“Before announcing the water tariff hike last month, the Government perhaps should have spent more time explaining the rationale and what it would be doing to help households cope” (Water Price Hike ‘Absolutely Necessary’ But Should Been Explained Better: PM Lee, TODAY).
After the Population White Paper generated concerns and controversy over the projected population figure of 6.9 million by 2030, and sparking a series of angry protests at Hong Lim Park in 2013, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong conceded that communication of the said roadmap could have been improved. “We will be examining our experience with this White Paper very carefully to see how we can do better next time”, Mr. Lee added, noting further that the “Our Singapore Conversation” endeavour should create platforms for Singaporeans to not only share their perspectives, but to also better understand policy decisions and trade-offs.
Four years later, a 30 per cent water tariff increase is announced at Budget 2017, and again the prime minister is acknowledging the government’s shortcomings in communication. “Before announcing the water hike last month, the government perhaps should have spent more time explaining the rationale and what it would be doing to help households cope” (Mar. 25, TODAY), and these remarks echo the frustration and the confusion when the White Paper was rolled out. Then, the 6.9 million figure dominated the discourse. Now, the 30 per cent figure is doing the same. Even if Singaporeans are cognisant of the policy need for the hike – that prices have not gone up since 2000, or that infrastructure investments are expensive, for instance – the details are lost in the noise. Few paid attention to the hike over two phases, or the assistance rendered to the lower-income households too.
Notwithstanding limitations to its methodology, a survey by the government’s own feedback unit Reach reflects this same point. 43 per cent of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with the reasonableness of increasing water prices “to fund the higher costs of water production and to encourage water conservation”, yet Singaporeans understood the rationale behind the move “after various agencies and political office-holders had explained the increase” (Mar. 23, TODAY). The problems of policy design or implementation must be sussed out, though ultimately there is little disagreement that communication has been poor.
And communication is not limited to just public education. In this context, the content of the message and discursive elements are important. First, to quantitatively justify the hike, the increased revenue can be matched to the expense in infrastructure, technology, or other needs. Details of aid and assistance, moreover, can be fleshed out to address concerns about socio-economic equity. Second, communication should be a two-way process, and in this vein critical questions from the public must be embraced. Related to the first point, how was the 30 per cent figure derived? Why is there a 17-year gap between the increases? And – with a more informed populace, clamouring to be more involved – what were the alternatives, and how did they compare to one another?
Unless constructive improvements are met, the next major policy roll-out or announcement may once again conclude with the same, tired concession that government communication has to improve, but with nothing tangible or substantial to show for.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.