A tough sell to middle-incomers

A tough sell to middle-incomers
Voters queuing to cast their ballots at the last GE. Those surveyed said that when they went to the polls, they were most concerned about housing, the elderly, the poor and health care.

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.

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