The Online Citizen

Government engagement – the problem is looking for a solution

April 13
10:00 2012

~ By Howard Lee ~

If there is any reason to take heart that the Singapore government is doing all it can to engage Singaporeans in the wake of General Election 2011, it will have to be the statement by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Giving an early report card of-sorts for the People’s Action Party leadership since May 2011, PM Lee indicated that, “It's not just what the government does, it's also about how the electorate sees its role in the new environment, and how it sees it can contribute and what it thinks its responsibilities towards making the system work in a different way.”

This statement, understated thought it may sound, should have been a clear signal that the PAP has indeed learnt its lesson about consulting citizens and have embarked on an open-door approach to make itself more relevant to the electorate.

Hang on, wait for it. Here it comes: “"Because this is not about what more the government can do – of course the government must do all it can, that is its responsibility. But it's also how we can work together to make Singapore succeed. And that calls for Singaporeans to not just speak out, but also to participate and to feel the responsibility to do their part to make things happen the right way."

PM Lee seems more interested in defining a “new paradigm” for citizen engagement: That the government would consult citizens and take in their ideas and suggestions, but the ultimate purpose of such efforts is to do things the “right way”.

Surely this argument has been made before? In the simplest sense of reading this, by declaring that there is a right way of doing things, PM Lee has automatically pigeon-holed and segmented the two parties of every engagement attempt – the pro-progress ball-players who help to refine the government’s plans (i.e. the right way), and the regressive anti-social trouble-makers who are against the government’s plans, possibly all out to trip it (i.e. the wrong way).

Barely a year, and the new normal, it would seem, has reverted back to the old normal. At this point, I began to wonder if all the blood and tears that have been shed in May 2011 was really worth it.

What I find more worrying is whether the current administration purposefully does a spot of agenda setting – tried and tested, irritating, but not really harmful – or if it genuinely believes that it has attempted to engage citizens in a supposedly new compact – blissful ignorance, and infinitely more dangerous if it really thinks that is the way to go.

What ailed, and by all indications continue to ail, the current administration’s attempts at citizen engagement is that it is too focused on finding a solution, and not on the problem.

From that position, the very best brains in public service – and I mean this sincerely, credit to some of the smartest engineers and strategists hired – would invariably turn up with the “best solution”, involving the lowest cost, minimal disruption to everyday life, and generally one that makes policy makers think, “Why do we need to engage citizens in the first place?”.

Bukit Brown was one such case. Some pro-progress policy brain took a look at a neglected graveyard and thought no one would ever miss it. Surprise, then, when the plans met with a vocal push-back. By then, plans were drawn, and the Ministry for National Development was placed in a situation where it has to “compromise” on its plans. In such an argument, those who call for the conservation of Bukit Brown have already lost the battle of semantics, no matter what comes out of the token citizen engagement process.

Yet it is becoming clear that some citizens are beginning to doubt if the proposed highway would really relieve congestion as planned. Apart from voicing concerns, alternative proposals that try to address the indicated problem of congestion where also raised, and it remains to be seen if MND would be willing to back down from its original (and mildly modified) proposal and take these suggestions seriously, and in good faith of re-looking the problem.

The truth is, citizens often do not see and accept why the problem exists. It is not a denial of reality, but a mere sense that the way the administration has framed the problem is not quite right to begin with.

The case of elderly facilities at void decks is another such example. Clear lines were drawn between the implementers and those who say “not in my backyard” or NIMBY (word of advice: Labelling is a form of generalisation that puts you ahead in the PR game, but gets you nowhere if you want genuine, open engagement between equals). But lost somewhere in the narrative of the daily news is the hint that citizens generally accept a need for elderly facilities, but not necessarily in the way envision, and most definitely not in the best use of void decks. Were these concerns addressed and options explored? Not by the looks of it, particularly not if it is supported by right-wrong narratives, such as from a Member of Parliament that “the void deck is common space and approval need not be sought from the residents”.

We see these examples of focusing on the solution rather than the problem in specific cases where consultation has clearly failed, but also in broader policy moves, particularly in the wake of the Budget, that apparently does not to need consultation since everyone seems to like the idea.

Changes in housing and education policies that give more preference to citizens, for instance, were implemented without fuss and seemingly welcomed by citizens. And no doubt, they do provide short- to medium-term solutions to home ownership and parenting woes. But they are at best temporary band-aids that do not seem to have sight of the problem that they attempt to solve in the first place: The unchecked immigration policy that has led to competition for homes, places in schools, jobs, seats on the train…everything.

Strangely, if the current administration can even see the problem here, they might realise that most Singaporeans are not even against immigration or immigrants, but the seemingly loose criteria that has been used to define and let in “foreign talent”, with no clear indication that the majority have added more jobs to our economy, while anecdotal evidence points out that they are competing with citizens for them, compounded by the absence of clearly defined “citizens first” policies for employers. And throwing in the argument that “we are competing in the global job market anyway” just does not cut it, when there is no supporting evidence to show how many Singaporeans have the opportunity or luxury to compete in the global employment market.

It is not all doom and gloom for the current administration’s best, or worst, efforts at engaging citizens. The development of the KTM land parcels seems to have gotten on to a good start. For once, the government seems to have approached it with a clean slate, giving citizens free play in defining their own ideas about how the land should be used. While development is mandatory, development at all (reasonable) cost is not yet the mantra, and sustainable development has not been ruled out. But if we were to take a look at such efforts since May 2011, such consultative efforts might be the exception rather than the norm.

Indeed, what the PAP needs to do is to go to the root of the problem. Some citizens might be interested in helping to devise solutions, and it is always easy to make a sham out of engagement by finding the right and willing parties. But if this administration is genuine about citizen engagement, it most first take the humble pill and accept that in everything it plans to do – yes, consider everything – it might be looking at things the wrong way to begin with. This sure beats crying foul later, throwing labels like “nay-sayers”, and basically regressing to the old methods of “retrospective consultation”.

It is not about the detriment of delaying progress, but the benefit of having gone back, realise “why haven’t I thought of it like that”, and actually finding the best way, not the right way, to understand and solve a problem.


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  • leehsientow

    In an ideal post-GE2011, post-PE2011 Singapore, Howard Lee's approach would have been a natural correction of the arrogant way the PAP has been doing things. Unfortunately, it is clear – going by its words and actions so far – that the PAP is not interested in doing anything other than in its way, whatever the wishes of the electorate. It is not keen on engaging anyone; everything being done is wayang and tokenism. 
    Everything continues to be a standoff – between the long suffering true-blue Singaporeans and the hardline ruling party. To make matters worse, we are all in a "hung" political situation where an ailing strongman is still around whose ability to eject any current PAP leader so foolish as to "bow" to "popular" pressure is still not doubted. 
    This is the tragedy of Singapore 2012, of born-and-bred Singaporeans who have naively handed their destiny carte blanche to someone whom they used to respect and admire but who is now belatedly seen as just another self-perpetuating mini Chinese emperor.. 

  • Robert Teh

    The basic attitudes of PAP cannot change. They are the kind of people who believe that they are the best and not listening to the people or anyone. They are simply elitist, in their character and as such they are at heart selfcentered and anti-people, going all out to use their power to go for pro-control legalistic PAPigulating of laws and power to serve their own selfcentered agendas to stay in power.

    As long as these basic attitudes are not changed, Singaporeans will have to brace themselves to continue to suffer from all the taxing and profiteering scams of all kinds which are worse than the Nigerian scam aimed at serving the self-centered and selfish agendas of PAP.

    So far, even after PM Lee has been forced during GE2011 to make apologies angy people he has not changed the basic elitist behaviors. He has continued running with the same hard-lined policies of taxing and profiteering continue unabated resulting in further cost increases through the privatized public services. These problems could have been avoided if PAP is really changing to being pro-people and pro-service with doing of the right things in the right way. Nothing happens. What we are seeing will be more PAPocrisy to avoid real change. PAPPYCOCKS are simply too selfish to change their elitism and selfish nature. The only solution is for the 60.1% to see their jobs being taken away by foreigners and their costs of living and housing rising further to shock them into throwing out the PAPPYCOCKS totally by GE2016.

  • View Finder

    For the sake of the sincerity expressed in your article, I wish that what you are proposing will come true.
    However, the reality is that this is a government that has never learnt to listen because they do not think that there is anything the citizens can say that might actually contain the solutions that could benefit us all. I am convinced that they do not even consider that we all have a right to this country and that we are invested to make it into something that we could all be proud of. That this is Singaporeans' Singapore and not LKYs or the PAPs Singapore.
    The attitude of this PAP government has always been that they know what is best for Singaporeans without needing to consult with Singaporeans. And when they do make a show of consulting with citizens, they pay lip service to wanting to right the concerns raised without having to really do it.
    All the recent programs to give tangible benefits to those who call ourselves citizens are at best forms of tokenism. It is making a show of caring but not really having to change anything. It is going to take a lot more for the PAP to prove that it is truly making decisions for the welfare of Singaporeans and not for the party and those who affiliate themselves with the party.
    The PAP suffers from being partial to itself.

  • Charles Goh

    Thank you for writing this article. I believe it will strike a chord in every Singaporean who love this country. Thank you again.

  • son of s

    At bottom the knuckleduster  has not been taken off and kept aside. We still have judges who predictably do what the Regime wants and not what the law dictates, we still have the prowling ISD who attack people at the will of their political masters, we still have officeholders who draw lottery like salaries, we still have them opening their mouths to insult the citizenry on the rare occasions when they do open their mouths, we still have the shiploads of foreign wreckage to boost the GDP and the baby boom myth etc, etc ,etc 
    There is no one amongst the 80 odd parliamentarians who agree to think independently, act and do their duty as leaders.. All follow the spasmodic utterances of the two leaders at the top and merely act as their chorus as in  a Greek play. 

  • BK

    The problem is they still and always think that they are the best, not only in Singapore but the whole world. It can be seen in the way they shamelessly blow their own trumpets and the “unjustifiable” salary they pay themselves. It has long reached a point where this “the best” thinking becomes a religion. Why then do you think they need to engage the citizens for ideas. It is all WAYANG.

  • wellsaid

    Very good article, spot on wrt the real issues PAP is having with Singaporeans.  LHL will do well to heed the nuggets of wisdom in the analysis.  
    But I fear that LHL as the son of the father is caught between "the devil and the deep blue sea".  Hope LHL has the wisdom to choose the "deep blue sea" as it presents unlimited opportunities for building a new ocean going Singapore ship that can ride the waves of globalisation. 

  • Gjion Beyonce

    "Because this is not about what more the government can do – of course the government must do all it can, that is its responsibility. But it's also how we can work together to make Singapore succeed. And that calls for Singaporeans to not just speak out, but also to participate and to feel the responsibility to do their part to make things happen the right way."
    Since when has any policy before conceptualization and implementation been subjected to our final say? It was always the 'right way' from the onset and citizens were only informed of their intent after they had decided. This is followed up with pseudo-consultations with the people to placate any criticism. If Singaporeans are starting to use the ballot boxes to beckon them to listen it is through no fault of theirs.

  • Rodolfo

    PM Lee was stating the obvious. The PAP should have learnt this long ago but chose to stick to its top down approach and unidirectional communication.

  • son of s

    There are models of public participation carried out in Britain which this Government should have known about. i am referring to how the public view was canvassed and  taken into account when Britain was deciding on her third airport, the reuse of their docklands and many minor and major landuse planning projects, indeed the master land use plan of Britain  itself. In not a single instance was the Gordon's Head  completely conceptualized  placed before the citizenry for a fake public  participation.
    The PAP is using a fake form of public participation, a fake form of  democracy and a fake form of communism, all fake in order to carry on the  most profitable  and easiest  plunder of a country in modern times to the applause of the International community who have  been fed  with  faked narratives all these 5 decades..  

  • cc chia

    The PAP and the Leefamily are hypocrites who have only their own interests in mind in anything that they do. If there are any benefits to the citizens from the policies of the Singapore government, it is only a byproduct of the "bigger plan" to reap more rewards to the PAP and their cronies.
    The only solution for the citizens to gain control of the government is vote wisely at the next G.E. (hopefully those who are not pro-PAP will continue to fall to less than 50% of the votes this time round).

  • son of s

    The greatest fake of all by the PAP cadre  was baiting us with the lure of wooing talented foreigners into Singapore and ending up with importing shiploads of foreign wreckage altogether todate numbering two thirds of  our indigenous population, all done in 5 short years.
    Some say another great fake of the PAP was likening themselves to top CEOs of the top Financial Institutions, so to extort  from the public purse lottery like salaries for their officeholders. 

  • cc chia

    @son of s, the PAP government is not a democracy or communist, it is a fascist dictatorship that is masquerading as a parliamentary democracy. 

  • lousy

    I work in the Uni n seeing these trash work make me puke. Worst, some of them has attitute prob. Yet here, we address them as talent. Worst, we are being labelled as QUITTER.
    You want fairness.,Start from your own backyard, Do not produce anything significant yet still shaking legs in d UNI is NOT acceptable. Please SHOW RESULT not statistics and POLISH DATA

  • son of s

    @cc Chia, thanks for your  more precise terms to describe the Singapore Government. A fascist dictatorship would sink  us even faster especially when very few in the Intenational community realise that the Singaporean is in danger at the hands of  his own Government. But every  population which suffers do so at the hands of its own Government, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria,the old Timor Leste…..Instead of straight genocide we have a swamping of the indigenous population by shiploads of  foreign population. There are manny ways to do the cat in.

  • 2016

    All we need is two or more party system
    In 2016

  • Vinren

    I asked alot of my friends that drive whether is it really congested on the road if everyone drive in a comfortable speed and follow the basic rule? There are alot of vans and slow moving vehicles driving along the third or second lane on expressway at all time especially peak hour nowadays and have no intention of keep left lane( Anyone facing the same problem).During my time on my basic theroy, all slow moving vehicle should keep to the left that is the 4th lane unless overtaking, but not to the extend to 2nd or even 1st lane! I believe if this basic rules are follow, the road will be more smoothly than now, cos just think if expressway with 4 lanes but 3 lanes are all occupy by slow moving vehicle will the road be smooth? Plus lately, I saw alot of roadworks or plants prunting on the day and even peak hours, in the past is always done in the night hours. By adding more new roads doesnt mean the congested problem will be solved. True?


    to  truly want to  'engage singaporeans',the first thing the govt needs to do is to RETURN DECENT JOBS(livelihoods) to HONEST SINGAPOREANS.

  • Chris Lim

    Reference leehsientow comments.
    As Mr. S. Dhanabalan said in Mr. Goh Keng Swee's eulogy, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew sets the political agenda. 
    In my view, the rest must be "politically passive but not naive", just to quote a recent phrase used by Ngiam Tong Dow to describe civil servants then.  Click through

  • Saran

    Want to engage is it? Fix the discrimination that locals face cos of cheaper wages and losing out most of time simply cos of wages!
    Fix the inequitable ridiculous policy that allows for PRs to partake of so-called public housing and dont forget it is a legacy of MBT ineptitude ( or greed?) and a policy outcome that is denying singpaoreans a roof over their heads.
    It is funny is it not, that MIWs set up a committe and subtly ask for minimum wages, why are citizens denied this? Employers are exploiting these lacunae and discriminating and many are losing jobs cos of these.
    One can go and add …. and till these is rectified, reconciled or measures are put in  n  tangliblly felt and transforms citizens' lives qualitatively, all talk is bereft of meaning.

  • Smudger

    It is pedantic to keep suggesting old wine in a new bottle.

  • Robert Teh

    PAPITOCRACY is the root cause of our current rich-poor divide. To solve our problems, we need to have the power returned back to the people with overhaul of the whole parliamentary, executive and judiciary separation of power to one which is institutionalized with process management. Read "Change" at

  • Bent

    Analysts were right, the government appears to be softer in approach but they will do the same.
    What they call, pretend to listen.

  • Repackaged PAP bullshit

    Government engagement is just repackaged PAP bullshit.  The pro-alien party (PAP) is a spent force and cannot be trusted.  Time to throw it out of Parliament.    

  • David

    The best change, no matter how, is to dilute PAP seats in parliament. Only than, we can truly call it the real change. Otherwise, it is always the same white clowns barking – in different tones. 

  • Robert Teh

    Agreed with you that the best change is to vote out PAP or reduce drastically their seats in parliament.

  • fair fare

    the govt tries so deam hard to 'DISENGAGE' us with their various policies,the most notorious one being the FT POLICY;AND,NOW,THEY ARE SAYING THEY WANT TO ENGAGEthe same singaporeans they have disnegaged in the firstn place?
    i am perplexed by this complexity in thoughts and words?
    i believe more in ACTION!

  • iAMahMENG

    there is a GREAT chinese sayins….
    if you cannot swim..don't wear a trunk that too big for you
    singapoor is a mere tiny red dot..yet cannot run sim city where violence crime and political aparthy is totally unheard off…
    primeister lee..cannot be towgay..retired lark…
    don't you feel shamed compared to a kiwi woman primeister?

  • Robert Teh

    The fact that PAPPYCOCKS are against professor Lim Chong Yah's proposal to restructure the wages of the lower-income earners clearly prove one thing – our system of government has gone to the dogs. The ministers are serving their own self-interests of self-glorifications and not caring about the welfare and wellbeing of the lower-income earners who are sacrificial lambs on the altar of capitalism.

  • son of s

    The problem of our lowest rung of workers need a solution. The free influx of cheap labour has thrown our lowest paid workers out of sync with the living costs in Singapore. Not that other categories of workers are unaffected, they are even more affected, but they have the capacity so far to withstand the joblessness and the drastically lowered living circumstances.. For the lowest rung of  Singaporean workers, the flood of cheap labour from the region is especially serious  as it causes them either not to be able to work at all or to work at a steep pay cut.
    Consider how the living expenses of a Singaporean sweeper and a foreign sweeper differs. The foreign sweeper will sleep in a dormitory, occupying a bed and share meals cooked communally. This represents a great saving of expenses. Moreover the strong Singapore dollar is a great boon when they send back some money to their home countries to support their families.
    The Singaporean sweeper has to support his family right here in this high cost environment. He or she is mostly older than the foreign sweeper and is at a stage of life which requires heavy expenses to support children and parents and even to support their own health costs.
    So our sweeper can never compete with the foreign sweeper on all counts and employers prefer to save costs and have less responsibility over their workers. Thus the Singaporean sweeper is hit hard by the influx of people into his niche. You can extrapolate this scenario with every sort of worker, even professionals.
    I see that the present situation with the lowest rung Singaporean  worker is dire. They work the whole day and still are unable to meet their daily costs. This is the true situation engendered by free access to foreign labour and justifying it by  chanting the mantra of meritocracy, globalisation etc. The point is that the Government  should have anticipated the swarming of our local workforce not by the talented, but by the cheap. Those highly paid parliamentarians have their brains stuck and mouths gummed because they do not wish to rock their own boat by telling the truth and working for the truth. Their multi million dollar  is a great obstacle to the performance of their duties. This makes their eyes follow the leader too closely in awe and trembling. No one among the 80 odd parliamentarians have the initiative to look for a solution to this problem. Indeed they have imbibed the implicit instruction not to think of anything or solve anything without first having heard of the solution from the top dog and got his instruction to move it..

  • son of s

    The social ills of some communities in Singapore stem directly from people being unable to work at a living wage. I cannot name the communities because that may be wrongly construed and I do not want to belittle any group pf people. However in order to make my point I have to make indications which may be vague.
    There are communities in Singapore that are most badly hit by the influx of cheap cheap foreign labour. They  have the highest divorce rates of all other communities.. They are so harassed by life that they take the lives of their own children or step children at the slightest instigation.
    A Government which keeps a blind eye on an obvious problem of  tragic human dimensions must be taken to task. We do not expect that the Government hands out hot cash to them. These are always not enough. We want the Government to stop importing ultra cheap labour, which makes nonsense of the lives of some sections of the community, The Minister in Charge of this community is clueless  or pretends to be clueless about the problem of poverty stricken youths unable to get the lowest jobs and even getting the lowest jobs at steep reduction from what was payable before the Tsunami of foreign wreckage. This is a problem looking for a solution. The tragedy of repeated child slaughter in  broken marriages is not one to disregard and avoid with glib justifications and a shaking of heads..