Monday 21 April 2014

3 years on from the 2011 General Election

Transport still a major bugbear: ST survey
Most say progress made in handling housing, health care, elderly, the poor
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2014

THREE years on from the 2011 General Election, a Straits Times poll finds the Government's shifts in social policy have boosted confidence in its handling of housing, ageing, the poor and health-care issues.

But dissatisfaction over transport and foreign workers still simmers, with more than a quarter saying government performance in these two areas is now worse than in 2011.

When asked to name the Government's biggest achievement since the country last voted, 26 per cent said housing, pushing it to top spot. As for its worst failure, 45 per cent said transport.

Those are some key findings of a Straits Times survey of more than 500 citizens aged 21 and above. It was conducted by research firm Asia Insight shortly after the end of the Budget debate on March 5.

With the Government now midway through its five-year term, more than six in 10 approved of what it has done for the elderly, the poor, health care and housing. Seven in 10 said that they had confidence in how these issues would be dealt with in future.

Political observers and MPs said it was no surprise, given the plethora of social policies rolled out over the past few years, headlined by an $8 billion health-care package for 450,000 pioneers in this year's Budget.

These are part of the new way forward that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong outlined at last year's National Day Rally, which will see the Government and community doing more to support individuals.

But on transport, with train breakdowns and soaring certificate of entitlement prices, only 39 per cent said they saw improvement. Almost as many said the Government's handling of transport issues has deteriorated.

In particular, one in two said train services have worsened since 2011, though two in five said bus services have improved.

With a slew of cooling measures and an increased supply of new homes, four in 10 said it has become easier for first-time buyers to own a home. A quarter disagreed, suggesting more price moderation is desired.

Survey respondents were asked to rate Singaporeans' overall satisfaction today and three years ago, and about seven policy areas: health care, housing, education, transport, the elderly, the poor, and foreign workers and immigrants.

One trend that emerged was of the young and old being largely more satisfied with government policy today, while those aged 35 to 44 and those on middle incomes feel strained and are less confident about the future.

These are indications of the challenges ahead for PM Lee and his team in the second half of their term.

In a Facebook post last week on Parliament's mid-term break, Mr Lee said Singapore is in transition and "we are adjusting to new domestic needs while navigating an uncertain international environment".

Against this backdrop, the Straits Times survey found six in 10 said Singaporeans are satisfied with policies today. Five in 10 thought that was the case in 2011.

Said Nominated MP Laurence Lien: "The Government has done relatively more in the areas of health care, the elderly, the poor and housing, and there has been better publicity of these government actions."

But when it comes to transport and foreign workers, fewer changes on a day-to-day basis have been observed, he added.

That is the experience of daily commuter Neo Yiling, 26, who said the trains are more crowded and have frequent delays.

National University of Singapore Associate Professor Reuben Wong said the survey results indicate that people feel more reassured that the Government is now taking social issues and the cost of living seriously, and "finding ways and means to resolve (them), especially for the most vulnerable".

Feeling the tight squeeze in the middle
ST survey shows middle-income, middle-aged S'poreans feel bleakest about their future and govt policies
By Robin Chan, Andrea Ong And Rachel Au-yong, The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2014

Assistant Manager Raymond Koh, 38, is a man with many worries.

He just sold his Housing Board flat below valuation to upgrade to a bigger flat for his growing family. He worries about the long hours his daughter, 14, spends in school; and about the primary school his six-year-old son will get into.

His car's certificate of entitlement runs out in 21/2 years and he wonders if he will be able to afford another one.

He frets about growing old, his children's future and whether they will have a better standard of living than he is having.

"It will be very tough for them, that's for sure, because their income and the things everybody would want (like a house or car) don't match any more. The gap is very big," he says.

"In Singapore, if you don't have a combined income of at least five figures, I think it can be quite tough to pay for everything- house, car, education, insurance."

Mr Koh is one of the many middle-income Singaporeans aged 35 to 44 who emerged as the group most negative about the future and government policies, in a survey by The Straits Times.

They comprise roughly 16 per cent of the resident population here, according to data from the Department of Statistics, making them the second-largest age group. The largest is the 45 to 54 age group.

The poll of more than 500 Singaporeans was done by market research firm Asia Insight over a week in March.

It asked them questions on how satisfied they think Singaporeans are with government policies and their confidence in the future, and found this group had the smallest share - one in two - of those who think Singaporeans are satisfied, and who are confident about the future.

When asked to rate how well the Government has handled issues like health care and transport since 2011, again this group consistently gave the lowest scores.

The survey sought to find out how Singaporeans view the progress made since the 2011 General Election, when many issues were aired and voters sent a strong signal by electing six opposition members into the House, the most since 1966.

The results show that the social shifts the Government has made since then seem to be resonating with the ground, and concerns over housing have abated.

Singaporeans have the most confidence in the Government's ability to handle issues related to the elderly, the poor, health care and housing, although there appears to be growing frustration over train breakdowns, and the foreign worker issue remains divisive.

But another picture that emerged was of a U-shape curve in satisfaction.

Young Singaporeans are generally happy and optimistic. Those in their mid-30s, 40s and early-50s are stressed and critical. And then those aged 55 to 64 become more carefree and happier again.

When told these results from the survey, Mr Koh agreed: "These (aged 35 to 44) are the people with the most burdens, the most worries. We're in a midlife crisis of sorts. We have schoolgoing children, so the commitment is very high, and we're also afraid of a sudden career change.

"If you're committed to the car, house and children, the burden is huge. We're the sandwich group. The costs are tremendous."

The phenomenon of the middle-class squeeze is not a new one. And neither are the stresses of the middle-aged. But when age and income intersect, the survey suggest a bloc of voters in the middle who are feeling increasingly squeezed and in need of more help.

Scholars on well-being have posited just this relation between age and happiness - with the lowest point usually coinciding with middle age.

American academics David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald found that happiness among Americans and Europeans bottomed out in their 40s.

These findings are corroborated by a 2011 quality-of-life study by Professors Siok Kuan Tambyah and Tan Soo Jiuan from the National University of Singapore.

It found that those aged 25 to 44 were most likely among all the adult age groups to say that they did not have enough money to buy the things they need or do what they wanted to do in life.

Among the 1,500 Singapore citizens surveyed, this age group also enjoyed life the least and felt the least sense of achievement.

That same NUS study also found that the middle-income group, which used to be the happiest and enjoyed life in 2006 compared to other income groups, is now the least happy and enjoyed life the least.

That does not surprise Nominated Member of Parliament Laurence Lien: "The middle-income may have higher expectations that are unmet, and they do not get as much government support as the lower-income.

"The 35- to 44-year-olds are often having to juggle multiple responsibilities. Apart from work and parental responsibilities, they may also have to provide caregiving help to their parents."

The survey also found that the overriding perception is that the Government helps the poor the most.

Over three-quarters of respondents said the low-income group have benefited most from government policies in the last three years.

In contrast, only 3 per cent said the middle-income group had been helped the most, less than the 10 per cent who said the richest were being helped the most.

This despite more measures recently to support the middle-income group, including GST vouchers to offset cost of living rises, and also hikes in the income ceiling so middle-income households can buy four-room HDB flats with subsidies.

The findings suggest that while the Government has increased support to the middle-income groups, it is either not felt, or not sufficient.

The young and the old

The 55 to 64 age group, however, seems to be in a sweet spot. They were the most confident and satisfied on almost all policy issues.

This age group had the highest levels of approval for the Government's handling of the elderly, the poor, health care and transport issues.

Some 84 per cent of them said the elderly issues had improved since 2011, compared to the national average of 72 per cent. About 65 per cent also had confidence in their ability to pay for health care in their old age, compared to the national average of 50 per cent, and as low as just 38 per cent for the 35 to 44 age group.

This is borne out in the same NUS study, which found that those aged 55 to 64 were the happiest and enjoyed life the most among all age groups.

Said NUS Professor Chua Beng Huat: "It is the beginning of the end of a career and if they don't have sufficient nest eggs already in place, life can be stressful thinking about how to fund their retirement years. But most will be cushioned by the ability to monetise their housing for retirement."

But while the 55- to 64-year-olds seem content, it is not the case for the elderly aged 65 and above. This bloc of voters have been closely watched politically. An Institute of Policy Studies post-General Election 2011 analysis found that the elderly were increasingly swing voters.

This traditional PAP-voting base may have wavered due to concerns over the rising cost of living and lack of retirement savings.

These silver voters still have many concerns over their ability to pay for health-care bills despite the recent introduction of the Pioneer Generation Package, the ST survey suggests.

About 55 per cent of those 65 and above said they supported MediShield Life, lower than the national average of 64 per cent.

And 59 per cent approved of the $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package, again lower than the national average of 66 per cent.

Associate Professor Reuben Wong from the National University of Singapore said it was significant that "the people who are supposed to feel they matter, aren't feeling it".

He thinks the Government has to convince this group of seniors by effectively implementing the policies that are meant to give them a hand.

It underlines the monumental job ahead for the task force co-led by Senior Minister of State for Finance Josephine Teo and Minister of State for Health Amy Khor, to communicate and coordinate the package for these 450,000 pioneers. But even while the 55- to 64-year-olds appear very supportive of government policies, Prof Wong also cautions that this group of elderly have to be handled with care.

Measures like the Pioneer Generation Package - for those aged 65 and above this year - may have created the expectation that they too will get something when they age.

Younger Singaporeans were harder to read. They expressed higher confidence in most issues except for education, housing and transport. This is likely because these are the issues they have most contact with now.

Among the 21- to 24-year-olds, 30 per cent said it had become easier to own a first home. Yet the same number said it had not.

This dichotomy of views, suggests SLP International Property Consultants' head of research Nicholas Mak, could be a result of perception and expectations.

As they are at the start of their careers and on low incomes, "I would not be surprised if they look at the price and feel overwhelmed", he says.

By the time they start their families, their income would have increased and he is confident housing will be attainable if they go for a Build-To-Order flat.

For education, Associate Professor Jason Tan from the National Institute of Education says that the findings bear out the belief that students today experience much more stress than their parents did in school.

He says: "Probably many of them (now) have had private tuition and the regiment of extra lessons, parental anxiety, and assessments."

While changes have been made to the education system, they have been incremental.

Larger changes such as how to grade the PSLE on a wider range beyond T-scores, and making every school a good school, as is the Education Ministry's slogan, will take time.

And Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pointed out in his speech last week, Singapore schools continue to hold up well globally, and must continue to do so, even as the Government seeks to reduce the level of stress placed on students and parents.

Overall, the survey findings suggest that even as the Government has moved to address many of the issues that had caused anxiety and insecurity among voters, there are still groups that remain sceptical, especially among the middle-aged and middle class.

The Government has to pay attention to their needs and aspirations, so as to make sure their dissatisfaction does not deepen further.

HEALTH CARE: Worry remains over ability to pay bills in the future
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2014

SINGAPOREANS, especially the middle-aged and the pioneer generation, continue to lose sleep over whether they can pay their medical bills in the future.

This finding of a Straits Times survey sounds a cautionary note amid the praise heaped on measures such as the Pioneer Generation Package and MediShield Life for easing the worries of seniors and their children over hefty medical bills.

Just half of the 500 citizens surveyed say they are confident or very confident that they can pay for health care in their old age. Some 16 per cent are not confident they could pay.

Said health economist Phua Kai Hong: "Many sense that increasing health-care financing through government spending, increased benefits and medical insurance for life may not be complete and lasting enough to tackle rising medical costs."

He called for greater control over supply-side costs such as hospital care and drugs. He also singled out the 34 per cent who chose to remain neutral as a group to watch. With MediShield Life and the Pioneer Generation Package still in the works, this group is reserving judgment until they see the results of these policies in the coming years, he said. "The test of the cake is in the eating."

Just two in five of those aged 35 to 44 and of those older than 64 are confident of paying for their health care in the future.

The two groups are also least positive when asked if they agreed with having MediShield Life and the Pioneer package. Just about half of those aged 35 to 44 and older than 64 approve of MediShield Life, against 64 per cent for all respondents. For the package, about six in 10 of those aged 35 to 44 and older than 64 approve, compared with 66 per cent overall.

Dr Phua said the results highlight the "hardest-hit sandwich group" who are most likely to have young children while supporting aged parents.

"They'd feel the pinch of not having built up enough in their CPF and Medisave accounts while depleting their savings for the care of dependants, thus are less positive about their own old-age needs."

Those older than 64 are the pioneers who started working when CPF rates were lower and Medisave did not exist. Many would have chronic conditions and suffered the drain of health-care expenses. This may explain their diffidence though they are the beneficiaries of the Pioneer Generation Package.

Associate Professor Tan Soo Jiuan of National University of Singapore said they may also not know about the package.

Ironically, the group that just missed out on the package - those aged 55 to 64 - are most positive about health-care affordability and the new measures. More than three- fifths are confident of paying for health care. Dr Phua and Prof Tan said this cohort of baby boomers benefited from CPF and Medisave and are either at the peak of their earning power or have just retired.

HOUSING: Measures to boost supply and ease prices lauded
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2014

IN 2011, soaring housing prices was one of the hottest issues during the general election.

But an unprecedented number of new HDB flats and a slew of cooling measures have since reined in home prices.

More Singaporeans can now afford them, leading many to laud housing as the Government's biggest achievement.

This is the finding of a Straits Times survey of more than 500 Singaporeans, done over a week in March.

About one-quarter of them rated housing and measures related to it such as "cooling measures", "estate upgrading" and "housing for first-timers" as their top pick of what the Government did best since 2011.

Around 40 per cent say it is easier for first-timers to own a home, thanks to a rise in supply. This is near-double the 24 per cent who say it is not easier.

The HDB has launched more than 77,000 Build-To-Order flats between 2011 and last year - more than double that of the preceding three years.Coupled with seven rounds of cooling measures since 2009, the supply helped push prices down.

Preliminary HDB figures show resale flat prices fell 1.5 per cent in the first three months of this year compared with the preceding quarter. The slide is the third quarterly decline in a row.

Still, some groups struggle to own a home. They are lower-income Singaporeans who earn below $4,000 a month. About 25 per cent of them do not think it has become easier to buy a home. But only 11 per cent of those with bigger pay packets - those making over $6,000 a month - feel the same way.

Young Singaporeans, however, were not as optimistic, with one-third of those aged 21 to 24 saying they do not see home ownership being easier now than in 2011.

One reason could be their preference for a home in mature HDB estates, said analysts.

But four in five Singaporeans agree that the decline in property prices is beneficial.

Younger Singaporeans say it allows them buy their first home while middle-aged Singaporeans think prices are rising too fast.

Said Mr Simon Goh, a 66-year-old retiree who lives in a four-room flat in Queenstown: "It is good if my flat appreciates but not at the breakneck speed of the last few years. I'd rather my children and grandchildren have a roof over their heads."

While 26 per cent praised the housing moves, 18 per cent labelled it the Government's second biggest failure, after transport. Many among them point to high property prices.

TRANSPORT: Source of most angst since last elections
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2014

FRUSTRATED with rising car prices, train delays and fare increases, Singaporeans have dubbed transport the Government's worst failure since the 2011 General Election.

The label was given by 45 per cent of 500 citizens polled in a Straits Times survey.

Around 28 per cent rate it as bad or very bad. Only a tad more - 31 per cent - say the system is good or very good.

They reserved most of their ire for the MRT, with over half of the regular train commuters saying services have declined since 2011. Only 21 per cent say services have improved.

For bus services, it is the reverse: Two in five regular commuters say services are better while 19 per cent say they have deteriorated.

The bus score could have got a boost from the Bus Service Enhancement Programme, which started in 2012. The $1.1 billion scheme will put about 550 state-funded buses on the road by the end of this year.

Commuters' growing happiness with buses and unhappiness with trains can also be seen in the Land Transport Authority's latest annual satisfaction survey.Conducted by UniSIM last year, its poll of 4,200 commuters shows the proportion satisfied with buses went up to 88.3 per cent, from 86.4 per cent in 2012.

On the other hand, the percentage satisfied with the MRT dropped from 92.1 to 88.9 per cent - its lowest since the first poll in 2006.

The overall satisfaction with the public transport system also slipped to 88.5 per cent, the lowest score since 2007.

Nursing student Neo Yiling, 26, who takes the bus and train daily, can relate to both survey findings. "The trains have become worse because of more frequent delays," she said, but she finds both trains and buses have become more crowded since 2011.

Ms Neo has been in situations where the train doors remain open at a station for more than 10 minutes.

Indeed, train delays and breakdowns was one of the top transport-related government failures cited by respondents.

They also slammed the high car and certificate of entitlement (COE) prices, and fare increases.

A separate section in the survey asked car owners what would coax them to leave their cars at home and take public transport.

Their replies indicate push factors, such as higher COE prices and higher car prices, will have a greater effect than pull factors like public transport becoming more convenient and having fewer glitches.

FOREIGN WORKERS: Many still feel issue can be handled better
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2014

THE foreign worker influx remains a lingering source of unhappiness among Singaporeans.

A Straits Times survey of 500 citizens shows that among seven national issues, whether the Government has improved its handling of these workers and immigrants since 2011 sits at the bottom of the list.

The State did better on issues such as the elderly, health care and housing. But just as one-quarter feels the handling of these foreigners has got worse since 2011, one-quarter believes the opposite, that this group has been handled better. Half feel there is no change.

On the other hand, at least three in five say the Government's handling of other national issues - except transport - has improved.

In the 2011 General Election, the foreign worker influx and the strain it placed on infrastructure were attacked by opposition parties as a sign of the People's Action Party government's lack of foresight.

The release of the Population White Paper last year also led to much public angst over erosion of the Singaporean core.

The survey shows fewer than two in five are confident in Singapore's future on the issue of foreign workforce and immigration; 22 per cent are not confident. People aged 21 to 24 and those older than 64 are, however, more confident. On the other hand, middle-aged Singaporeans and the lower to lower-middle income group - those earning up to $4,000 a month - are less confident.

One surprise is that people see the foreign worker issue as less important than other national issues. Just 57 per cent say it was important to them when they voted in 2011, compared with 91 per cent who found the elderly and housing important.

Associate Professor Tan Soo Jiuan of the National University of Singapore said the finding does not mean people do not care about the foreign worker issue. It is, however, less immediate and personal than concerns such as the elderly, housing and health care, which cut closer to the core of one's personal well-being and family.

A survey she and Dr Siok Kuan Tambyah did in 2011 showed almost two-thirds of 1,500 citizens want the Government to restrict the foreign worker inflow to protect locals' interests. But stacked against other areas where people want the Government to do more, the foreign worker issue is at the bottom. Top priorities: ageing population and health care.

Dr Leong Chan Hoong of the Institute of Policy Studies said the ST survey is consistent with other data in indicating that people's resentment is targeted at foreign worker policies, not the foreigners themselves.

S'poreans want responsible and accountable government
They don't think of good governance only in terms of good policies
By Zuraidah IbrahimThe Straits Times, 19 Apr 2014

ACCORDING to conventional wisdom, voters tried to teach the ruling party a lesson in the 2011 General Election. If so, the People's Action Party could be said to have spent the past 21/2 years on make-up classes.

Its diligence seems to be paying off in some areas, going by the The Straits Times survey results reported in the previous pages. But they also show lingering dissatisfaction with certain policies, particularly public transport.

And, most intriguingly, the findings suggest that even a straight-A performance will not convince Singaporeans to hand unlimited power to the PAP.

In 2011, cost of living and housing were deemed thorny issues. The strain that foreigners were putting on infrastructure was also said to be upsetting Singaporeans.

The new survey finds Singaporeans reporting a shift in public sentiment. They perceive that their fellow citizens are more satisfied with the way the housing issue has been attended to. When they were asked to name the Government's biggest accomplishment since 2011, housing-related policies came out on top, cited by 26 per cent of respondents.

Most also feel that Singaporeans are now more satisfied with how low-income people's needs are being taken care of. More than two-thirds think that the Government's handling of issues related to the poor has improved compared with three years ago. The handling of elderly issues and health care also received especially high approval ratings, at 72 per cent and 66 per cent respectively.

On the other hand, transport was voted the Government's worst failure, with 45 per cent giving it the thumbs down. The $1.1 billion Bus Service Enhancement Programme, which has the Government paying for buses, was a major departure from previous policy and seems to have made a welcome difference. More than four in 10 of regular bus commuters said services had improved, compared with over half of regular MRT commuters who said train services had declined. The Government's overall grade for public transport could have been dragged down by the high-profile MRT breakdowns that have occurred since 2011.

Overall, many Singaporeans seem to acknowledge the PAP's efforts at responding to their demands. However, they are not entirely satisfied. The Government may have taken remedial action to address missteps and miscalculations in housing, transport and immigration policies. But Singaporeans may not be greatly impressed since these were seen as problems of the PAP's own making in the first place.

Reacting to problems after they are painfully apparent to everybody is not enough for a population accustomed to good governance. The PAP may need to recover its old penchant for anticipatory leadership - the ability to look ahead and tackle emerging issues decisively even before they surface to prominence.

This year's Pioneer Generation Package and the bold moves to introduce universal health-care insurance through MediShield Life are the kind of confidence-inspiring policies Singaporeans may be seeking from the PAP. The fact that public response has been positive even before the more potentially contentious fine print has been announced suggests that a reserve of trust in the PAP remains, despite rising cynicism.

In both these policies, the Government has tried to tackle looming problems before they become overwhelming, unlike the housing and transport problems that were allowed to fester for some years.

The Government can draw comfort from the finding that young people are brimming with hope. Those aged 21 to 24 expressed the most confidence in their expectation of the Government's handling of national issues in the future, consistently giving it high marks of above 70 per cent, except in education, transport and foreign workers and immigration.

The issue of foreigners continues to colour Singaporeans' perceptions. It is plainly an unresolved issue: consistently across all age groups, less than half express confidence in government policy. The issue did not rank as high in importance as the elderly, housing, health care, the poor or transport. This could be because Singaporeans are less bothered by the presence of foreigners as such than by how their numbers impact quality of life with respect to housing, transport and so on.

Address these symptoms and immigration may become less of an issue.

The most sobering finding for those who believe in undiluted PAP dominance is an unmistakable appetite for greater checks and balances. This is one of the most important factors Singaporeans say they will consider today when choosing their MP, alongside the state of national policies and a candidate's attributes.

The overall picture shows a Singaporean voter who is demanding but prepared to acknowledge good performance. Encouragingly for the Government, its policy reforms have been duly noted.

But the survey also shows that Singaporeans do not think of good governance only in terms of good policies, but also as a system that includes checks and balances.

Even in the so-called new normal, the PAP remains dominant, with 80 out of 87 elected seats in Parliament. It believes that a strong ruling party is good for Singapore, and many Singaporeans may well agree.

However, if the PAP is to keep abreast of people's aspirations, the survey shows that it would probably be smarter to focus less on the margin and more on the quality of that dominance - people want a ruling party that is both responsive and accountable.

Checks and balances high on voter's mind
By Andrea OngThe Straits Times, 19 Apr 2014

THE need for checks and balances on the Government is very much on the minds of Singaporeans when they vote for their Member of Parliament, according to a Straits Times survey.

It is ranked very important by 35 per cent of the people asked to rate the importance of six factors in their choice of MP.

They form the biggest group. In contrast, fewer than 30 per cent view each of the other factors as very important.

But going by mean scores, two factors are ranked equally as most important when electing an MP.

These are: the need for checks and balances and a candidate's attributes.

Both have a mean score - which is the average of the spread of sentiments for a factor - of 4.11 out of 5, four being important and five being very important.

Following them are three other factors: national policies and their impact on the voter (4.1), the candidate's party (4.09) and the need for more alternative views in Parliament (4.05).

Least important is local constituency issues (4.02).

Political scientist Reuben Wong of National University of Singapore said voters' emphasis on checks and balances is reflected in the Workers' Party's (WP) electoral success since 2011.

Campaigning on the theme of "Towards a First World Parliament" that year, the WP became the first opposition party to win a group representation constituency, the five-seat Aljunied GRC.

Later, it also won by-elections in Hougang and Punggol East, both single-seat constituencies.

Noting that the WP had found an effective formula, Associate Professor Wong said: "It seems the WP is reflecting a quite deeply held view that you get better government with checks and balances in place."

The survey of 500 Singaporeans done over a week in March also shows that having checks and balances is particularly crucial to the higher-income group, with almost half of those earning above $6,000 a month saying it is very important to them.

It, however, drops in importance for the older folk, particularly those older than 64.

Prof Wong also singled out voters' emphasis on a candidate's attributes over the party.

"The individual - whether he or she is likeable and can be trusted - seems to be as important or even more important than the party he or she represents," he said.

The People's Action Party will have to be more savvy in fielding candidates as qualifications and the party brand are no longer enough, he added. "You need that X-factor, you need personality, you need someone who walks the ground."

The survey findings are broadly similar to the post-election survey done by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in 2011, though with some differences.

The need for checks and balances figures strongly in the IPS study as well, with 43 per cent of about 2,000 respondents finding the issue very important.

The demographic trends in income and age are similar to the ST survey.

But in terms of mean score, checks and balances was about the same in importance as cost of living and the need for different views in Parliament.

All three issues are second to the need for efficient government, which 54 per cent say is very important. The ST survey did not test for this factor.

But as with the ST survey, local issues such as upgrading and neighbourhood facilities score low in importance in the IPS study. Similarly, its separate section to find out how voters view candidates' characteristics shows qualities such as honesty, efficiency, fairness and empathy are more important than their party.

A tough sell to middle-incomers
By Lydia LimThe Straits Times, 19 Apr 2014

GIVEN the anti-foreigner vitriol of recent years and the howls of protests against the White Paper on Population last year, who would have thought that foreign workers and immigration matter to far fewer Singaporeans than the poor and the elderly?

But that is the finding of a recent Straits Times survey of 500 Singaporeans.

Nine in 10 said housing, the elderly, the poor, health care and transport were national issues that were either very important or important to them. Only 56 per cent said that of foreign workers and immigration. As for transport, it came in fifth, below even the poor, which is a surprise given the loud complaints over congestion and breakdowns.

Those surveyed also said that back in 2011, when many of them last went to the polls, the four issues they were most concerned about were also housing, the elderly, the poor and health care.

That, too, is at odds with the reading of most political observers, that the key issues of the May 2011 General Election were infrastructural bottlenecks, namely a severe shortfall in affordable housing, over-crowded trains and buses and a rapid influx of foreigners that had worsened the strain.

So what is one to make of this surprising survey finding?

First, voters may well have short memories when it comes to politics and policies.

After all, those are not the stuff of their daily lives; family, friends, work and chores are.

That was brought home to me by one Aljunied GRC voter, who struggled to recall if she had cast a ballot barely two years after she had. Elections may be high points in the political calendar but to the average voter, such events are quickly buried under the demands of daily life.

Second, public opinion shifts in tandem with political messaging. During an election campaign, opposition parties and online critics may well give the Government a run for its money in the contest for people's attention, but outside of campaign season, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet team still set the direction of national discussion.

The simplest explanation for the poor and elderly emerging front and centre in people's minds when asked about national issues, is that the Government has been highlighting, explaining and rolling out policies to help support those two groups.

Third, the level of noise on an issue may not accurately reflect its importance to voters.

The most challenging part of sussing out public opinion is to find out what the silent ones think, and work out whether their views coincide or diverge from those of the vocal class.

Interpreting survey findings is itself an art, one that is gaining in importance as growing political contestation feeds a desire to milk the predictive power of such polls. But the job of leadership remains to sift out the wheat from the chaff in such data, and make a judgment on how best to respond to the shifting tides of public perceptions.

Take for example the survey finding that Singaporeans experience a U-shaped happiness curve as they go through life.

Most start out happy and optimistic in their 20s, suffer a dip in positive feelings when they hit their mid-30s and responsibilities pile up, before re-emerging in their mid 50s when work pressures and the burdens of care-giving ease. The co-relation is not just with age but with income. The middle income are more likely to feel squeezed, dissatisfied and pessimistic.

This group of middle-aged, middle-incomers is sizeable.

The Government has in recent years extended financial help to them. That has been a significant shift in policy because previously, it had been very careful about targeting aid at those on low incomes.

In his Budget speech this year, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that the social initiatives of the last five years provide support to lower- and middle-income Singaporeans that is about 21/2 times what it was a decade ago.

But that has not taken the edge off the disgruntlement of many in this group, who feel that with rising costs, the good things in life that they aspire to are increasingly out of their reach.

That will continue to be a political pressure point on the Government, whose leaders must decide just how far to dip into national coffers to help middle-incomers achieve their version of the Singapore Dream.

Mr Tharman has been at pains to highlight Singapore's achievements in keeping incomes for this group growing so they can stay ahead of costs, and in keeping the tax burden on them lower than it is in many other countries.

In his Budget wrap-up speech, he also stressed that the Government must continue to target subsidies at those who need them most, and avoid universal subsidies. Such subsidies can become a serious drain on finances.

But what ST's polling shows is that the work of persuading middle-aged, middle-incomers that they are getting a fair deal will continue to be a tough sell.

Progress made in three key areas, but battle far from won
By Ignatius LowThe Straits Times, 19 Apr 2014

IN ANY country around the world, housing, health care and transport must rank among the most important bread-and-butter issues that a government must get right.

Not only do they fundamentally affect how happy people feel as they go about their daily lives, they tell you something about whether aspirations of the young can be achieved, and if society is there to catch them one day when they fall.

Almost three years on from the last general election, the results of The Straits Times' survey show a mixed bag of results for the Government in these key areas.

It is not for want of trying. Some problems like housing are dependent on external economic factors that the Government cannot entirely control, while others like transport will take more than one election cycle to fix.

But one thing seems clear: the bolder the move and the more unequivocal the message, the greater the payoff.

This is most apparent in the area of health care, where one- quarter of respondents gave the Government the highest praise. On a scale of one to five, they picked "five" - saying it was doing a "much better" job than in 2011.

It is all the more remarkable given that, relatively speaking, the unhappiness with health-care issues was not as palpable in 2011 as say, housing, transport or foreign workers. On the whole, the combination of health subsidies and the "3M" system in Singapore - Medisave, MediShield and Medifund - has generally worked to keep the cash cost of standard health-care treatment low, yet fairly decent in quality.

Rather, the discomfort was more about whether the system could withstand the ageing tsunami that will hit Singapore in the next 10 to 20 years. And there were sad stories of people who fell through the cracks somehow: perhaps having a pre-existing condition not covered by MediShield, yet not being poor enough to qualify for Medifund help.

Since 2011, however, the Government has moved decisively to head off these problems.

It has announced a major revamp of MediShield that will, simply put, offer near-universal health insurance coverage for life, while pledging to ramp up health- care spending to keep premiums low. This has given peace of mind not just to the very old and those with pre-existing conditions, but anyone who might one day fall into these two previously uninsurable categories.

Meanwhile, it has also forced employers to pay 1 per cent more in monthly salaries into older workers' Medisave accounts, and given a generous Pioneer Generation Package of health-care benefits to those above 65.

Mind you, much of this has not been completed or implemented yet. But the clarity of the Government's intent and the effort in forward planning has not been lost on Singaporeans, especially those aged between 55 and 64, which saw a big rise in confidence in health-care issues.

In the area of housing, the picture is less clear.

Two-thirds of Singaporeans felt that the Government was doing "better" or "much better" than in 2011 - a proportion equal to that of health care.

This is also due to a series of bold moves, this time targeting particularly newly-weds who felt they had to wait too long to buy new Housing Board flats, yet were being priced out of the market for resale flats and private property.

In response, the Government aggressively rolled out a record supply of new Build-To-Order (BTO) flats in the last three years, holding their prices low and giving top priority to first-time applicants. The backlog in demand has now been largely cleared. Most newly-weds are now successful on their first or second try if they opt for new, non-mature estates.

At the same time, the Government barred private property owners and newly minted permanent residents from the HDB resale market, and put in taxes and loan curbs that made it tougher for foreigners and local investors to buy private property.

So why is it only 41 per cent felt that owning that first home had become easier? Another 24 per cent even reckoned it had become more difficult.

The answer is in another survey statistic. Out of the 18 per cent who cited housing as the Government's worst failure, 8 per cent cited persistently high property prices. A five-room resale flat in a nice estate like Marine Parade still costs at least $700,000, and these days $1 million buys you at best only a tiny two-bedroom private condominium unit in the boondocks.

As long as these headline prices do not come down significantly, young people will compare their lot with their parents' and continue to feel that they are living in a country where property has become unaffordable to the mass buyer.

To be sure, the availability of the cheap BTO option now provides a fail-safe in terms of housing options. But unless expectations come down, this will not fully satisfy the aspirations of all home buyers.

In other words, in housing, the Government is clearly doing better - but is it doing enough?

Finally, we come to transport, which a whopping 45 per cent considered the Government's worst failure. More than a third said it has handled transport issues more poorly than in 2011.

To be fair, the Government has also been bold in this area. It has announced that it is building more train lines and adding more trains and buses to improve service frequencies and reduce congestion. It is even paying for this added capacity where it is not commercially feasible, and introduced free travel in the mornings to ease peak-hour loads.

Now, I believe that most commuters are reasonable and accept that adding capacity to the system will take time, so I reckon, all things being equal, the Government might have received a better report card at half-time.

Unfortunately, two other issues have come up - the first is more frequent and serious train breakdowns, and the second is resurgence of near record-high Certificate of Entitlement (COE) prices for cars.

The first issue was dealt with by a high-level Committee of Inquiry and a reset of the leadership at key train operator SMRT. But the breakdowns have continued.

The Government tried to fix the second problem by requiring high downpayments of at least 40 per cent on car purchases, but this only had the effect of making cars unaffordable to everyone but the cash-rich. A tweak of COE categories to drive expensive makes out of the entry-level small-car COE category also failed, as manufacturers found ways to circumvent the rules. A car COE today still costs about $80,000.

The result: fresh criticism about the inadequacies of planning and policy design, as well as the Government's seeming inability to troubleshoot.

Of course, we are only halfway through the election cycle and the Government still has some time to put things right. Conversely there is also time for sentiment to sour in areas like health care, for example, where there is an emerging bed crunch in public hospitals.

What is clear is that some progress has been made on these hot-button issues, though the battle is far from won.

More help but life still hard for old, poor
By Radha BasuThe Straits Times, 19 Apr 2014

CONCERNS over the old and the down and out in rapidly ageing Singapore are weighing on the minds of many here.

The elderly and the poor were two of the top three concerns among Singaporeans in a recent survey of key issues three years after the last general election.

Respondents were asked to choose from a list of seven hot-button subjects including housing, health care, the elderly, the poor, transport, education and foreign workers.

Interestingly, neither the old nor the poor grabbed centrestage in the run-up to the last GE. This could be because greying is an inevitable, slow and silent process and the poor are usually out of sight in a city often touted as among the richest in the world.

Besides, neither issue is as emotive as housing or foreign workers or as visible as overcrowding in public transport - all of which led to many verbal jousts between the ruling party and the opposition in 2011.

So how did two largely voiceless demographic groups suddenly seize the collective consciousness of the nation?

One factor may be an awareness campaign on poverty late last year. The Singaporeans Against Poverty campaign highlighted how more than 105,000 families here earned an average of just $1,500 a month.

Ironically, the old and the poor may also have begun dominating public discourse due to a plethora of high-profile government announcements since 2011, tweaking health-care, jobs and social policies to help prepare for a rapidly ageing Singapore.

Spending on health care, for instance, has almost doubled in just three short years - from $4 billion in FY2011 to $7.5 billion in FY2014. This does not take into account the $8 billion put aside for the pioneer generation.

Central Provident Fund contribution rates for older workers have been raised twice in two years. Companies that hire them have been given wage subsidies. Workfare, a scheme which tops up the wages of older and low-income workers has been expanded. And payouts from ComCare, the Government's main fund to help the needy, topped $100 million for the first time in the 2012-2013 financial year, more than double the $44.5 million given out just five years earlier. A total of 33,266 individuals and families were helped overall in FY2012, up from 19,072 just five years earlier.

Given this spate of measures, it is no surprise, that around seven in 10 Singaporeans polled by ST expressed satisfaction at the way the Government had handled issues related to ageing and the poor since the last GE.

Yet, perception has not fully mirrored reality. Worries remain on how well Singapore will ride the impending "silver tsunami".

Whether health-care infrastructure will be able to keep pace with rapid ageing is a key concern.

For instance, there are already an estimated 210,000 Singaporeans caring for the elderly, the sick and the disabled at home. Yet, homecare providers can now serve only 5,400 seniors needing home-based health care and 1,100 seniors needing home-based personal care.

There are around 2,500 places at day-care centres for the elderly and 10,600 nursing home beds islandwide. Still, these numbers seem low, given that Singapore is one of the fastest-ageing societies in the world. There are already nearly 250,000 people here aged 70 and above, a 55 per cent jump from a decade ago.

Costs are another concern. Despite increased subsidies, families living in five-room HDB flats, for instance, may not qualify for enough health-care subsidies and forgo services altogether. Full costs for respite care and home medical services, for instance, can be as high as $370 per day and $200 per visit respectively.

Meanwhile, even as social safety nets are strengthened, life remains hard for the poor.

Despite the tight labour market, for instance, the ranks of low-wage workers are on the rise. In 2012, the number of local workers who earned less than $1,000 a month despite working full-time went up by 4,000 to 114,000 from a year earlier.

And despite higher spending, ComCare payments still reach fewer than a fifth of families on the bottom two rungs of the income scale.

But with so many policies announced to better manage demographic drifts, there is hope that in its 50th year of independence, Singapore will share more fruits of its stellar economic success with those who once helped build a new nation, but are now too old or infirm to help themselves.

One in five thinks PSLE is redundant
By Sandra DavieThe Straits Times, 19 Apr 2014

EVEN as the Ministry of Education considers how best to adjust the Primary School Leaving Examination scoring system, a question gnawing away at the back of the minds of some is whether a national examination at age 12 is necessary at all.

A poll commissioned by this newspaper shows that only two in five Singaporeans think the PSLE is necessary. One in five stated outright it was redundant, while the others were neutral.

Significantly, more of the respondents with higher qualifications and incomes felt that the PSLE was not needed.

Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who was in Singapore last year to deliver an education lecture, also raised the same question while heaping praise on educators here.

She noted then that the PSLE debate had raised two important questions.

The first was the exam's purpose and whether it was being used in the right way. The second - whether it was appropriate for children to take a high-stakes examination at age 12.

She did not want to prescribe the age at which "a high-stakes sorting examination" like the PSLE should be taken, but noted that most school systems in the world do it at age 15 or 16.

"That's when most youngsters are beginning to discover what they are good at and where their interests lie," she noted.

Dr Pasi Sahlberg, the renowned Finnish educator who gave an interview to The Sunday Times last year, echoed her comments when he asked why Singaporeans were debating T-scores and bands when they should be debating if the PSLE was needed.

As he aptly pointed out, Singapore is one of the few countries in the world to have a high-stakes examination for children as young as 12. Places like Hong Kong that used to have a sorting examination for 12-year-olds did away with it a few years ago.

So, although the exam scoring system is being tweaked, this is a question that educators and policymakers should revisit, if not now then in the near future.

No doubt the PSLE may work well as a sorting examination to allocate priority for secondary school selection, but we have to carefully examine if it detracts from the more important purpose of educating young minds.

Education experts have heaped praise on Singapore for its well-designed examinations that test higher-order skills, but as all educators know, even the most well-designed examination is not able to measure what a student is capable of.

Some children are highly anxious about testing and that impacts their performance.

A system based on high- stakes examinations also disadvantages children who are late bloomers.

It also takes a deterministic view of ability and intelligence and flies in the face of recent research which suggests that ability, including academic ability, can be cultivated through effort.

Examinations also narrow the focus of education as it influences the teaching, learning and curriculum that come before it.

In theory, teachers consider the desired outcomes, plan a curriculum, teach and then assess students' learning to see if those outcomes have been met.

With high-stakes examinations such as the PSLE, the sequence is reversed.

Teachers look at what is being tested and align their curriculum and teaching to ensure that their students will score in the examinations.

In recent years Education Minister Heng Swee Keat has stressed the importance of teaching 21st century competencies, such as the ability to work in teams and connect with people from other cultures. Not to mention, nurturing values and character.

The PSLE does not test any of this.

The Straits Times hosted a roundtable on April 23, 2014 to discuss the findings of its survey of people's perceptions of key policies, three years after the 2011 General Election and at the mid-point of this term of government. 

The five panellists for the roundtable were Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim, PAP Member of Parliament Hri Kumar Nair, Nominated MP Eugene Tan, Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser of the National University of Singapore's sociology department and Dr Gillian Koh, senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies. They spoke on the Government's performance and people's desire for checks and balances, and fielded questions from close to 30 participants from the universities, civil society and private sector.

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