Wednesday 31 October 2012

Singapore - polls apart

Are opinion polls a good way to decide a nation's priorities for governance? Not when public policy has so many shades of grey
By Raymond Lim, Published The Straits Times, 30 Oct 2012

THE launch of the Singapore Conversation has seen many sessions to discuss what sort of Singapore citizens hope to see in the future.

In a recent session, participants were particularly excited by Yahoo! Singapore's online poll on what are the 10 most pressing concerns for Singaporeans. A total of 21,470 people cast their votes, with the cost of housing voted the No. 1 concern.

Many said this was a good way to feel the pulse of the people. And knowing the popular will, they said, is important as it helps the government set its policy agenda - more resources to housing (28 per cent) and less to public transport, since the public transport crunch received only 3 per cent of votes, coming in at No. 10.

But is this really a good way to govern? Even if we assume the polls or surveys are properly conducted - with proper sampling methods and so on - is governing by opinion polls and laws by referendums the way to go? One participant said it will mean greater democracy in Singapore. Will it?

California in the United States uses referendums and citizens' initiatives to decide on policy issues. The result has been to make the state well-nigh ungovernable as the government is tied up with a mishmash of popular demands, often contradictory and short-term focused.

For example, "Yes, to more public services" but "No, to more taxes to fund them". The problem is amplified on policy issues, where there is short-term pain but long-term benefits. This is not surprising as those who are adversely affected have every reason to campaign against it while the silent majority, well, stay silent.

And since most people are concerned with the present, the here and now, present pain will usually dominate future benefits when they cast their votes.

Ironically, introducing opinion polls to decide on policy issues does not necessarily mean giving more power to the people or greater democracy in practice.

Often, it is only a segment of the people, special interest groups, who hijack the referendum process to safeguard or promote their own interests. So it is not the will of the people that is being manifested but the organised, the well-funded and the vocal interest groups that rule the roost.

But populist law-making has a more fundamental drawback. Many public policy issues are not simply a binary matter of "yes" or "no". There are many shades of grey - if not 50, definitely several.

Take immigration, for instance. It is an emotive issue. Despite the valiant efforts of the National Population and Talent Division to educate the public on the issues, most participants in the sessions that we have held, from young and old, want restrictions to be even tighter on the already reduced flow of foreigners to our shores.

But the argument to be open to foreigners is a compelling one - if we close our shores far too much, it is not foreigners who suffer but Singaporeans in general as our economic growth will fall given our dwindling workforce. It will also take off much of the buzz, energy and excitement that come from being a cosmopolitan city that is intimately linked and opened to the world. So it is not an "either or" decision, a simple "up or down" vote.

It is, as in many public policy issues, a complex issue that requires debate, deliberation and compromise to decide on the flow of foreigners into the country that will not cause major social disamenities and economic dislocations to Singaporeans but that will ensure sustainable growth.

It is this deliberative process that ensures that the majority does not trample on the rights of the minority, that special interests are balanced by the general interests and that opposing views are taken into account when policies are decided and laws made.

Critically, this is what gives legitimacy to the policy process and negotiated outcomes even for those who disagree with the eventual decisions.

This argument that for effective governance in a democracy, we need to have debate, deliberation and compromise is also the reason those who demand that their MP should champion fervently their constituents' positions in the House are wrong.

We elect not a postman but a representative to the highest institution in the land to debate, deliberate and make laws that advance the national rather than individual interest.

As Edmund Burke, the British politician and philosopher, said: "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion… You choose a member indeed, but when you have chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol but he is a Member of Parliament."

This is not to say that public opinion is not important. It is an important factor that your MP and government ought to hear and take into serious consideration, but it must never substitute for the exercise of judgment and thought on what is best for Singapore and Singaporeans as a whole.

As Winston Churchill said: "I see it is said that leaders should keep their ears to the ground. All I can say is that the British nation will find it very hard to look up to the leaders who are detected in that somewhat ungainly posture."

I need say no more.

The article is from a speech by Mr Raymond Lim, Member of Parliament of East Coast GRC (Fengshan), at the Civic Forum @ Fengshan this month.

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