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.

Most start out happy and optimistic in their 20s, suffer a dip in positive feelings when they hit their mid-30s and responsibilities pile up, before re-emerging in their mid 50s when work pressures and the burdens of care-giving ease. The co-relation is not just with age but with income. The middle income are more likely to feel squeezed, dissatisfied and pessimistic.

This group of middle-aged, middle-incomers is sizeable.

The Government has in recent years extended financial help to them. That has been a significant shift in policy because previously, it had been very careful about targeting aid at those on low incomes.

In his Budget speech this year, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that the social initiatives of the last five years provide support to lower- and middle-income Singaporeans that is about 21/2 times what it was a decade ago.

But that has not taken the edge off the disgruntlement of many in this group, who feel that with rising costs, the good things in life that they aspire to are increasingly out of their reach.

That will continue to be a political pressure point on the Government, whose leaders must decide just how far to dip into national coffers to help middle-incomers achieve their version of the Singapore Dream.

Mr Tharman has been at pains to highlight Singapore's achievements in keeping incomes for this group growing so they can stay ahead of costs, and in keeping the tax burden on them lower than it is in many other countries.

In his Budget wrap-up speech, he also stressed that the Government must continue to target subsidies at those who need them most, and avoid universal subsidies. Such subsidies can become a serious drain on finances.

But what ST's polling shows is that the work of persuading middle-aged, middle-incomers that they are getting a fair deal will continue to be a tough sell.

lydia@sph.com.sg

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

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