Is the PAP really listening, or just hearing us?

Image - The Straits Times
Image – The Straits Times

By Howard Lee

“(ESM Goh Chok Tong) noted that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Government had listened to the people since the last election and accelerated many plans and programmes. So if Singaporeans are happy with what has been done, they should give the ruling party “a strong mandate to continue with what they are trying to do”, said Mr Goh.” – MyPaper, 27 August 2015

Shortly after I published the response by the Ministry of Health to my query on the Medishield Life issue for overseas Singaporeans, petition lead Juliet Low informed me that she has received a similar response from MOH following the submission of her petition to caretaker Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.

In fact, it was more than similar. “An exact copy” would have been a better description. Both response letters had an almost paragraph-for-paragraph mirror, and both were littered with shared phrases like “national risk pool”, “collective responsibility”, “help Singaporeans pay”, “subsidies”, “request for assistance”, “assess accordingly”, “non-payment of premiums in itself is not an offence that will lead to imprisonment”, “lifelong coverage”, “wilfully ignored”, “imposed on wilful defaulters as a last resort”, “smooth implementation of MediShield Life”, “review our policies”, and “seek the views of the MediShield Life Council”.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at the image below. The letter Juliet received is on the left, while the one I received is on the right. Both were sent by different people in MOH’s quality service management department, on the very same day.

MOH letters Medishield Life petition

Suffice to say that someone came in with a check list of keywords to use in any correspondence regarding Medishield Life, cross-checked against the online FAQs, and pushed out two adapted drawer statements. And who knows how many more of such statements have been sent out already, and more to come after November 2015.

Sadly, drawer statements are for standard queries, not for an instance where 1,700 (and counting) petitioners knock on your door asking for a dialogue on a very specific issue. Are 200,000 overseas Singaporeans not worth the time of the Minister?

For media, perhaps drawer statements are par for the course. Frankly, I wasn’t hopeful for an answer at all, so kudos to MOH for responding. But to a concerned Singaporean with real issues, the matter could have been better addressed. How about a simple, “Thank you for the feedback, very good points made, we are currently reviewing, how do we contact you for a meet up to discuss, do you Skype?”

All we see here is a sincere petition sent to the Minister diverted to customer service, and a PR mechanism kicked in automatically to shield the Minister – who by all counts has a lot to answer for directly given that Medishield Life is a key piece of legislation that would affect the lives of all Singaporeans, and repeatedly paraded as a sign of the government doing something good for Singapore since the last GE.

All we see is a very well-oiled corporate communications operation, which sadly leaves very little room for attending to the specific needs of citizens. And for that, we have failed as a system that has been prattling on about consultation and conversations – including one done on a massive national scale to which a follow-up platform is still lacking.

How can Singaporeans be convinced, then, that our politicians are listening to their concerns? Here we are, offering valid criticisms to loopholes, even potential pitfalls in Acts already passed in Parliament, and the response has been “we are still good to go, we’ll think about it and let you know”?

Clearly, hearing is not the same as listening, and the PAP is deluded if it thinks it is doing citizens right.

NDR2015 LHL PMOIronically, ESM Goh Chok Tong’s latest words on the government listening might not hold ground, and if you do a word search on caretaker PM Lee Hsien Loong’s 2015 National Day Rally speech, you will find that he alluded to listening to citizens three times, and not every time leading to concrete policies. On the other hand, he used “tell” up to five times to communicate his policies to citizens, including one where another Minister is supposed to deliver some policy initiative. Go figure.

Juliet, in particular, is clearly exasperated with the what is happening, as she felt that MOH has not addressed any of the concerns raised.

“We have done this in a manner that respects Mr Gan himself and we hope that he will reply in a respectable manner to our concerns as well,” she had written back to MOH saying. “We raised an official petition. We went through the proper channels… However, we want this to be addressed, not to be swept under the carpet!”

“We want to be part of the consultation process with the Medishield Life Council. There has been decisions made on behalf of Overseas Singaporeans when none of us have been duly consulted, and poor assumptions about our situation had been made. This is not fair policy making. We are part of your focus of a “smooth implementation of MediShield Life”. That is your collective national duty towards us as Overseas Singaporeans.”

Gan Kim Yong
Health Minister Gan Kim Yong

Perhaps this brush with Medishield Life is an isolated case, but I have my doubts. Perhaps the bureaucratic machinery is deliberately decoupled from the Minister, but it really shouldn’t be.

At this time more than any, the PAP needs to convince the people that what it has been doing has been a direct response to ground sentiments. The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. It suggests a government machine that is still too willing to proceed as planned, and consultation would be done only at a time it is comfortably with – usually when the deed has already been done.