Tuesday 27 August 2013

Our Singapore Conversation Survey: Majority want slower pace of life

Also a less competitive education scene and fewer foreigners
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 26 Aug 2013

WHILE generally optimistic about the future, the majority of Singaporeans want a slower-paced life, a less competitive education system and fewer foreigners - and they are willing to trade off economic growth for that.

This was the picture that emerged from a survey of 4,000 citizens conducted in January as part of the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) exercise.

The full findings, released last week, had 65 per cent of respondents saying that they were optimistic about the future five years ahead, and 78 per cent saying that the Government was managing Singapore well.

Respondents were picked randomly in proportion to the demographics of Singapore society, and the interviews were conducted face to face. The survey was a separate process from the OSC's over 660 citizen dialogues, and was designed to take the pulse of the "silent majority" who may not have turned up for the sessions.

When asked to pick among competing national priorities, respondents showed more consensus than observers expected. That consensus pointed to a desire for an easing of Singapore's pace of growth and development.

Over 60 per cent said they preferred the preservation of green spaces over infrastructural development, compared to the 19 per cent who picked infrastructural development; 53 per cent wanted the preservation of heritage spaces over infrastructural development, while only 27 per cent went the other way.

Asked to choose between career advancement and a comfortable pace of life, 59 per cent chose the latter. This number swelled to 62 per cent among those married with children.

Half of the respondents said they wanted to reduce the intake of foreign workers even if it translated to slower growth and fewer jobs, while just 28 per cent picked the other trade-off.

National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Tan Ern Ser, one of the researchers involved, said that the questions were specifically designed "for people to realise that you can't always have your cake and eat it".

Hence, the options were put to them in black-and-white terms: one section asked them to pick between "keeping taxes low even if it limits support to the needy" and "higher taxes for greater support for the needy".

Some 42 per cent chose to keep taxes low, 33 per cent chose to raise them, with the rest neutral.

Where respondents stood on these trade-offs overall sent a "blunt message of vulnerability and socio-economic insecurity", said Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Leong Chan Hoong, who was also involved in the survey.

But he did not think that what they evinced should be labelled complacency: "Singaporeans just want a balance between economic dynamism and social cohesion."

NUS sociologist and former Nominated MP Paulin Straughan said Singaporeans want a "more balanced approach from the Government to ensure that in terms of quality of life, we are not always obsessing about saving for the future. They want everyday life to be rewarding too".

But she noted that where they stood on these compromises were a reaction to what they felt was already "in place" now.

"Because all the hard factors like infrastructure, a high employment rate and a competitive education system are already in place, they are yearning for more," she said.

"People can ask for more work-life balance only if you have work."

Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Liang Eng Hwa argued that the trade-offs Singapore faces at this point in time may not be as stark as the survey put it, as flexible work arrangements can ease stress without sacrificing competitiveness.

"Let's see if we can work smarter, and so both maintain competitiveness and have time for the family. Hopefully, we may not have to make the trade-off."

Singaporeans want ‘compassionate meritocracy’
Our S’pore Conversation survey shows citizens want less stress, more family time
By Amir Hussain, TODAY, 26 Aug 2013

Despite divergent views expressed in the Our Singapore Conversation survey done by the Institute of Policy Studies, there was broad consensus that Singaporeans want a more compassionate society that is less stressful, with more family time.

One of the survey researchers called it a “compassionate meritocracy”.

The door-to-door survey of 4,000 Singaporeans found that most respondents want a less competitive, more holistic education system, and one that is more inclusive, where students learn with others of different abilities and backgrounds.

And despite some high-profile cases of resistance from residents, the survey showed that an overwhelming majority supported the siting of eldercare facilities in their neighbourhoods for greater convenience.

Respondents also indicated strong preference for the preservation of green spaces and heritage spaces over infrastructure development.

In terms of values, those relating to a sense of community, nationhood and security resonated the most. Filial piety and safety and security for families were regarded the most important across all ages.

There was similarly strong support for values such as honesty, politeness and graciousness, while risk-taking and enterprise took a backseat.

Singaporeans generally placed less emphasis on accumulating wealth and more on a comfortable pace of life. Fewer than a quarter across all age groups would compromise pace of life for greater career advancement.

“Singaporeans were looking for the right balance that would allow them to have more time for their families, as well as stay competitive,” stated IPS, which did the survey from December to January in conjunction with the OSC Secretariat to validate issues raised in the OSC sessions.

Preference questions were put to respondents to reflect dilemmas Singapore faces, and to get a sense of which way Singaporeans would lean given two competing choices.

IPS Senior Research Fellow Leong Chan-Hoong, one of the survey researchers, said: “Singaporeans desire a more balanced and sustainable approach in managing economic growth and other aspects of our standard of living, be that the use of green space, conservation of heritage buildings or creating a conducive and inclusive education system.”

The consistent top priorities for respondents across almost all income groups are the bread-and-butter issues of job security, healthcare and housing. Nonetheless, the researchers said that Singaporeans’ greater ranking of some values over others should not be seen as zero-sum or mutually exclusive.

“It doesn’t mean if you emphasise filial piety ... you don’t really care about wealth,” said IPS Faculty Associate Tan Ern Ser. “Valuing family time can be understood as aspirational, which the reality of work life cannot always accommodate or provide.”

Added Dr Leong: “The focus on bread-and-butter issues, and the wish to enhance the standard of living, is ultimately for the sake of loved ones.”

Members of Parliament (MPs) and academics TODAY spoke to said they were not surprised by the respondents’ ranking of values. “Typically Asians, our upbringing is that this family support and affinity to community, a group sense, is the way we operate,” MP Ang Hin Kee said.

National University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan and MP Zainal Sapari both cited Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to explain respondents’ preference for a more comfortable pace of life.

“When ours was a growing economy, and survival was a key concern, there was a lot of emphasis on being hardworking, accumulating wealth, fighting for a better life,” said Mr Zainal.

While these values may not be any less important now, he felt the survey indicates “we want to move towards being a more inclusive, matured and gracious society”.

Assoc Prof Straughan said the ranking was also “a reflection of the stressors that have built up over time”, given the Government’s focus on economic health: “We’re reaching the point where the stressors are felt by a lot more people.

“There are certain aspects of Singapore society which have grown disproportionately in certain dimensions and other dimensions may have been neglected — very broadly speaking, the quality of life aspects.”

On Singaporeans’ hopes for the education system, Assoc Prof Tan said the findings “suggest a disapproval of elitism”, while Dr Leong felt they indicate the need to “broaden our definition of success”.

Only 33% favour higher taxes to help the needy
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 26 Aug 2013

IT LOOKS to be an uphill battle to convince Singaporeans to pay higher taxes to support social spending, with a recent poll showing that only one-third of Singaporeans support such a move.

But the good news from an Our Singapore Conversation survey of 4,000 respondents is that those of higher income are more willing to bear higher taxes to help the needy.

The respondents, randomly picked to form a demographically representative sample, were asked to choose between the two polarities of "keeping taxes low even if it limits support to the needy" and "higher taxes for greater support for the needy".

Overall, 42 per cent wanted to keep taxes low, while only 33 per cent said they supported higher taxes. The rest were neutral.

But support for higher taxes grew with the incomes of respondents. Among those making monthly incomes of $5,000 and above, over four in 10 supported higher taxes, outstripping the three in 10 that wanted to keep taxes low.

Celebrity photographer Dominic Khoo, 35, who is among the high-earners, is willing to pay more tax but adds: "My answer to higher taxes is yes, on condition that the assistance goes to those truly struggling to survive."

The questions were phrased to draw out respondents' attitude to personally paying higher taxes rather than to the country having a higher tax schedule. Besides income tax, the goods and services tax was also mentioned. Researchers said that this likely accounted for the reluctance among the lower-income.

"It's understandable that those in the lower-income group prefer not to have higher taxes," said Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Liang Eng Hwa.

Sembawang GRC MP Ong Teng Koon, who has been one of the few MPs to caution against raising taxes on the wealthy lest the overall tax pie shrinks as they move away, said that it is important for the Government to keep taxes low for middle-income Singaporeans.
"Instead of taking money away via taxes, and deciding for you what you can do via subsidies, which could be in an area where you do not require, the Government (can) help by leaving money in your pocket and letting you decide what to do with it."

Singaporeans divided on where responsibility to provide for the people lies
By Amir Hussain, TODAY, 26 Aug 2013

Respondents of the Our Singapore Conversation survey generally felt that the Government was doing a good job, even as they were divided on the right balance between the Government taking responsibility to provide for the people and people taking more responsibility to provide for themselves.

The lower the income, and the older the age, the more likely was the respondent to favour the Government taking more responsibility to provide for the people. More than half of respondents aged 50 and above, and 54 per cent of those with an income of less than S$1,000, preferred this.

More affluent respondents, earning above S$7,000 a month or living in private property, expressed greater willingness to pay higher taxes to support the needy. But in contrast to the less affluent, who placed more emphasis on having a caring government, they gave greater priority to having an honest government.

Overall, more than two-thirds of Singaporeans said the Government was forward-looking and managing the country well.

Agreement levels were slightly lower, though, on other facets on governance: On whether the Government does what is right for Singaporeans, whether it understands the concerns of Singaporeans and whether it did a good job explaining policies.

The survey also found that about two-thirds of Singaporeans had a high level of life satisfaction and were generally optimistic that the next five years would be better than today, and that today is better than five years ago.

On the different kinds of governance that Singaporeans preferred, Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Senior Research Fellow Leong Chan-Hoong said: “For low-income families ... the kinds of challenges will be different.

“Certainly ... they hope that the Government will do more for them. Whereas for more privileged families, their needs will be different and they hope the Government can be a more responsive government.”

The researchers said that the Government has to communicate better and be more mindful of differing needs. Said IPS Faculty Associate Tan Ern Ser: “You need a lot more dialogue and communication, a lot more in convincing people, a lot more listening. And when you talk to the people a lot more, there is greater trust ... that you meant well, you’re not out to get anybody.”

Added Dr Leong: “The Government will have to be mindful of the needs of the different communities and the needs of Singaporeans as a whole to understand that even though we have good policies, some groups of Singaporeans may fall through the cracks nevertheless.

“Policies may not be able to have a one-size-fits-all approach, and certain segments may require more help.”

More remain socially conservative
But poll shows that the younger generations are increasingly liberal
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 26 Aug 2013

MORE Singaporeans remain socially conservative - preferring some censorship in the public interest and rejecting gay lifestyles - although the younger generations are increasingly liberal.

In the survey of 4,000 citizens commissioned by the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) exercise, a section on social values asked respondents to pick between opposing goals.

For example, they were asked if they preferred "limits on freedom of expression to prevent social tensions" or "complete freedom of expression even at risk of social tensions". Some 40 per cent went for limits, while 37 per cent went for complete freedom. The rest had no preference.

Asked if they preferred to "censor media content to protect public interest" or "do not censor media content at all", 39 per cent picked censorship while 36 per cent went the other way.

On alternative lifestyles, more respondents rejected gay lifestyles and marriage than accepted them. Around 47 per cent said they rejected gay lifestyles, while 26 per cent said they accepted them; 55 per cent rejected gay marriage, while 21 per cent accepted it. The rest were neutral.

What jumped out to researchers was the generational disparity in respondents' picks. On gay lifestyles especially, the younger the respondent, the more likely he was to signal acceptance.

Among those aged 50 to 69 years old, for example, the scales were tipped 56 per cent to 20 per cent with the majority rejecting gay lifestyles. This balanced out among those aged 20 to 34: the proportion of those who accepted and rejected gay lifestyles was even at 35 per cent each.

A similar trend was observed in respondents' picks on censorship and freedom of expression.

But National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said that the trend did not mean Singapore will inevitably liberalise over time. "There are two theories among researchers on social values... One is the life-cycle theory, that people change from being liberal to conservative as they grow older."

For instance, one's answer to whether those below age 21 should be allowed to watch R(A) films would likely change from when one is 18, to when one is the parent of an 18-year-old, he said.

But the other theory is that social values tend to conform to the era where one is born, and then remain more or less fixed throughout one's life. To tell which theory pans out in Singapore, these questions would have to be repeated in surveys in the future.

Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad said the Internet has been a game-changer in exposing the younger generation to broader influences than their parents.

But signalling acceptance of gay lifestyles on an abstract level when one is young does not rule out a different reaction should, for example, one's children in the future come out as gay. "Society is changing, but we are not quite sure how much and how far."

Dangerous to rest on laurels

I WAS shocked and perturbed to learn that the majority of the 4,000 Singapore citizens who took part in an Our Singapore Conversation exercise in January were prepared to trade off economic growth for a slower pace of life ("Majority want slower pace of life"; last Monday).

This is a sure recipe for national disaster.

Singapore rose from a Third World nation to an enviable First World one through the people's sheer hard work in a fast-paced and competitive world.

This, in turn, attracted foreigners to invest their money and talents in Singapore.

Being a tiny island devoid of natural resources, and with a population of only 5.3 million, Singapore cannot afford to slow down for any reason, especially when other nations are shifting into faster gear to compete and overtake us.

Instead of slowing down and trading off economic growth to achieve work-life balance, we should seek other solutions.

For example, there could be better management of personal time. Employers could also adopt flexible working hours and improve staff welfare further, in exchange for staff loyalty and increased productivity.

Economic growth is a prerequisite to attaining a better family and social life.

If we slow down, all the hard work and sacrifices made by the people, mainly the older generation, and the Government would go down the drain.

The fast-paced life and competition in Singapore are inevitable. There might be a tendency for some of us to rest on our laurels now that we have attained success. Such a feeling is dangerous and we have to check ourselves.

Pavithran Vidyadharan
ST Forum, 2 Sep 2013


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