“There is no reason to believe that the Singapore electorate is so special and so different from others that it will behave differently and continue to have high levels of trust in government” (When Mistrust Is The New Normal, Mr. Han Fook Kwang).
With all the fuss over trust in the government, what about the government’s trust in its people?
“[T]here will be a new political equilibrium with different parties representing the interests of a diverse population”, Mr. Han Fook Kwang argues (ST, June 22). “And … the ruling party will be the one best able to meet the needs of the broad middle ground”. Surely this should mean that the dominant People’s Action Party – in an environment where people clamour to be heard, to have greater autonomy – needs to think about how much it trusts its constituents.
Signs point to the contrary. Censorship is a perpetual bugbear, and the recently proposed amendments to the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act by the Media Development Agency has rankled many. Should the government always determine what is “good” or “right” for Singaporeans? Can Singaporeans be trusted to make own decisions – collectively? Along the same tangent Mr. Han’s suggestion that “Singaporeans are not used to their new-found freedom to express themselves, especially in the online space” is unfortunate too.
Some will inevitably cross the lines, but pay close attention to progressive movements within segments of the Internet community. The opposition towards vitriol on STOMP and The Real Singapore for instance. The criticisms against the misinformation on The Heart Truths, before Mr. Roy Ngerng apologised to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for an unfounded accusation.
How can the government show trust in its people? If it wishes to?
It starts with proper communication. Then engagement and consultation. And this right to engage the people is not the sole preserve of the ruling party. Disappointingly Our Singapore Conversation appears to have run its course (and out of steam too), because besides the occasional dialogue at the constituency or a policy forum at the school opportunities for discussion are hard to come by. Surely more views from the ground can be sought?
The move from rhetoric to popular action is more challenging. While the Swiss models of direct or semi-direct democracy – where any citizen can draft petitions, and referendums will be arranged if a set number of signatures is obtained – have been cited as a linchpin of political stability, implementation seems improbable. The government could cite the fragility of racial or religious ties and the need to protect minorities, the influence of specific demagogues (particularly on the Internet), and the disruptive nature of these diverse referendums.
After all, it is constructive politics the government desires.
Perhaps the “We the People” platform in the United States is a more realistic inspiration. If an open petition reaches the signature threshold, the petition will be reviewed and responded to by the White House. If implemented in Singapore focus group discussions can be organised before concerns are published virtually. The common Singaporean concern of astro-turfing can also be addressed by tagging the petition system to the SingPass.
Critics might lament such populism. The government might end up pandering to whims and fancies, they posit. Yet trusting the people is just one part of the decision-making process. In the words of Lord Randolph Churchill – English statesman and father of Sir Winston Churchill – during a speech to support the formation of working men’s clubs, the strength of his conservative party was its cry for social reform, “producing direct and immediate benefit to the [House of Commons]”. Trust the people, he says, and they will trust you.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.