Sunday, 13 April 2014

Growing citizens' trust in the Govt

While Govt works to close trust gap, people have to change their mindsets
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 12 Apr 2014

WHEN a minister speaks in the room these days, one in four listeners supposedly cocks an eyebrow, shakes his head and may even squeeze off a tweet expressing his disbelief. Or he may do that in his heart.

That is, if an annual survey by Edelman is to be trusted.

The public relations firm has been tracking public trust in governments, businesses and non- governmental organisations for more than a decade.

In its latest trust audit, 75 per cent of the 1,000 Singaporeans surveyed said they still trusted the Government.

From a global perspective, that statistic makes Singapore the envy of many foreign governments. The global average of trust in governments was just 44 per cent, a "historic low", Edelman said.

But the presence of one in four doubting Thomases in our midst is significant in the Singapore context.

Here, the Government has heavily relied on performance legitimacy to maintain its mandate to govern. Its constant refrain: Trust us, and we will deliver the goods.

When these goods, ranging from quality education to affordable housing, are delivered, the ruling Government flashes its report card and asks for a fresh mandate to continue its work.

Since Singapore's independence, the Government had been depending on this formula of integrity, dedication, fairness and producing results to win trust, as outlined by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong in a speech in 2010. This allows the Government to make unpopular decisions in the interim - people are urged to forget any pain they may feel as the results will show in the long run.

But as in any relationship, the long run is too long when trust is lacking.

We know that there are people who harbour a presumption of disbelief in the Government. And many of them have been making themselves heard on the Internet.

It is easy to dismiss them as a vocal minority that the rest of Singapore will just have to live with. But as these people congregate, the same views are pinged around, reinforcing their belief that the Government is always trying to pull wool over their eyes, and spreading the mistrust.

For example, a recent conspiracy theory by a blogger went viral on the Internet, accusing the Housing Board and Central Provident Fund (CPF) of colluding to cheat citizens of their hard earned cash. It was shared by many people, and praised, before some others debunked it.

Disagreement with an issue may not mean that people do not trust the Government. But persistent disagreement can turn healthy scepticism into a cynical disbelief. And the problem with mistrust is that it colours everything that the Government does, moving the citizen from a rational to an emotional level.

The Government has recognised the problem. Retaining trust is a "broader challenge" facing the Government in the more challenging social and economic environment, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, speaking last week to civil servants at a promotion ceremony for its elite officers.

"Nothing is permanent, and the ease with which trust has slipped in many countries is a warning," he said.

After all, the same factors that have created a rift between the public and the Government in other countries are also present here.

The Social Transformation of Trust in Government, a 2005 study on the issue published in the International Review of Sociology, found that cynicism towards the government was spreading in nearly all advanced industrialised democracies.

It said "changing citizen expectations, rather than the failure of governments", was what prompted the erosion of political support.

In Singapore, expectations have definitely risen.

With the rise in education level and wages, people have gotten used to higher standards of living.

Expectations of the Government have also grown, as it assumed more responsibilities for people's lives over the years.

With opposition parties becoming more active, that has also contributed to a polarising effect.

These days, it seems that a government's good track record is no longer enough.

After the watershed election in 2011, in which the People's Action Party lost a group representation constituency for the first time, the PAP Government moved to become more responsive.

Over the past few years, policies on housing, education and transport were revamped to address people's concerns.

But it seems better policies on their own may not be enough to convince the cynics.

Urging civil servants to keep the public trust built up over the years, Mr Tharman listed three other areas that policymakers can work on.

The first is to implement policies well so that they work on the ground. When a person's actual experience is different from what he hears, he may conclude that the Government is all talk and no action or, worse still, lying.

For example, providing health insurance is not enough to win the trust of those who find themselves waiting long hours every time they go to see a doctor at the polyclinic or, worse still, not having a bed when they need to be hospitalised.

The second is to invest in community life and the intangibles that matter to people's sense of well-being. This shows that the Government cares.

For instance, there has been more consultation on whether certain buildings should be torn down to make way for roads. And with Bukit Brown, the Government had clearly taken more effort to address the concerns of nature lovers and conservationists, compared with when the National Library was torn down.

The Ministry of National Development has even tasked a minister of state with the conservation and heritage portfolio.

The third, and the most important, is to include the public in working out solutions. A good example is the Our Singapore Conversation.

The exercise gave people a stake in decisions that involved them, even if that did not always translate into immediate policy change.

Closing the trust gap also requires faith on the part of the Government, that the public will have the wherewithal to do the right thing. This will require a change in the operating premise that people will always choose individual interests over societal good.

Widespread concern for the poor and the call for more help for them show that citizens have the capacity to care for their neighbours too.

The Government could also afford to share more information with citizens and loosen its grip on the media, instead of worrying that people will be confused by too many details and technicalities.

While there were initially fears of the Internet and social media spreading untruths, for example, people have shown that they are able to discern right from rubbish.

In the recent case of the HDB-CPF conspiracy, a few bloggers jumped to point out the fallacies in the theory.

If the trust gap is to be closed, people too need to come around to having a new mindset about participating in a democracy.

It is not uncommon to hear threats of "watch out in the next election" from people when they are unhappy about a government policy or decision.

But to think that our only responsibility is to vote during elections to show our support or displeasure is to take on a very diminished role as a citizen. With the rights of participating in public life come responsibilities that extend beyond complaining and voting once every five years or so.

After all, trust that our fellow citizens will take care of our collective interests is also important in a democracy. Like with any relationship, everyone needs to take a leap of faith for trust to grow.

And as the lyrics of a famous pop song go, it is not just a question of trust, but one of "not letting what we've built up crumble to dust".

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