SINGAPORE - While generally optimistic about the future, the majority of Singaporeans want a slower-paced life, a less competitive education system and fewer foreigners - and they are willing to trade off economic growth for that.
This was the picture that emerged from a survey of 4,000 citizens conducted in January as part of the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) exercise.
The full findings, released last week, had 65 per cent of respondents saying that they were optimistic about the future five years ahead, and 78 per cent saying that the Government was managing Singapore well.
Respondents were picked randomly in proportion to the demographics of Singapore society, and the interviews were conducted face to face. The survey was a separate process from the OSC's over 660 citizen dialogues, and was designed to take the pulse of the "silent majority" who may not have turned up for the sessions.
When asked to pick among competing national priorities, respondents showed more consensus than observers expected. That consensus pointed to a desire for an easing of Singapore's pace of growth and development.
Over 60 per cent said they preferred the preservation of green spaces over infrastructural development, compared to the 19 per cent who picked infrastructural development; 53 per cent wanted the preservation of heritage spaces over infrastructural development, while only 27 per cent went the other way.
Asked to choose between career advancement and a comfortable pace of life, 59 per cent chose the latter. This number swelled to 62 per cent among those married with children.
Half of the respondents said they wanted to reduce the intake of foreign workers even if it translated to slower growth and fewer jobs, while just 28 per cent picked the other trade-off.
National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Tan Ern Ser, one of the researchers involved, said that the questions were specifically designed "for people to realise that you can't always have your cake and eat it".
Hence, the options were put to them in black-and-white terms: one section asked them to pick between "keeping taxes low even if it limits support to the needy" and "higher taxes for greater support for the needy".
Some 42 per cent chose to keep taxes low, 33 per cent chose to raise them, with the rest neutral.
Where respondents stood on these trade-offs overall sent a "blunt message of vulnerability and socio-economic insecurity", said Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Leong Chan Hoong, who was also involved in the survey.
But he did not think that what they evinced should be labelled complacency: "Singaporeans just want a balance between economic dynamism and social cohesion." NUS sociologist and former Nominated MP Paulin Straughan said Singaporeans want a "more balanced approach from the Government to ensure that in terms of quality of life, we are not always obsessing about saving for the future.
They want everyday life to be rewarding too".
But she noted that where they stood on these compromises were a reaction to what they felt was already "in place" now.
"Because all the hard factors like infrastructure, a high employment rate and a competitive education system are already in place, they are yearning for more," she said. "People can ask for more work-life balance only if you have work."
Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Liang Eng Hwa argued that the trade-offs Singapore faces at this point in time may not be as stark as the survey put it, as flexible work arrangements can ease stress without sacrificing competitiveness. "Let's see if we can work smarter, and so both maintain competitiveness and have time for the family. Hopefully, we may not have to make the trade-off."
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