Friday, 15 November 2019

Reflections on Trust from a Pioneer Generation citizen & a Young Singaporean

At the People's Action Party convention on Nov 10, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke of societies where citizens have lost trust in the government and how, in contrast, the PAP Government enjoys a "deep reservoir of trust" from Singaporeans. In Singapore, high standards of governance, validated by international rankings, mean such trust is merited. Where there is high trust in government, it is not undemocratic or politically naive to keep returning one party to power.
By Margaret Chan, Published The Straits Times, 14 Nov 2019

Trust in government is crucial for a functioning society, and especially for a small, culturally diverse and complex society like Singapore. I agree with the Prime Minister that the Government enjoys "a deep reservoir of trust" from Singaporeans. Let me give my personal take on this issue as a former university lecturer and a Pioneer Generation citizen.

I trust in our Government because it delivers. Let me count the ways.

First, I have confidence in the rule of law here. Investors want it as assurance, but for citizens, faith in the rule of law is an existential necessity. Singaporeans take for granted what others find crucial and missing in their country, leading them to migrate here.

Some time back, a friend pulled up her roots elsewhere to become a Singapore citizen. When I asked her the reason for her decision, she memorably replied: "I want to live where I can send my children to school knowing they will return home."

Singaporeans take such basic things as personal security for granted; for my friend and millions around the world, assurance of personal security is a gift.

Second, we have a high-functioning education system, although Singaporeans liken it to pressure cooking. The stress does not come from the Government. It is caused by the exponential growth of world knowledge and the speed of information delivery.

Workers today compete in an international labour force. To give Singaporeans a fighting chance in the world market, we must have an education system that is abreast of all international developments. This requires that our education system be a work in progress continually responding to change.

We have universal education and social equity. For example, the recent decision to double state spending on subsidies for pre-school learning is a response to research findings that early childhood education gives children a head start in life. Subsidies make pre-school programmes available to more families so that they are no longer a privilege of the rich.

Singapore's meritocratic system means we are judged on our performance and not because we belong to a certain social class or racial community. We have all heard of people who are living their Singapore dream: children of cleaners, labourers and hawkers, catapulted into the upper middle-income professional class in one generation.

The crucial knowledge we should take away from this is that Singaporeans have the best chance to fulfil their personal potential.

The World Bank Human Capital Index measures the productivity of the next generation of workers relative to the benchmarks of complete education and full health. An economy in which a child born today can expect to achieve complete education and full health will score a value of one on the index.

Singapore topped the 157 countries on the index with a score of 0.88. Comparative indexes: Finland (0.81), Britain (0.78), Switzerland (0.77), the United States (0.76) and Malaysia (0.62).

Third, the Government has fulfilled its paramount pledge to make Singapore an egalitarian society regardless of race, language or religion.

Identity politics has resulted in racial and religious violence in some countries. To be able to complain about "brownface" indiscretions in Singapore is a privilege, for this means we have rights that allow us to call out racist behaviour. However, when we complain of someone's insensitivity, it should not be with a vehemence that can instigate hate. This threatens social harmony.

When a Chinese woman complained on social media that tall Sikh men wearing turbans had blocked her view at a concert, Internet trolls attacked her views. But the Sikh community, trusting that the woman had no ill intentions, offered friendship. Their graciousness in inviting the woman to their temple taught Singaporeans a signal lesson on good citizenship.

Fourth, our Government is clean. Singapore is ranked No. 3 in the list of least corrupt countries by Transparency International.

I have a personal experience of this that remains vivid. In 1976, the Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises was formed, and I volunteered to guest-edit its first annual report. I visited prisons as part of this job, and one day, I came face-to-face with an inmate who was a former minister. I was only 27 years old then, and I found it a sobering lesson on the Government's zero-tolerance stance against corruption.

Fifth, we have social equity. Housing, healthcare, education and public transport are subsidised. Singapore has an enviable 91 per cent home ownership rate.

I could go on and on. Climate change might cause flooding in coastal areas? A 100-year plan has already been mooted.


I am a Pioneer Generation citizen, and I remember how, in the pre-Independence days, poor people would rush to grab leftovers.

My late friend, 10 years older than me, worked in a shop when he was a boy - not for the pay, but for the right to take home to his family what remained of dinner at the shop. In those days, Chinese businesses provided meals for workers.

The shop supervisor used to sell the leftovers to a farmer for swill. Angry at the loss of his side income, the man made a point of mixing up all the food so that what my friend took home resembled… swill.

My friend became a wealthy medical doctor, but he never stopped eating like a ravenous wolf, causing younger people to remark on his bad table manners.

I can imagine that by now, many younger readers would be sighing "Okay boomer, we've heard it all before", but bear with me, especially if the coming general election is going to be the first one in which you vote.

Or don't take it from me. Here are views on Singapore governance from international observers.


The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer reported that 67 per cent of Singaporeans trust the Government. This is the highest score among the more developed countries, and is a rise of 2 per cent over last year's figure.

The online survey, which involved more than 33,000 respondents in 27 markets, found that the global average for trust in government among the informed public worldwide was 58 per cent.

The US, Britain, Australia, South Korea and Japan reported less than 50 per cent trust in government.

The World Bank Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) score governance in more than 200 countries against six parameters from zero to 100, with higher values corresponding to better outcomes.

Last year's Singapore WGI scores: Government effectiveness, 100; political stability and absence of violence/terrorism, 98.57; regulatory quality (dealing with private sector development), 99.52; rule of law, 97.12; control of corruption, 99.04; voice and accountability, 41.87.

In a one-off report in 2009, the QOG (Quality of Government) Institute at the University of Gothenburg ranked countries with measurable data in terms of QOG variables drawn from three indexes: the World Bank's Government Effectiveness Index as well as its Rule of Law Index, and Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.

Singapore topped the findings for government effectiveness at No. 1 out of 191 countries. It was in 15th place for rule of law, and in fifth place for corruption perceptions.

The respective government effectiveness, rule of law and corruption perceptions scores were 6, 14 and 10 for Britain; 17, 18 and 15 for the US; 18, 24 and 24 for France; 33, 56 and 32 for Malaysia; 64, 93 and 58 for China; and 81, 79 and 70 for India.

The Asian Barometer is an applied research programme focusing on politics and governance in Asia. The Asian Barometer Third Wave survey from 2010 to 2012 covered 13 states and measured citizen satisfaction in the practice of democracy in their countries.

Singapore had the most satisfied citizens (92 per cent), followed by Vietnam (88 per cent), Cambodia (83 per cent), Thailand (83 per cent) and China (75 per cent). Among the less satisfied were Japan (56 per cent) and the Philippines (47 per cent).

The Asian Barometer Fourth Wave report from 2015 to 2016 polled 14 countries to learn what the Asian understanding of the term "democracy" was. It was clear that people in these countries linked democracy with material outcomes such as good governance and social equity, and less with political ideology.

Among Singaporeans, for example, 33.4 per cent wanted good governance, 31.2 per cent wanted social equity, and 20.9 per cent wanted desirable norms and procedures from a democracy. Only 14.5 per cent felt that freedom and liberty were important.


What are the implications of trust in government at the polls?

Edelman Singapore's chief executive John Kerr told The Straits Times that in a world riven by distrust "where influence is no longer top-down but peer-to-peer, where stakeholders have rising expectations, and where every individual has a voice, building trust is more critical than ever".

Trust in government is regarded as a pillar upon which the legitimacy and sustainability of political systems rely. Nobel laureate in economics Kenneth Arrow writes of trust as a social lubricant that makes a social system "extremely efficient".

Where, then, does the People's Action Party (PAP) stand in the coming general election with its high trust-in-government score?

We might get an inkling from an analysis in the Asian Barometer Country Report for Singapore, which examined the changing percentage of PAP votes in recent general elections: GE2006 (66.6 per cent); GE2011 (60.1 per cent); and GE2015 (69.9 per cent).

Researchers Gillian Koh, Tan Ern Ser and Debbie Soon, who were behind this study, are based in Singapore. They held that the fall in PAP percentage votes from 2006 to 2011 did not represent a move towards democratic values of pluralistic representation.

By 2014, the researchers had found rising support for the incumbent Government, so they concluded that the rise in PAP percentage votes in GE2015 was not an aberration that perhaps reflected sentiments following the death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Instead, their assessment was that Singaporeans had made a solid return to the ruling party based on trust that the Government would deliver. The 2014 data even suggested rising support for what the survey calls the "authoritarian option" of a one-party system.

I propose that the adjective "authoritarian" should be substituted for "effective".

Economist Joseph Schumpeter, in his classic book Capitalism, Socialism And Democracy, noted that democracy works at a disadvantage if a nation is divided into two hostile camps, and the government may cease to work if people refuse to compromise. Thus, he held that in a time of crisis, it would be reasonable to abandon democracy for monopolistic leadership.

The late Professor Schumpeter, considered one of the most influential economists of the 20th century and well known for his theory of creative destruction in economics, has been called "elitist" for his poor opinion of the rationality and knowledge that voters bring to the polls. He thought that too many were moved by emotion and self-interest.

As for the proposition that democracy can usher in a "government by amateurs", Prof Schumpeter was unambiguous: Successful government depends on "a well-trained bureaucracy of good standing and tradition, endowed with a strong sense of duty and a no less strong esprit de corps".

Rule by a coterie of top minds is a hallmark of the Lee Kuan Yew system. In his 2013 book, One Man's View Of The World, Mr Lee opined that if younger voters insisted on a two-party Parliament, Singapore would be destined for mediocrity.

Not that Mr Lee had no belief in the credibility of the opposition. Rather, he knew that if elections became dicey, or even uncivil and vicious, then it would become very hard to convince the best to stand. Why would they sacrifice career and family to face uncertainty? By this token, Mr Lee felt that the best would not join the opposition and have to wait interminably for their day in the sun.

As the sceptre passes from the first to the fourth generation, or 4G, we see the system of bureaucratic leadership by an academic and public sector elite being entrenched. Such a system has drawn criticism, but I am one of those who believe it has served Singapore well and will continue to do so.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat is one of the 4G leaders who received a personal "anointment" by Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Lee had described Mr Heng as "the best principal private secretary I ever had".

Fully aware of the place of theatre in shaping the aura of leadership, Mr Lee's successors have had to pass the criterion of looking good and sounding good.

However, I believe by now that Singaporeans can bring more critically aware criteria to their selection of the leader they want.

I am just as easily persuaded by theatre and emotions as the next person, but I trust that the good sense of Singaporeans means we can all settle down to be rational and focus on competence and knowledge when choosing leaders, rather than act on a moment of irritation.

Democracy is not about electioneering, but about the citizen franchise choosing the best government we can get. It is not undemocratic or politically naive to keep returning one party to power if we have trust in government. In deliberative democracy, the capacity to deliver the common good and not mere success at the polls is the primary source of legitimacy of a government.

Margaret Chan, a cultural anthropologist, is a retired associate professor from Singapore Management University, where she taught heritage studies, religion, theatre and the arts.

Reflections on trust from a young Singaporean
Trust in the Government is not all about past performance. To give confidence for the future, taking on board citizens' views matters.
By Jarel Tang, Published The Straits Times, 28 Nov 2019

The need to retain the trust of Singaporeans has been a key concern of the political leadership of late.

As was the case at the People's Action Party (PAP) conventions of the past two years, at this year's event held recently, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong once again emphasised the need to "maintain the trust the people have in the PAP", as did his designated successor, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat. This was followed two weeks later by an open letter from PM Lee to Singaporeans echoing the same point.

Here, I suggest that the key to establishing trust is increasingly not just a stellar track record of past performance, but convincing Singaporeans that their views will be heard and considered.

In response to PM Lee's speech, retired university professor Margaret Chan wrote a commentary in these pages, offering a robust defence of why the "deep reservoir of trust" enjoyed by the Government among Singaporeans is fully merited ("Reflections on trust from a Pioneer Generation citizen", Nov 14). She pointed to its track record of high-quality governance validated by international rankings.

Having experienced such a dramatic improvement in the standard of living within their lifetimes under the leadership of the PAP, it is not difficult to see why Dr Chan and other members of Singapore's Pioneer Generation might place their unwavering trust in the Government. At the party conference, DPM Heng himself recounted how older Singaporeans cried when reflecting on the nation's progress at the Bicentennial Experience exhibition.

Recent surveys, however, indicate that although trust in government remains high, it has been progressively reduced in recent years.

The most frequently cited has been the Edelman Trust Barometer, an online survey of people's sentiments about institutions in their countries. Although the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that 67 per cent of Singaporeans trust the Government, an increase of 2 percentage points from last year, this is significantly lower than the 77 per cent reported in 2011 when the survey was first published, and 74 per cent as recently as 2016. This decline in trust despite sustained high scores in international governance indicators points to the fact that trust in government is not just a matter of presenting a track record of high-quality governance to citizens, but also the result of other factors surrounding how the Government engages with Singaporeans.


What exactly is trust in government, and what are its determinants?

In political science literature, political trust refers to citizens' support for a government in the face of uncertainty about, or vulnerability to, its actions. Hence, for example, citizens will be more willing to pay taxes if they trust that the government will not spend it profligately.

Dr Bo Rothstein, the co-founder of the Quality of Government Institute at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, makes a useful conceptual distinction between the "input" and "output" sides of governance, the former being democratic representation, and the latter being quality of government.

Both of these contribute to trust in government.

Quality of government refers to the performance of a government once in power - such as the rule of law, absence of corruption, and the general economic sustenance of citizens. Democratic representation is associated with free and fair elections and various channels for citizens' voices to be heard in political decision-making.

The Singapore Government's track record of consistently delivering high-quality governance no doubt is, and will continue to be, the primary driver of trust in government. In this respect, Singapore is a prime example for Dr Rothstein, who points out that Western academic scholarship has tended to emphasise institutions of democratic representation over quality of governance.

While international indices of democracy such as Polity IV and Freedom House do not consider Singapore to be democratic, national surveys continue to show that more than 90 per cent of Singaporeans consider their political system to be democratic. This reflects that Singaporeans have tended to value more highly quality of government over institutions of political participation.

However, while past government performance is a useful indicator of how it is likely to perform in future, there is no guarantee that future performance will match up to the past.


Indeed, the recent decline of trust suggests that it is increasingly difficult for the Government to convince citizens to trust in its future performance by relying entirely on its past track record, however illustrious.

First, younger generations who did not experience a radical change in their standard of living as older generations did are likely to attach less weight to the Government's past track record.

While I still deeply appreciate the work of the Government when my parents tell me of how their families were able to move from attap-roofed houses into their own Housing Board flats, members of my generation do not feel the same depth of gratitude to the Government as our parents do.

A historical example that may provide parallels is the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in West Germany. The CDU saw strong support during the Wirtschaftswunder, or "economic miracle" of the 1950s, when it oversaw the dramatic improvement in living standards following World War II. However, it lost power by the end of the 1960s once there was a generation of West Germans who did not have clear memories of how the CDU had transformed the country in the post-war years.

A similar situation of younger generations having less implicit trust in the incumbent government may be happening in Singapore, though stretched out over a longer time horizon.

Second, at this time of transition to the 4G, or fourth generation, leadership, and especially after the death of Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, the new political leaders need to prove that they have inherited the mettle of the PAP's older generation.

As many among the 4G are relatively new to politics, they will have to work doubly hard to convince citizens to trust them to lead the nation.

Third, it is becoming increasingly difficult for any party to make credible promises about the future state of the economy, given the increasingly complex world we live in. Even the best-laid plans can go awry in the face of disruption by artificial intelligence and geopolitical conflict.

Fourth, given improving education and quality of jobs, the gap in educational level and business expertise between citizens and political leaders is much narrower than it was before. Citizens will be increasingly sceptical of claims over their trust purely on the basis of political leaders having superior competence.

Instead, to improve trust among Singaporeans, the Government must begin to look more intently at the "inputs" of governance, in addition to the "outputs" of governance that have been the traditional focus. Citizens can be more assured of the Government's future performance if they are convinced that this is a government that listens to, and considers, their views.


The Government has already come a long way in increasing the role of citizens in policy making, although still more can be done.

A steady evolution towards increasing channels for political participation has been happening since 1990, when Mr Goh Chok Tong took over as prime minister and announced the beginning of a more open and consultative style of leadership. It further picked up pace after the 2011 General Election when the Government engaged in the nationwide Our Singapore Conversation exercise.

Today, it is particularly promising to see DPM Heng's declaration at the recent PAP party conference that the Government plans to do more to "put partnerships with Singaporeans front and centre", to work with Singaporeans, instead of for Singaporeans. As part of this new approach, recent initiatives such as the Singapore Together movement, Youth Action Plan and the Citizens' Panel on Work-Life Harmony could potentially be fruitful in increasing citizens' inputs in policy making.

However, there remains nagging criticism from more critical Singaporeans that these efforts are more of "publicity stunts" - superficial attempts at engagement that merely serve to validate policy goals which have more often than not already been predetermined.

To address these concerns, and to be effective at building trust, these public engagements need to be implemented in a way that truly enables broad-based participation, and without fear of uncomfortable questions being thrown up.

One small but significant recent example of engagement that engenders trust is provided by Bukit Batok MP Murali Pillai's recent online apology over an incident where padlocked hose reel cabinets and a malfunctioning water supply created difficulties for firefighters responding to a fire in his ward.

In a move that was well received by netizens, Mr Murali's courage in accepting responsibility for the episode and subjecting himself to public scrutiny provides Singaporeans with the assurance that their elected representatives listen to them and are accountable to the public for their performance.

At its core, a commitment to seriously take into account the views of Singaporeans is an expression of the Government's trust in Singaporeans. It is trust that Singaporeans can exercise sound judgment, and trust that as a society we are mature enough not to get blinded by short-term and self-centred modes of thinking.

This means that while the Government asks Singaporeans to trust it more, perhaps what is necessary is also a reciprocal effort to invest more trust in Singaporeans.

In this light, I discuss two recent episodes where the Government could have taken alternative approaches to better engender trust from Singaporeans.

The first of these is the 2016 amendments to the Constitution to introduce the hiatus-triggered model for minority representation in presidential elections.

Even though government ministers themselves had noted that public support for the amendments was not forthcoming, they decided that it was still in the best interest of Singaporeans to proceed, accepting that it might impose a political cost.

This exposes a tussle between how much citizens should trust the Government to make decisions on their behalf and how much the Government should trust citizens to make decisions for themselves. The balance between the two is certainly something deserving of an honest conversation between the Government and citizens.

Additionally, the Government's White Paper on the issue was published just eight days after the public release of the Constitutional Commission's report and enshrined in the Constitution less than two months later. Even without going into the merits of the changes introduced to the elected presidency, surely such a major change deserved more debate.

More recently, the ban on personal mobility devices (PMDs) on public footpaths with seemingly no prior consultation with PMD riders has also left some bewildered.

To be sure, the Government was responding to the many Singaporeans concerned about rising injuries and even fatalities with PMDs on shared paths.

Remedial actions in the form of the Transition Assistance Package for food delivery riders to trade in their PMDs for e-bikes and other compliant devices were also announced a few days later. Still, PMD riders who had followed the Government's cues to invest their savings in UL2272-compliant e-scooters, only to find their use severely curtailed at a day's notice, are hardly to be blamed if their trust in the Government were to be shattered by the (literally) overnight ruling.

In this case, the issue is not so much with the decision that was taken, but the manner in which the decision was reached and implemented that made a group of Singaporeans feel that their interests had not received an adequate hearing.

To be fair, remedial measures were swiftly announced a few days later, allowing PMD riders to trade in their devices for compliant bicycles and other devices.

The Government currently enjoys a high level of trust among Singaporeans, and deservedly so. However, to strengthen this trust, especially among younger Singaporeans, it is no longer enough to promise future performance based on its past track record, but requires additionally convincing Singaporeans that their views will be heard.

Increasing citizens' inputs in policymaking does not necessarily mean that we do not trust the Government to do its work, or that we doubt the competence and integrity of our leaders. Rather, it provides the basis for taking trust in government to the next level.

With the Government and Singaporeans forging a strong partnership of mutual trust, Singaporeans can certainly have confidence for the future.

Jarel Tang, 24, is a recent graduate in philosophy, politics and economics, now working as a management consultant. He has been involved in leading community programmes to uplift children and youth from underprivileged backgrounds.

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