Why trust in Govt is key to acceptance of unpopular policies

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the importance of maintaining trust, at a time when the fourth generation of leaders takes up a bigger role in running the country.
Singapore is set to raise the GST from 7 per cent to 9 per cent some time between 2021 and 2025. The Government has to convince people that taxes are raised for the right reasons, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Singapore is set to raise the GST from 7 per cent to 9 per cent some time between 2021 and 2025. The Government has to convince people that taxes are raised for the right reasons, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.ST FILE PHOTO

The goods and services tax (GST), a hot topic of late in Singapore and Malaysia, has highlighted how trust is a crucial factor in determining whether citizens will accept or reject an unpopular policy.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made the point in Parliament yesterday when he spoke on the importance of constructive politics and good leadership.

In governing, leaders have to do difficult things from time to time when necessary and, to show leadership, they have to "explain, persuade and convince people that we know what we are doing, and we are doing it for good reason, and it is the right thing to do", he said.

"That is the way to maintain people's trust, and trust is crucial," added PM Lee.

But when the previous Malaysian government introduced the GST three years ago, people rejected its explanation that it was a necessary source of revenue.

They swung to Pakatan Harapan, the opposition coalition led by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, which had vowed during the election campaign to abolish the GST, and yesterday announced that the tax will be scrapped on June 1.

The decision was taken, PM Lee said, not because of the economic merits or demerits of the GST which, from an economic viewpoint, is better than the sales tax it replaced.

"But politically, Malaysians linked the GST with other complaints they had with the previous government... and they said no, I don't accept this, out with it.

"Does that mean that no government should ever raise taxes? Alas, that is not the real world. From time to time, the country will need to spend more - on health care, on defence, on education, or something else," he added.

If revenues are not enough, there is no choice but to raise taxes, PM Lee said. The government then has to convince people it is done for the right reasons.

"Whether the voters accept that will depend not just on the arguments, but also crucially on whether they trust the government... to do the right thing on their behalf even when it is painful."

He added: "This is the right lesson to learn."

Singapore will raise the GST from 7 per cent to 9 per cent some time between 2021 and 2025, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said in February this year.

PM Lee also said there is no fixed lifespan for a political party.

How long it stays in power - or in opposition - hinges on whether it can renew itself, continue to serve the people and bring progress to the nation. "If the PAP (People's Action Party) can keep on successfully doing that, we can stay in government. But if we ever fail, then we deserve to lose," he said.

This does not mean the Government will shy away from difficult problems, he added. "A government must govern. And if ministers are not prepared to govern, then give it up. Because that is your duty, that is what you are here for."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2018, with the headline 'Why trust in Govt is key to acceptance of unpopular policies'. Print Edition | Subscribe