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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

News Reports

Where’s my hearing aid?

I read the Prime Minister’s interview with local media several times and have concluded that what he said was pretty much what he’s been saying all along, like how we should be happy with a 2 to 3 per cent economic growth rate and how low productivity is a worrying thing.

He should have added, methinks, that we should be happy with a slower growth rate because indications are that we, the people, want it that way to have less of a pressure-cooker society….except that most people also expect that standard of living will go up exponentially as it did over all these years…

What I cannot understand is the extent of cynicism his comments are attracting online. His words are viewed with distrust, and people question his sincerity. Surely the proof of the pudding is in the eating? Actions speak louder than words?

Too many people are content to lay their dissatisfaction with anything at the G’s door, and I don’t just mean the online denizens. Like cost of living, like children having to study too hard, like every fee we have to pay. No one credits it for bringing down housing prices, for tweaking the education system to add non-academic portions, for bigger grants, subsidies and credits for struggling businesses, lower income households or the elderly.

One thing which caught my eye was what he said was his biggest regret: that the G didn’t ramp up infrastructure faster to fit the burgeoning population. He’s said it before and even said sorry, but it seems some people simply won’t let him forget it.

So the comments on G ineptitude and incompetence continue. I find it a trifle unfair. That’s because over the past three years, the G has been in overdrive in its efforts to ramp up its infrastructure, whether in housing or transport. The Population White Paper with its much-maligned 6.9 million planning parameter is still a looming spectre, despite a smaller inflow of foreign labour (which businesses are unhappy about) and a sort of cap on the number of new citizens each year.

“We do not want 6.9 million as a target but I want to have infrastructure… I want to get myself ready. If unexpected things happen, I can be prepared,” Mr Lee Hsien Loong said. “That is the attitude which the Government needs even more, and so does the population. And when things turn out not quite right, well, we accept that that is the way the world is.”

I have no idea what are the “unexpected things’’ he expects could happen, perhaps the happy situation when Singaporeans decide to procreate in greater numbers? In any case, I can see the point in planning for more, even if the numbers prove to be fewer. Hey, there will be more room everywhere for everyone!

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I’ve always maintained that the lax foreign worker policy of the past was the G’s biggest mistake. But it is more important to try to get to the root of the problem: How is it that the G didn’t see it coming? It’s like the leaders are so blind, so deaf or so dumb to the rising complaints over the years – or are somehow immune to the changes which affect the rest of the populace. This is not a Black Swan event. You can see it coming from a mile off…

The way the PM put it, it looked like this was somehow a bean-counting error.   “We have to plan in future less conservatively and try to be less precise in our prognostications,’’ he said. “At the time we thought we were doing the right thing – pacing it, measuring it out, building it when we needed it and not spending resources until we needed to spend them.”

Some people have posited that this is the outcome of a G which has been so long in power and has been so right in most of its decisions that it cannot conceive itself to be wrong. There is a kind of in-built confirmation bias. You also wonder who the greatest influences on government policy are – what are its grassroots people saying to the leaders? The things they want to hear? Or inconvenient truths?

Maybe those who grumble that the G “never listens’’ is right. At least on that score. And that it took an election result to jolt its hearing aid into place.

Now is the time to ask ourselves if, to use that lecturing phrase, it has “learnt its lesson’’. We should assess this based on what it has done over the past three years and whether we think there has been a new approach towards policymaking, one that takes into account not just what it thinks the people need, but also what they want.

People still say that the G “never listens to the people’’, but is it also vice versa? The G can try convincing people that policies must be based on the greatest good for the greatest number, and is best for the long-term future that they may not live to see. How many people, especially those affected adversely, can grasp this? Are they even listening?

One reason I can give for the people’s “deafness’’: that old ministerial salaries issue. I have said before that I consider it a slow poison which destroys the relationship between the government and the government governed and reduces it to a business contract, rather than the social compact it should be. It is the ultimate, un-arguable line: We pay you so much, you should get things right, in fact, perfect.

No mercy, no quarter given.

It’s not an issue that can be shoved under the carpet. Opposition parties have come up with different numbers although they too can be questioned for plucking numbers out of thin air. But the G isn’t engaging them on the issue. I think it’s time to slaughter this sacred cow, dismember its parts and see how we can put it together in a way that is palatable to most citizens. Surely, there are more minds that can be engaged on this? Is this really too hard to do? Impossible? If so, the G must keep convincing people on the principles behind the salaries they earn – which it must know by now is not well-accepted…

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At the bottom of it all, this is the people’s biggest beef – and the reason most people have placed their hands over their ears.

So how?

Written By

An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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