Speaking at the debate on the President’s address on Wednesday (16 May), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that gaining people’s trust remains an important aspect of successful leadership.
The Premier said that a lack of trust would prevent a government from leading the country well as it will not “dare to do painful but necessary things. Politics [then] becomes the art of pandering – a bidding war between parties, who can give more, who can offer more”. The government needed “to explain, persuade, and convince people that we know what we are doing, and we are doing it for good reason. That is the way to maintain people’s trust, and trust is critical.”
PM Lee cited the implementation of GST in Malaysia as an example. He said that there was great unhappiness when the BN decided to implement the tax 3 years ago. As there was a lack of trust, “Malaysians linked the GST with other complaints they had against the previous government, and they rejected the explanations and persuasions and they said no, I don’t accept this, out with it”.
He added that this should not be the case “in the real world” as from “time to time the country will need to spend more – on healthcare, on defence, on education, or something else – and if revenues are not enough, it will have no choice but to raise taxes. Then the government must convince the population that it is raising taxes for a good reason, for the right reason”.
He added that “voters have to trust the government to do the right thing on their behalf, even when it is painful”. This was because “for every right argument, you can produce five doubtful ones which look quite plausible. And in elections, there is no shortage of producers of such arguments. And people can get confused. Finally, they have to decide, who they will trust. What is their track record?”
Has trust already been eroded?
The answer may be yes, according to international observers.
According to Associate Professor Michael Barr from the Flinders University, 2017 was a “horrible” and “particularly messy year” for the PAP and it did not “bode well for the longevity of the Lee Kuan Yew model of governance”.
One example was how the lack of a confirmed candidate for the next Premier was causing concern for Singaporeans. The Professor wrote that the electorate had grown to “expect long lead times for prime ministerial succession planning – generally a warning of five years or – [and] concern is starting to grow that no clear successor has either been named or emerged”. This was despite Lee’s promise to find a successor after GE2015.
Another example given was Singapore’s worst train breakdowns which occurred last October as a result of a failed water pump. Despite causing a 20-hour shutdown and a subsequent discovery that maintenance records had been falsified, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan thanked CEO Desmond Kuek for ‘volunteering’ in a $1.87 million per year job and having his “heart in the right place”.
Professor Barr said that this “episode of ordinary mismanagement was politically significant because it highlights an established pattern of widespread administrative failures and deteriorating government services under Lee’s watch” and that it “also confirmed the perception that highly paid ‘establishment’ figures are protected from the consequences of their actions”.
He then cited another example where “Lee offered similar protection to former deputy prime minister and minister for home affairs Wong Kan Seng when he let an alleged terrorist escape police custody. Wong retained his positions in Cabinet for another three years because Lee stated he had only made “an honest mistake”.
The reserved Presidential Election was also another factor that may have contributed to the erosion of Trust. Isabel Chew and Kai Ostwald from the University of British Columbia said that “correctly or incorrectly, many voters saw Halimah’s 2017 reserved election as a means to pre-empt an unfavourable outcome that could have occurred in an open election, particularly since no candidate aside from the establishment favourite was deemed eligible”.
So, given these episodes as described from the perspective of international observers, how much of trust have you lost in the PAP?