Monday 23 June 2014

When mistrust is the new normal

By Han Fook Kwang, The Sunday Times, 22 Jun 2014

When there is anti-government graffiti, constant flaming of authority online, protesters gathering in public, an open letter of rebuke to the Prime Minister, are they signs that Singapore is heading for trouble?

The Government losing its legitimacy?

Or are they part and parcel of what to expect in a democracy?

It's a question worth asking because many people are genuinely worried there is so much negativity towards the Government.

To make sense of it, you have to go back to the results of the 2011 General Election.

After losing a Group Representation Constituency and seeing its share of votes drop 6.5 percentage points, the ruling party declared that Singapore was in a new normal.

It wasn't going to be business as usual.

Most people agreed with this assessment but I wonder how many, including the People's Action Party, understood what it really meant.

How different would the new be from the old?

One way to answer these questions is to look elsewhere where politics is more competitive and combative.

In fact, many of these places share many political similarities, which raises the interesting question of whether the same pattern will be repeated here.

First, in established democracies, the ruling party almost never enjoys more than half the electoral support.

These are the numbers for the winning party in their most recent elections: Germany - 42 per cent; France - 29 per cent (first round); Britain - 32 per cent; Switzerland - 27 per cent; Japan - 43 per cent.

In the United States, even though President Barack Obama won the 2012 election with 51 per cent of the votes cast, voter turnout was only 57.5 per cent.

These countries have become so used to having their political leaders supported by a minority of voters that they consider this the normal state of affairs.

Anti-government messages and public demonstrations are commonplace. So are low levels of public trust in governments and their leaders.

In a survey cited by the Government when it responded to writer Catherine Lim's piece, the Edelman Trust Barometer found that in 22 of 27 countries surveyed, trust in government had fallen to below 50 per cent.

Singapore fared much better, with a 75 per cent rating, down from 82 per cent last year but still third-highest after the United Arab Emirates and China.

But delve deeper into the survey and the picture isn't that rosy.

When the question posed was whether leaders here tell you the truth regardless of how complex or unpopular it might be, 26 per cent said they would. The global score was 15 per cent.

For some of these countries, such as the US, mistrust of government has a long and rich history, borne out of revolutionary wars, but it would be a mistake to think this is a Western tradition.

In fact, mistrust of government is deeply entrenched in Chinese history.

There is a well-known story concerning the sage Confucius travelling in a mountainous region with his students when he chanced upon a woman grieving beside a grave.

When asked what tragedy had befallen her, she replied that her father-in-law, husband and son had all been killed on different occasions by marauding tigers.

Asked why she did not move to a safer place, she replied: "The people here would rather face the tigers than be suppressed by the government."

Confucius turned to his students and said: "Remember this, a tyrannical government is worse than tigers."

If a low level of support for political leaders and high level of mistrust are normal, what makes Singapore so confident it can buck the trend?

But, you might argue, Singapore is special, and while other countries can live, even thrive, with normal, this place won't.

It is small and vulnerable, and has always depended on a strong government with widespread support to overcome the odds.

While this has indeed been how Singapore succeeded over the past 50 years, there is no guarantee it will always be so.

There is no reason to believe that the Singapore electorate is so special and so different from others that it will behave differently and continue to have high levels of trust in government.

Neither is there any reason to believe that the Government here will always be so exceptional as to always command respect and trust from the people.

It seems unrealistic to believe either scenario will prevail, even less so both.

Does this mean that Singapore is in crisis and the Government is facing a collapse of trust?

This seems as fanciful as the belief that Singapore's exceptionalism will last forever.

If the anti-government rhetoric seems to have reached crisis levels, it is only because Singaporeans are not used to their new-found freedom to express themselves, especially in the online space.

As Singapore society matures, its people will develop many interests, including politically diverse affiliations.

It will then be increasingly more difficult for any one party to represent their different needs.

That has been the experience elsewhere, and it will be no different here.

If any party tries too hard to please everyone, it risks pleasing no one.

Eventually, there will be a new political equilibrium with different parties representing the interests of a diverse population.

And, as in any democracy, the ruling party will be the one best able to meet the needs of the broad middle ground - that large swathe of the middle class who aspire to improve their lives for themselves and their children.

It is this group, never mind the chattering classes, that will decide who will be in power.

But holding on to this middle ground will increasingly become more difficult because it will have diverse needs and interests, even on bread-and-butter issues such as housing, health care, public transport and immigration.

That is why ruling parties elsewhere command only a minority of support even when they try to appeal to their own middle classes.

Singapore is making the transition to this new political landscape.

It is not in a crisis - yet.

But, for now, normal looks abnormal.

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