Singaporeans and the Government: A Strained Marriage
The gravity of the communication and trust issues between the government and the electorate can be understood through the lens of a marriage analogy. The old guard, first-generation PAP put in place a top-down, paternalistic leadership style which neither elicited nor encouraged discourse and active participation from the electorate. This is not dissimilar to the marriages of our grandparents’ generation, where arranged marriages weren’t terribly uncommon and decisions were made by the male head of the household, with little or no input from their wives.
Fast forward to 2014, and it is an entirely different ball game. Singapore is shifting, perceptibly and rapidly, from “a different kind of democracy” to one where expression is valued instead of shunned. A normal kind of democracy, in other words. Unfortunately, the Government, has not evolved quickly enough. Paternalistic leadership and communication style still lingers, despite sporadic efforts to graft a gentler, more open PAP into their existing organizational culture – and correspondingly, their PR strategy. This has resulted in a somewhat schizophrenic Frankenstein-esque creature, at times seemingly contrite and at other times, lapsing back into the old heavy handed ways, a la defamation suits.
Going back to the marriage analogy, the husband is stuck in an outdated “I know what’s best for us” mindset, but the wife is not having any of it and wants to be considered an equal. Similarly, the electorate wants to be consulted, or at least given defensible, clear and accessible explanations for decisions that affect them, without having to ask for these explanations or trawl through vast tracts of civil servant-speak for the answers. An analysis of the vote margins for the incumbents and the opposition in the past two general elections (2006 and 2011) would indicate that an increasing proportion of the electorate is warming up to the option of a divorce.
This situation is not just unfortunate, it is dangerous.
If you think that this simply means the PAP will lose their majority in Parliament sooner rather than later, think again. It’s not quite as straightforward as that. Whoever occupies the majority in Parliament in the next ten to fifteen years,it is extremely unlikely that the government will simply kill the CPF system.
Of course, it is possible that a populist opposition party with weak policy muscles will gain the majority in parliament, and this majority will vote to scrap the CPF system without any parallel alternative. If that happens, burning questions about the CPF will be the least of our worries. However, assuming this does not happen, and a more moderate party such as the Workers’ Party gains a majority in Parliament, it is highly improbable that the CPF system will be scrapped. Changes, hopefully positive, may be on the cards, but the existing framework and the public perception issues that plague the CPF system and our sovereign wealth funds are not going to magically vanish overnight if Parliament gets a lot more colourful.
In fact, if the Government doesn’t address the discontent about the CPF soon, one possible long-term outcome is a backlash of apathy – long-term, deep-seated apathy that mature democracies like the US and the UK struggle to neutralize. Apathy that spells nothing good for a country’s future.
If these perception and transparency issues are not addressed soon (tick tock, guys, the next general election isn’t that far off), the next opposition party to form a majority in Parliament is going to be the unwitting catalyst of widespread apathy in an electorate that now believes neither the PAP nor the opposition in power is willing and able to address their issues and concerns about where their damn CPF money is going and how its handled.
If the government doesn’t revamp how they communicate with the electorate with a view to encourage ownership of this country – instead of merely tolerating it – even dramatic changes in the political landscape may not amount to a more involved citizenry.
Look at it in terms of the long game, and you will realize that this is a chilling and not entirely improbable possibility. This bad news, and whoever might form the majority of the government in the next ten to fifteen years, this needs to be addressed by the current government, right now.
It is a dangerous possibility particularly at this juncture in our history, when we’re beginning to find our voice and shed our apathy about what happens to this country. Especially at this point in time, when ownership of one’s country isn’t an idealistic and unattainable concept, but something that we are starting to realize is ours: it’s not such a different kind of democracy, after all.