Monday, 17 September 2012

Accepting a govt that can't solve all your problems

Leaders need to feel their way forward in new landscape where people's demands are greater than before
By Zuraidah Ibrahim, The Straits Times, 16 Sep 2012

Two decades ago when public figures lamented that nobody would want to enter politics because of the loss of privacy and the incessant attacks of critics, you sensed they were exaggerating. But nobody could have predicted how right they would be one day.

Back then, politicians could shroud themselves with an aura of dignity and power. The opportunities to show them up and take them down were limited.

Today, on the Internet, politicians are routinely ridiculed - sometimes deservedly, but often for faults not of their own making, or for entirely fictitious, fabricated failures. In this climate, it takes extraordinary resolve or recklessness to run for public office.

Yet, that may not be the most daunting prospect for would-be national leaders. Even if politicians have the stomach for it - or if netizens miraculously become more polite - the question is whether it is possible to meet public expectations today. Those expectations have risen immeasurably.

Together with my colleagues Jeremy Au Yong and Aaron Low, I have been sifting through the questions readers want to pose to the Prime Minister. These have landed in the mailbox of this newspaper's new current affairs website singapolitics.sg

We wanted to find out the issues foremost on the minds of Singaporeans and to surface them to Mr Lee Hsien Loong. In the coming week, readers will vote on the questions they want the PM to answer.

Perhaps, we thought, the input from the ground could feed into the ongoing "National Conversation". That government-led exercise has its own website, oursgconversation.sg. There, you can get a flavour of the kinds of questions that the convenors hope Singaporeans will answer: What makes this place home or what kind of home do you want Singapore to be? How can we have more heart as a nation? What are your hopes for our shared future?

The questions received by our Singapolitics website provided a reality check.

Most contributors were not really into the "vision thing". Their concerns were more immediate and more domestic.

Some wanted jobs for their children; others wanted flats for themselves at better locations; some wanted help for their small businesses. A number of middle-aged employees were anxious about competition from younger, cheaper workers. Many were upset about foreigners suppressing their wages and their status in Singapore.

In this regard, it seems things have not changed that much in Singapore. People's priorities are still the bread-and-butter issues. Give me a roof over my head; give me a good job; make my paper qualifications worth my investment of time and money; and so on. And, while you're at it, bring back that bus service and post office that you caused to disappear.

Far fewer were interested in engaging broader issues. One or two asked about growing income inequality. A handful wanted to know about race relations. A few asked about meritocracy. One was concerned about pollution.

I was taken aback at first. But then I realised it was to be expected. After all, politics everywhere is ultimately about how to resolve conflicts over society's scarce resources. Naturally, citizens would want politics to result in enough resources reaching them to assure a certain quality of life. And everyone is entitled to judge whether the country is being run to his satisfaction, applying any benchmarks he chooses - that is the whole point of the system of one person, one vote.

Commentators and political watchers may focus on the bigger picture, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that citizens measure the state of the nation by how they are faring individually in terms of jobs, schools and other urgent and immediate concerns.

And despite Singapore becoming a developed country, the job of meeting people's expectations has become harder, not easier, for anyone in charge.

First, this is because people's demands are higher-end. For example, they no longer feel it is enough to get their children into a school - it has to be a good school.

And even if all schools are good by some objective criteria, parents fear their children will lose out in the rat race unless they are in a better-than-average school. And, of course, it is not possible for every school to be above average. Thus, in a highly competitive society, it is harder to give people the peace of mind that what they have is enough. Last week's announcement that the Education Ministry will abandon banding of schools is a symbolically important move, but on its own it won't address the root of the problem - parents' profound anxiety over whether their children's schools are equipping them to compete in life.

Second, Singapore has developed a petitioning culture, where many people judge their leaders by their ability to micromanage individual problems, rather than getting the overall system right. More than the citizens of most other countries, Singaporeans turn to the Government to solve their problems. Ironically, it is the People's Action Party Government itself that has created this mindset. In the past, a dependence on the Government was politically convenient at the polls, especially when it seemed to be getting most policies right - and you didn't have netizens highlighting every mistake.

Now, however, people's instinct to rely on the Government has become a political liability, since even the Government knows that it cannot solve all problems.

In a sense, the National Conversation is an attempt to address this dilemma by educating Singaporeans that governance involves trade-offs: no government can please all the people all the time, and long-term gain often requires short-term pain.

However, if Singapolitics' own little exercise is anything to go by, reframing the conversation won't be easy. You can create new spaces for consultation, but if most people want to use them to approach officials about their immediate problems, the nature of the interaction won't change. Instead of being like town hall meetings where people debate shared concerns with their elected leaders, you will get something like a Meet-the-People Session, with a long queue of petitioners seeking redress.

Leaders will need to feel their way forward in this new landscape. The promise of being able to deliver all of the citizens' wants no longer holds. What then is the new social compact? The Government will be on unfamiliar territory, needing to moderate expectations of its omnipotence. But some will refuse to believe that the Government can't help them; they will think it chooses not to. Others will delight in taking the PAP down a peg. In either case, it promises to be a rough road for those in public office.

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