Has trust in the government been eroded? It's time to talk frankly

Leaders talk of maintaining trust, but some say trust has already been eroded. Time to talk frankly.

Trust - that perennial issue - has been in the news again in recent weeks.

Last November, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stressed the need for the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) to maintain the trust of citizens. Speaking at the PAP party convention, he said: "The PAP earned the people's trust the hard way, and we must never take it for granted or fritter it away."

More recently, Minister Chan Chun Sing returned to the theme, in a speech on Jan 11 when he stressed the need for exceptional leadership that is able to build trust with Singaporeans, and in an interview with my colleague, Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez, last week.

Like PM Lee, Mr Chan warned against a trust deficit developing in Singapore. Mr Chan diagnosed that trust erodes if citizens feel their lives have not improved; and if they feel their government - or the media in this era of "fake news" - was not honest in their statements or efforts on how to improve citizens' lives.

He summed it up aptly: "The first question is a question of competence, the second is a matter of integrity."

He also stressed that leaders should be forthright and honest about the challenges and options facing the country.

That view of trust and its importance is something many Singaporeans will agree with. As Mr Chan has noted, founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once described the trust between government and people as the greatest asset.

But I also wonder if Singapore's leaders have listened hard enough to another group of Singaporeans - the one with deep-seated gripes about the Government - or simply waved their concerns aside.

Singapore's Parliament House. Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once described the trust between government and people as the greatest asset.
Singapore's Parliament House. Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once described the trust between government and people as the greatest asset. PHOTO: REUTERS

For this group, maintaining trust in Government is not the issue, because it has already been eroded. They may be a minority, but they are vocal, and with social media and technology, their views spread quickly and are amplified.

As someone from the media with some access to the political elite, who remains friends and in touch with ordinary folk remote from the centres of political power, I sometimes feel like I live in two worlds.

I defend the Singapore system to those who have lost confidence in it. I am proud of my country. I am also a product of the same system that produced the political elite - some schoolmates are in the top rungs of the public and political service. I too believe in the importance of exceptional, competent, honest government. I give our leaders the benefit of the doubt; I believe most mean well and are doing their best.

And I try to articulate the anger and despair of those who feel betrayed to the elite. For example, what might explain this erosion of trust among that group of Singaporeans so vocal about the issue?

I think one factor is that today's citizens may be expecting too much of their leaders, thinking back to the pioneering generation. In turn, leaders who hark back to the pioneering generation of ministers inadvertently invite such comparisons.

The pioneer generation lived through a world war, the Japanese Occupation, the fight for independence and economic upheaval. The bonds forged were deep. People looked up to leaders who were in general better educated than the masses, yet sacrificed professional careers and wealth to lead the country through independence and economic transformation.

Today's leaders oversee a mature economy with slowing growth. Many citizens are as well-educated, if not more, than their political leaders. Many have more global or business exposure than today's ministers, most of whom worked in the public sector before entering politics.

The intellectual and achievement gap between the ruler and the ruled has narrowed. Meanwhile, news and images of frequent train delays, lift malfunctions, decaying trees and bursting water pipes, widely shared on social media, all add to a sense that government agencies are falling short even on maintenance matters. If performance forms the bedrock of a trusting people-government relationship, alas, in some people's minds, even that is faulty.

Worse, when things go wrong, so the whispers go, blame is pushed down to the lower rungs.

Both Keppel Corp and SMRT have been in the news for what appear to be systemic issues. A Keppel subsidiary was fined by the US authorities for giving bribes in Brazil. The corruption trail lasted 14 years, from 2001 to 2014.

In SMRT, pumps were not maintained; worse, maintenance reports were falsified for over a year. These were discovered only after MRT tunnels were flooded last October when a pump failed to work.

In both organisations, those involved in the wrongdoing or their superiors faced disciplinary action, were dismissed, or are being charged or investigated. These are perfectly reasonable courses of action to take. But it says something of the corrosive climate of distrust that in some quarters, the grumble on the ground is that the penalties stop short of those at the top.

If such invidious views gain credence and become widespread, Singapore will be in serious trouble. The trust deficit can bankrupt the reservoir of goodwill between people and government.

The chorus of critics seems to be getting louder, and even erstwhile members of the political elite appear to be chiming in.

One sobering recent analysis came from former PAP MP Goh Choon Kang. In a commentary in Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao, translated and reprinted in The Straits Times on Dec 13, he wrote about the loss of trust between the elite and the masses. He was referring mainly to Western societies, not Singapore.

But he did warn against Singapore going the way of those Western democracies, where the elite had turned their back on the masses: "They lose touch with the masses even though they are in leading positions. They feel that their achievements today are based solely on their own capabilities and talent within the meritocracy implemented by society. They bask in their own successes, sing their own praises and no longer have the slightest empathy for the people, with the political parties fighting for power but unable to understand and sympathise with the public feeling.

"The system becomes such that it is your own problem if you cannot keep up with the times or are left behind. As a result, many pressing issues do not get proper attention. For example, jobs being outsourced or becoming short-term hired labour because of globalisation, job losses, workers facing job instability, wage stagnation, uneven distribution and a widening gap between the rich and the poor...

"Like mainstream political parties in other countries, the PAP may encounter issues of being too comfortable, of arrogance, slackness and losing touch with the grassroots because of its long-term rule, if it does not have sufficient awareness of potential problems or is unable to correct some possible problems in time."

Mr Goh's warning should be heeded.

Trust is a valuable commodity. It takes two to trust. A government that asks its people to trust it more, must be deserving of that trust. Trust is not a natural legacy a new generation inherits from its elders. As Mr Chan said, it has to be earned and maintained by each generation.

If some segments feel that trust has been eroded, the government has to first acknowledge that, before it can seek to restore and enhance it.

I think the political elite has to start addressing the reality: trust has been chipped away in some quarters, although hopefully it is not pervasive; or deep-seated, and can be repaired.

There are some encouraging signs that people-government relations can be put on a stronger footing.

First, the apathetic citizen is no more. Many Singaporeans who grew up on a diet of online news and discussion are politically engaged and interested. More are forming interest groups organically to reach out to others or help the less privileged. Many are involved in activist groups. Discussion on alternative routes for Singapore - in the social, political or economic realm - is robust and lively. All that is needed is for government leaders to open their doors and minds and engage with these active citizens. For a start, begin a serious, honest conversation about trust.

Second, this period of leadership transition, when the so-called fourth generation of leaders (4G) steps up, is a time of opportunity for a new generation of leaders to forge a new kind of bond with citizens.

The group of 4G leaders - who signed a statement saying they will decide on a leader among themselves in good time - is made up largely of those born after independence. They are more in tune with the mood of today's citizens.

They should step up more, articulate their vision of Singapore, and explain to Singaporeans just what they stand for. Apart from continuing with the usual narrative about the need for exceptional leaders, they could be telling a more nuanced story about the need for engaged citizens and how we can all work together for a better Singapore.

A government that trusts, empowers and consults citizens, making them feel respected and co-creators of the country's future, may be the best antidote to vocal critics and the cynics.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2018, with the headline Has trust in the government been eroded? It's time to talk frankly. Subscribe