Public Trust In Singapore

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On the Saturday morning of 7th June, like some Singaporeans, I woke up to an open letter by Catherine Lim to the Prime Minister. It called to mind the commentary she wrote in 1994 in which she “spied a great affective divide” after what she saw as the poor performance of the People’s Action Party in the 1991 general election. This letter, like her commentary, came three years after a general election, this time after the 2011 general election. In it, Dr Lim said the breakdown of public trust as she described in 1994 has now “reached crisis proportions”. That the use of defamation suit by the government, to punish any implication of government corruption that would erode the trust of the people, is now “the very cause of the erosion of trust”. She told the Prime Minister she was “somewhat dismayed by the pure vitriol of your more extreme online critics who gleefully twist everything that you say and do to serve their cynicism”.

Has it been twenty years? If someone had predicted then that we would be living in a world with a democratised mass media where people openly criticised the government, I would see it as good fodder for a futuristic political fiction. Yet, in this time and age, why would Dr Lim write an open letter to the Prime Minister? An open letter on social media is a bit of an oxymoron because everything is open online. But the idea is fresh. Thoughtfully crafted, polite to a point of being formal, formatted as a traditional letter, it seems to stand apart from the rants of the online community. It also attempts to be balanced, to assure the addressee she is on his side. But the tone is decidedly and directly blunt. Its slant builds on the online critical narrative of a “highly charged atmosphere of the new Singapore”. This guaranteed the traction it would gather and the attention it would received, from among others, the foreign media.

In the past two weeks, I have been asking myself, if there is a breakdown of public trust and if there is, has it reached crisis proportions. The government’s response to Dr Lim came in a letter from Singapore’s Consul-General in Hong Kong, Jacky Foo, to the South China Morning Post, after it reported on her open letter. Mr Foo maintained there are international benchmarks of trust in government. The Edelman Trust Barometer found only 37 percent of respondents in the United States trusted their government. The UK scored 42 percent, and Hong Kong 45 percent. Singapore scored a respectable 75 percent. I decided to conduct my own straw polls. The results are consistently above 60 percent. Yet, the comments which are not solicited reflect a middle ground of growing mistrust. The respondents volunteer comments of helplessness, doubt and concern about ongoing social unrest.

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While anti-government messages and public demonstrations are common place in not only Western but neighbouring countries, our situation on the home front is compounded by the advent of the internet age coinciding with a maturing society with increasing diversity in political affiliations. In 2011, the ruling party lost a Group Representation Constituency and saw a drop of 6.5 percentage point in its share of votes. It signalled the end of the resounding wins the People’s Action Party was used to. Does it mean the ruling party has done badly? Or like the viewership of free-to-air television, the readership of traditional print media, this is how public trust will evolve? There is still a perception Singapore is a small and vulnerable nation that has always relied on a strong and trusted government. So should we worry about the musings, listlessness and angry voices? Does it follow that the Singapore government is facing an impending collapse of trust?

I think the Singapore society is louder. Those who grew up in quieter times are not used to the aggressive rhetoric. If I do not remind myself we are now living in a different society, a more interconnected world, I can be very taken aback by the large crowds at demonstrations, the graffiti at bus stops, on MRT trains, and the abusive accusations of activists. But we are living in a borderless age. We need to deal with this new and uncomfortable phenomenon. To face up to the erosion of the kind of public trust we were used to. Only by facing up to this breakdown can we prevent it from reaching crisis proportions. In fact we need to see public conversation and debate, however heated, to be a healthy development. The average Singaporean will then be less apathetic, more aware and informed. And hopefully with time, be able to discern the facts from fiction, whether they are in a form of an open letter or otherwise.

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