S'poreans want responsible and accountable government

SINGAPORE - According to conventional wisdom, voters tried to teach the ruling party a lesson in the 2011 General Election. If so, the People's Action Party could be said to have spent the past 21/2 years on make-up classes.

Its diligence seems to be paying off in some areas, going by the The Straits Times survey results reported in the previous pages. But they also show lingering dissatisfaction with certain policies, particularly public transport.

And, most intriguingly, the findings suggest that even a straight-A performance will not convince Singaporeans to hand unlimited power to the PAP.

In 2011, cost of living and housing were deemed thorny issues. The strain that foreigners were putting on infrastructure was also said to be upsetting Singaporeans.

The new survey finds Singaporeans reporting a shift in public sentiment. They perceive that their fellow citizens are more satisfied with the way the housing issue has been attended to. When they were asked to name the Government's biggest accomplishment since 2011, housing-related policies came out on top, cited by 26 per cent of respondents.

Most also feel that Singaporeans are now more satisfied with how low-income people's needs are being taken care of. More than two-thirds think that the Government's handling of issues related to the poor has improved compared with three years ago. The handling of elderly issues and health care also received especially high approval ratings, at 72 per cent and 66 per cent respectively.

On the other hand, transport was voted the Government's worst failure, with 45 per cent giving it the thumbs down. The $1.1 billion Bus Service Enhancement Programme, which has the Government paying for buses, was a major departure from previous policy and seems to have made a welcome difference. More than four in 10 of regular bus commuters said services had improved, compared with over half of regular MRT commuters who said train services had declined. The Government's overall grade for public transport could have been dragged down by the high-profile MRT breakdowns that have occurred since 2011.

Overall, many Singaporeans seem to acknowledge the PAP's efforts at responding to their demands. However, they are not entirely satisfied. The Government may have taken remedial action to address missteps and miscalculations in housing, transport and immigration policies. But Singaporeans may not be greatly impressed since these were seen as problems of the PAP's own making in the first place.

Reacting to problems after they are painfully apparent to everybody is not enough for a population accustomed to good governance. The PAP may need to recover its old penchant for anticipatory leadership - the ability to look ahead and tackle emerging issues decisively even before they surface to prominence.

This year's Pioneer Generation Package and the bold moves to introduce universal health-care insurance through MediShield Life are the kind of confidence-inspiring policies Singaporeans may be seeking from the PAP. The fact that public response has been positive even before the more potentially contentious fine print has been announced suggests that a reserve of trust in the PAP remains, despite rising cynicism.

In both these policies, the Government has tried to tackle looming problems before they become overwhelming, unlike the housing and transport problems that were allowed to fester for some years.

The Government can draw comfort from the finding that young people are brimming with hope. Those aged 21 to 24 expressed the most confidence in their expectation of the Government's handling of national issues in the future, consistently giving it high marks of above 70 per cent, except in education, transport and foreign workers and immigration.

The issue of foreigners continues to colour Singaporeans' perceptions. It is plainly an unresolved issue: consistently across all age groups, less than half express confidence in government policy. The issue did not rank as high in importance as the elderly, housing, health care, the poor or transport. This could be because Singaporeans are less bothered by the presence of foreigners as such than by how their numbers impact quality of life with respect to housing, transport and so on.

Address these symptoms and immigration may become less of an issue.

The most sobering finding for those who believe in undiluted PAP dominance is an unmistakable appetite for greater checks and balances. This is one of the most important factors Singaporeans say they will consider today when choosing their MP, alongside the state of national policies and a candidate's attributes.

The overall picture shows a Singaporean voter who is demanding but prepared to acknowledge good performance. Encouragingly for the Government, its policy reforms have been duly noted.

But the survey also shows that Singaporeans do not think of good governance only in terms of good policies, but also as a system that includes checks and balances.

Even in the so-called new normal, the PAP remains dominant, with 80 out of 87 elected seats in Parliament. It believes that a strong ruling party is good for Singapore, and many Singaporeans may well agree.

However, if the PAP is to keep abreast of people's aspirations, the survey shows that it would probably be smarter to focus less on the margin and more on the quality of that dominance - people want a ruling party that is both responsive and accountable.

zuraidah@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 19 in The Straits Times.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

Purchase this article for republication.

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