Implementing public policy: Timing is everything

I find it baffling that three experienced government bodies chose to release their joint statement on the various property cooling measures at 7pm on July 5, instead of closer to midnight (Buyers snap up over 1,000 units at three projects in one night; July 7).

The three agencies are the ministries of Finance, National Development and the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

The gap of five precious hours before the measures took effect at midnight led to a frantic rush by developers, property agents, bankers and buyers to seal whatever deals they could lay their signatures on.

It was a relief that no one got hurt in the unruly queues at show-flats all over the island as nervous investors scrambled to beat the deadline for their purchases. In the end, more than 1,000 units in three projects were sold under extremely stressful conditions.

Government measures should either be swift and decisive, as in the immediate suspension of a stock-listed firm that engaged in insider trading, or slow and steady, as in the early warning that taxes would be raised by 2 per cent after 2021.

Policy implementation must not lead to, even unwittingly, advantaging certain members of the public or leading them to make rash decisions. The 7pm announcement, regretfully, did harm both ways.

Buyers who caught wind of the announcement early that evening literally cut the queue ahead of those who had been given allotted booking numbers for that weekend. They also did so under extreme pressure and anxiety. What if they got their sums and loans wrong?

Would the authorities also hold themselves accountable had the crowds swelled to dangerous levels all over Singapore, and someone got seriously hurt?

What Government decision-makers did not factor into their policy execution is that announcing policy changes at 7pm only applies to businesses and corporations affected by the stock markets, which close for business at 5pm. Show-flats do not close at 5pm, sometimes not even at 7pm.

What this has taught us is simply that our policy formulators' sense of the ground was neither accurate nor anticipatory.

Government officials must think like stakeholders, work the ground harder and understand how public sentiments operate in order to ensure that policy implementation is overt and orderly. Their policy intentions may be good but the devil is always in the details.

Sunny Goh (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2018, with the headline 'Implementing public policy: Timing is everything'. Print Edition | Subscribe