26 Mar 2012

The Institute of Policy Studies invited experts to debate the shifting political ground at Singapore Perspectives 2012.

Singapore needs to forge a new collective consensus to deal with the widening wage gap, while greater government-citizen trust and more collaborative policy-making approaches are required in face of an increasingly diverse electorate, they said.

Addressing the issue of income inequality, Mr. Ho Kwon Ping, Founder and Executive Chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings, framed the debate by asking whether Singapore aspired to be a Denmark or a Dubai. If Singapore continued along its current path, it might become an “increasingly rich and unequal society with growing dependence on an underclass of lowlypaid foreign workers”. But if the vision were a more equal and self-reliant society, then a strong collective consensus would have to be forged amongst all stakeholders of society in order to overcome transitional pains.

To ameliorate income inequality, he called for Singapore to complete the wage revolution it started in the eighties. Mr. Ho explained how this “bold, even risky” wage hike effectively forced manufacturers to upgrade or close shop, while the Economic Development Board’s efforts, coupled with more vocational training, led to the genesis and development of high-skilled industries like the life sciences and pharmaceuticals in Singapore. The movement essentially weeded out the labour-intensive industries and encouraged the skills-intensive export industries. Unfortunately, this wage revolution did not extend to the domestic services industries, where wages remain low today.

The country needs a gradual but relentless wage increase for the domestic services industries, Mr. Ho argued. This could be done by reducing the influx of foreign labour and by providing incentives to invest in productivityenhancing technology. Creating an educational and industrial training system that respects and rewards the concept of apprenticeship is key, while efforts to foster a social ethos where selfreliance and equality are practiced within a free market economy would be equally pertinent.

Any meaningful attempt to move Singapore towards a more egalitarian and self-reliant society, as typified by Japan and Scandinavia, would require a paradigm shift, which “can only happen if there is a collective consensus which is at the heart of political exchange,” Mr. Ho said.

…deeper engagement would only be possible if the government acknowledges and re-examines barriers to forging trust with its citizens…

Reaching consensus

Further, any search for a new collective consensus would also necessitate a meaningful process of deliberation and communication, the panel noted. Faced with a better educated and more engaged polity, the government needs fresh approaches to communicate with a third generation of citizens who did not experience first-hand Singapore’s early vulnerabilities as a young and independent nation, said Mr. Peter Ho, Senior Adviser to the Centre for Strategic Futures. They face new challenges that need to be addressed, and new ways are required to resolve them. Mr. Ho also acknowledged the Internet’s role in increasing access to information. While social networking platforms provide citizens with ample opportunity to express their views and share information in a viral manner, virtual communities are also beginning to shape the debate and context of public policy issues. Today’s public officers, Mr. Ho said, can expect to face much greater public scrutiny of their actions and policies. In a technologically connected world, the “government knows best” mentality is increasingly outmoded because citizens and businesses can easily gain access to much of the information that governments used to control in the past.

Thus, policy-making in this age should adopt a more collaborative approach and embrace a broader spectrum of society, Mr. Ho argued.

“More conversations may need to be selectively extended into the public space to deepen collective understanding and build society’s capacity to deliberate issues rationally in a safe environment,” he noted. Engagement in the form of public information, public consultation, consensus building and co-creation would be crucial in engendering an invested citizenry.

Yet, deeper engagement would only be possible if the government acknowledges and reexamines barriers to forging trust with its citizens, said Dr. Cherian George, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow of IPS and Associate Professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication, Nanyang Technological University. Government measures to increase engagement within the realm of social media after the general election of 2011 would be more persuasive only if greater government-citizen trust—an element critically lacking in Singapore’s communication context— was fostered, he added.

…barriers to trust could only be overcome with stronger public institutions and a more accountable political system.

Fostering trust

The barriers to forging government-citizen trust merit more in-depth discussion. First, the mainstream media, perceived as acting as the government’s primary policy communication platform, suffers from a credibility lag, Dr. George said. Though the media provides reliable and professional service on most issues, on a small number of contentious topics, government media policy dictates that the professional judgment of editors must be subordinate to that of elected officials, he said. On hot-button election issues, for example, the media did reflect public discontent but the public “never got the sense that it was on their side”, Dr. George said. “This severely limits the power of the media to guide the public precisely where that influence is most needed,” he added.

Second, the communication environment in general lacks independent voices to act as checks and balances to Singapore’s largely one-party system. Despite fears that this could slow down governance and confuse the public, these risks, in Dr. George’s view, are small compared to the increased trust government could engender from subjecting its decisions to independent scrutiny. Third, in Singapore’s largely one-party government, state interests are sometimes conflated with the ruling party’s interests, and Singaporeans in general are cognisant of this. For instance, the way electoral boundaries are drawn and the unequal treatment that Opposition wards receive on upgrading projects does not pass what Dr. George called “the smell test”.

But barriers to trust could only be overcome with stronger public institutions and a more accountable political system. “Since we no longer expect to be led by gods, proof of fallibility is not a liability,” Dr. George said. “On the contrary, timely and unvarnished revelations of the government’s mistakes are the proof people need that they are operating in a trustworthy communication environment.”

Cheong Kah Shin, Debbie Soon and Zhou Rongchen are Research Assistants at the Institute of Policy Studies.
They can be reached at , and