When mistrust is the new normal

When mistrust is the new normal

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.

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