The politics of discontent

Coming to terms with increasing political diversity is a necessity as festering discontent can imperil Singapore, as former president S R Nathan notes in his latest book. That theme was usefully parsed at the Singapore Perspectives conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies. Of course, the discontent that digital media amplifies is hardly endemic in all quarters. Public trust in the Government remains high at 75 per cent last year, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, down from 82 per cent in 2013. That compares well against levels in other developed countries such as Japan, Germany and Britain, which have slipped below 50 per cent.

Yet, it cannot be ignored as discontent can lead to blamestorming and insinuations. It chips away at the foundations of trust reposed in politicians elected to lead the country. And it complicates the task of navigating difficult terrain, for example, the economic restructuring and political renewal of a nation.

Singapore's particular quandary is that, even as support for the ruling People's Action Party has waned in polls, no other group is ready to take its place in forming a government. This lends an edge to political contestation which had been muted over many decades. To the opposition, diversity is framed as a means of checking the ruling party. To voters, choice is wielded as a threat to advance individual or group interests. And social media amplifies all voices of discontent, often as a means of attracting attention to itself.

These represent obstacles to compromise and consensus. While voters are rightly concerned with access to good jobs, homes, schools and health care, an exclusively individual approach to such needs tends to emphasise competition rather than the larger, public interest at stake in national policies.

The work of finding common ground must continue because once polarisation sets in, it can become exceedingly difficult to find policy alternatives acceptable to the total population, as US political science academic Arthur H. Miller warned.

In balancing social stability and calibrated change to accommodate the demands of different groups, a degree of bonding is a must between the elected and the electorate. How politics develops will depend to a large extent on how well a new generation of ministers and MPs bonds with the people. In highlighting this issue recently, the Prime Minister drew attention to the personal empathy, commitment and energy which political leaders should be capable of.

Singapore has thrived on the quality of its leaders and the ties they forged with citizens. The future will depend no less on such fundamentals, especially if society becomes more diverse and more demanding over time.