By Jose Raymond

The Government’s lack of engagement and consultation with Singaporeans ahead of critical policy changes is baffling, and bares its insecurity.

Since 2015, there have multiple changes in policies and the lack of engagement and consultation before implementation with citizens is apparent.

Just a few examples of major policy changes and shifts since the last General Elections include the changes to the Elected Presidency to allow for reserved race elections, the increase in the prices of water by 30 per cent, the introduction of a cashless system for transportation, are just a few.

This is not consistent with what current Minister of Finance Heng Swee Keat said just immediately after the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) landslide victory at the 2015 General Elections, when he announced that the efforts to listen to the voices of the people will continue “even more extensively and even more deeply” going forward.

A Young Nation

A roof over humble heads. Jobs to feed their young families. Some savings for retirement.

These were needs of a population when Singapore achieved independence in 1965.

And the PAP government led by Lee Kuan Yew delivered a nation’s needs through its early policies like the introduction of the Central Provident Fund contributions, the establishment of the Housing and Development Board and rapid industrialization which ensured its citizens had a stake in the development of a young nation.

To move Singapore from a third world to first, there were sacrifices made, not just by the government by also by the people who called Singapore home.

Citizens trusted that the government’s narrative, in that the harder one works, the better the returns in wealth. There was rapid development and any semblance of social mobilization or demands for civil liberties were struck down.

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It was through performance legitimacy that the PAP continued to win at every single Parliamentary elections since Singapore gained independence in 1965. This essentially meant that the PAP continued to harp on their track record to ask for continued faith in what they stood for.

Times have changed

However, it is very obvious that times have changed. And so have people’s needs and desires.

Today, Singapore is made up of a highly educated citizenry who obviously wish to feel engaged in the running of the country they call home, and not just through the crossing of a box on a ballot paper once every four or five years.

But is there enough engagement and consultation of Singaporeans before key policy decisions are made? Or is the government still only using its usual outreach arms like the People’s Association grassroots organisations?

Or worse, is engagement, in the eyes of the current government, just a case of mere tokenism?

American public policy analyst Sherry Arnstein’s 1969 study on community engagement and participation and the “Ladder of Citizen Participation” gives an indication of how views of citizens are being taken into consideration according to eight different steps. (see diagram below)

This ladder which is still referred to as a pillar by many community engagement groups.

Where exactly does the government’s engagement with its citizens stand “Ladder of Engagement”?

Is there enough electoral and democratic accountability?

As stated earlier, just a few examples of major policy changes without consultation include the changes to the Elected Presidency, the increase in the prices of water, the introduction of a cashless system for transportation and the need for a cashless society without options.

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And in cases where supposed engagement with stakeholders had apparently taken place, the government had to backtrack after severe backlash and pushback by members of the public.

The furore over the naming of the “Syonan Gallery” and its subsequent rescinding, and Ministerial apology by Dr Yaacob Ibrahim is one such example. In this case, there needs to be questions asked about the value of the engagement process, and whether the right or relevant stakeholders were consulted. Or was the engagement process merely cosmetic.

Also, was the “Syonan Gallery” embarrassment an isolated incident in public engagement failure or is it highly symptomatic of the current state of engagement practice which is conducted by government and its agencies where consultation is done just to tick a box.

If critical policy changes were to be introduced and instituted during this current term of government, then why did the PAP not bring these proposed policy changes up for debate by all political parties and for consideration by Singaporeans before they cast their votes at the last General Elections?

Why did it not feel the need to explain its future policies especially when it would affect all aspects of Singaporeans’ lives – from households to businesses. Afterall, isn’t long-term planning a hallmark of the PAP government?

True Passion, Made Possible

Anecdotally, there is a growing number of Singaporeans – both young and even the not so young – who are getting involved in multiple causes such as environmental protection, migrant workers’ rights, care for the destitute, promotion of the arts, LGBT rights and many more. Thanks (or no thanks) to social media, anyone can also have their views published without having to wait for their voices to be carried through the mainstream media.

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There are also people who are willing to take leave of absence from work just so they can pursue their passionate causes for personal satisfaction. This is the true essence of Passion Made Possible, and not one which is engineered.

And because people have become a lot more connected to the outside world and issues faced by other countries, there is a growing desire for Singaporeans to want to play a part in the way their country is shaping for the future.

As citizens who play a part in the development of Singapore, it is important for the government to engage its citizens at multiple levels, and a lot more deeply.

Rethink the use of PA, and REACH (reach everyone for active citizenry @home), as these only have limited impact.

Continue denying Singaporeans an opportunity to be involved in the shaping of the country’s future will only lead them taking their frustrations out at the ballot box.

Jose Raymond is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He is also Vice-Chairman of the Chiam See Tong Sports Foundation and a Vice-President of the Singapore Swimming Association.