Matching expectations with realities

A survey by this newspaper of public perceptions of policies, midway through this term of government, threw light on two overlapping patterns. First, the Government's handling of some issues since the 2011 General Election, such as housing, is seen to be better than others, notably transport. These two issues were among seven policy areas surveyed, the others being the elderly, the poor, health care, education, and foreign workers and immigrants. Second, the particular needs of demographic groups came to the fore. In particular, the middle-class sandwiched generation displayed discomfort, with those aged 35 to 44 tending to be most negative about issues such as health-care affordability. The survey findings are in line with anecdotal soundings from the ground, even if inevitable margins of error in such polls are considered.

A panel of three Members of Parliament and two policy research scholars, convened to discuss the survey, was divided on the implications of its findings, but there is no doubt that the second half of Parliament's term will be crucial in matching policies with expectations. While the Government does try to produce and implement policies that benefit Singaporeans across the board, the challenge for it is to fine-tune them to meet sectoral aspirations more closely where possible. As the Singapore economy evolves, addressing economic disparities and divergent public perceptions will become a more onerous task.

What will help is greater convergence of popular expectations and official abilities. Just as the Government needs to mitigate the socially divisive effects of certain economic trends, each citizen needs to understand that his demands, while legitimate, are not the only demands being made on the state. The more Singaporeans see their own needs as part of a national list of priorities, the more they are willing to make allowances for the competing needs of others, the more will it be possible for policies to be crafted that can benefit broad swathes of the public over time. This is one way in which a maturing polity could contribute to the ideal of the public good. By contrast, interest group-based, adversarial politics encourages the notion of getting away with as much as one can. Singapore deserves a richer public discourse than that.

It is reassuring that Singaporeans are confident and optimistic that things will get better in time. Singapore is very much a product of policies that create growth, jobs and wealth, that motivate people to work hard, and that encourage initiative and risk-taking. Even as the Government pays greater attention to economic equity and distributive justice, it is essential that it adheres to the economic and social values that have brought the country so far.