown up in our faces.

The unhappiness has eased somewhat with the Government making concession after concession on housing, education and health and with the Prime Minister making this declaration in his New Year message: Singaporeans come first.

With this kind of a mood hovering over the country, it will not be surprising if the ruling party goes into battle with the twin strategies outlined by Mr Goh.

Election strategists will tell you that the smart thing to do is not allow the rivals to set and even seize the agenda. The Opposition will definitely want to latch on to the prevailing mood and push the button on accountability. If the ruling party joins this debate, it will be seen to be allowing its rivals to dictate the election debate.

No Government will want to fall into this trap. That is where Mr Goh’s point about the kind of Government and the kind of politics Singapore needs will come in.

But there are potential pitfalls in this approach. A lot will depend on the ruling party’s assessment of whether the Opposition’s strategy is catching fire with voters. If it does resonate with the public, then the democracy-and-good-government argument will have to be downplayed.

Also the democracy argument will be a difficult sell. Again, my chats with Singaporeans, especially the younger ones, don’t show that they want unfettered democracy and freedom of speech as practised in the West. United States President Barack Obama’s troubles with gridlock politics and the consequences of that are well understood.

What they want is for their voices, woes and views to be heard. And for some kind of action to be taken on their wants and needs.

P N Balji is the director of the Asia Journalism Fellowship, a joint initiative of Temasek Foundation and NTU.