Saturday, March 11, 2006

Will bochap S'poreans respond when they are asked to participate?

While our feedback unit had been around for many years it is clear that most Singaporeans are ignorant about our politics and public policies. (Singaporeans are somewhat rather infamous for having no opinions.)

The situation is probably the opposite for Malaysia, where the general populace know much more about what is going on in the country but are unable to contribute to the public policy making process.

Now that the Malaysian govt is trying harder to engage its citizens, I wonder will Singaporeans be more active in participating in the public policy making processes by making better use of our feedback unit.

Of course our feedback unit must also be further strengthened. This can be done increasing public awareness about it. The headcounts in the department should also be increase so as to cope with the increase in workload and increase its responsiveness to the public feedbacks.

Most importantly, the feebacks and opinion polls collected must be taken seriously by the govt ministries for the endeavour to work.

Weekend, March 11, 2006
The apolitical singaporean
He doesn't know much, won't get involved and can't accept that he's part of the process

Lee u-wen

WITH a General Election on the horizon, Faye Tan says she almost can't wait to vote, if she gets the chance of course.

But ask her to name some political parties in Singapore, and she sheepishly shrugs her shoulders before saying: "I know the People's Action Party (PAP)," before pausing briefly and adding: "And the other one with a hammer thing."

When told that the "hammer thing" was the symbol used by the opposition Workers' Party, she admitted: "Oh. Actually I don't know why they are even opposing in the first place."

A series of simple political questions later, the 37-year-old mother of two was prepared to throw in the towel.

"Who's my MP? I don't know. I've never met him before. I know there are some banners displayed nearby with their faces. But unless you have issues, you probably won't bother to find out," said the real estate agent, who lives in Bedok, which is part of East Coast GRC. Almost self-deprecatingly, she describes herself as "ignorant", admitting that she ought to know a lot more about the political system she subscribes to.

Unsurprisingly, Ms Tan is not alone.

In a recent survey of more than 500 people conducted by the Political Development Feedback Group, a body under the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), 63.4 per cent of Singaporeans said they knew little or nothing about the Constitution and the organs of state.

But wait, it gets more worrying.

• Two-thirds or more than 66 per cent of Singaporeans believe that they have little or no influence at all on national issues.

• A whopping 92.7 per cent have never given feedback to the Government.

• 94.9 per cent have never written letters to a newspaper.

• And 94.5 per cent don't know what it's like to sign a petition.

A reason for this level of political apathy, said Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) fellow Terence Chong, is that most Singaporeans tend to automatically "switch off" when it comes to matters related to politics.

"Good governance is usually defined as efficient, honest and transparent governance. As such, the political empowerment and participation of citizens, which is sometimes messy and noisy, may actually be seen by some as a hindrance to the smooth operation of good governance," said Dr Chong.

Expressing not worry but rather "concern" over Singaporeans' lack of knowledge about basics such as the constitution, he said such a culture and mindset here is perhaps the result of the ruling PAP's effectiveness in running the country.

"It could mean the PAP government has been so successful in delivering the basic amenities that its role and presence have become invisible to most citizens, paving the way for us to lead happy, contented shopping mall lives," he remarked.

A question of engagement

Nominated MP and lawyer Chandra Mohan said that the large number of Singaporeans who said they were disengaged and uninterested in local politics surprised him.

"With the population being more educated now -- many have at least a Secondary Four qualification -- I expected a far better response," he said.

However, he said that it was "not essential" to rate politics as the most important in facet in life.

"I don't think there has been a strong interest in politics here over the last few decades. But we must consider what it would take to make people interested. To many, politics is not important because they are not in power and cannot make changes."

Could the fact that many Singaporeans don't get to vote due to the lack of contested wards at the General Elections play a part in the apathy displayed?

Holland-Bukit Panjang GRC MP Dr Teo Ho Pin begs to disagree.

"I think that this is about the level of confidence, rather than apathy. In order to ensure that this confidence does not create complacency, the Government has to make sure there are checks and balances, and that they continue to attract good people of good integrity and honesty."

He added that he was unfazed by the results. Said Dr Teo: "What I'm worried is if people do not contribute constructively in various forms. And already, there are people who contribute in forms by engaging in Voluntary Welfare Organisations, Non-Governmental Organisations. What's more important is to create greater ownership among Singaporeans and make them more active in society."

Sociologist Tan Ern Ser added that the interpretation of such surveys depended on the benchmarks employed. He said: "If 30 per cent say they are interested, is this high or low? I would say it's high, if we consider that Singaporeans have been described as apolitical, and the system is depoliticised."

"More importantly, 30 per cent equals to almost a million people in a population of three million citizens. My conclusion is that interest and propensity are higher than actual participation."

But political commentator and academic Dr Ho Khai Leong believes that the nonchalance evident in the survey is "on the high side", and blames the country's education system.

"It's a reflection of our lack of political education in schools. Such education should start from young. But we cannot blame the sons and daughters of Singapore, we should blame the policy makers who have given them very little exposure," he said.

A Dummy's Guide to Politics?

The Feedback Group, meanwhile, has proposed its own solution to educate the masses.

It hopes to produce a basic guide - a Politics 101 of sorts - that would provide the public with useful information such as a list and roles of key public figures and organisations, as well as the various channels of feedback and complaints.

The group's chairman, political watcher Viswa Sadasivan, is pushing for this recommendation partly to make up for the lack of exposure given to Singaporeans at schools and universities.

He said: "When political education is absent, or civic education is narrowly defined and a culture of questioning is encouraged only now, it's understandable why interest and knowledge in politics is low. There's a need to help catalyse this interest in a manner that's relevant and interesting."

While education is seen as a main tool to improve the situation for future generations, experts also made the comment that Singaporeans, especially the youth, want to be empowered and to see their feedback being taken seriously and appreciated.

And with nearly 70 per cent of the population feeling the need to have "some influence" over national issues, Mr Sadasivan feels the tide is slowly turning.

"It points to a growing awareness of the need to have influence, which in turn could point to a maturing political culture," he said.

Ms Tan, too, is keen to contribute to grooming the next generation of Singaporeans as one that is in tune with current affairs and political issues.

"I hope my children can have some sort of political education when they go into primary school. It doesn't have to be much, maybe the teachers could just show them the symbols of the different parties here, for instance," she said.

That said, Ms Tan too has her own resolution to make: "After the interview (with TODAY), I am now more serious with the newspapers. Everything you ask, I also don't know. Nowadays, I turn to the main section to read about local and world news first. It's important to know what's happening around me."

March 11, 2006
KL govt to poll public on major issues
Abdullah administration hopes to enhance image of more open and transparent government

By Leslie Lau
Malaysia Correspondent

KUALA LUMPUR - THE Malaysian government yesterday pledged to conduct public opinion polls on major issues in an effort to project the image of a more open and transparent administration.

Under a novel public opinion polls programme launched here yesterday, ordinary Malaysians will be able to take part in the government's decision-making process, by just answering questions through text messages.

Online polls and telephone hotlines will be set up to gather public feedback, in an initiative by the government's Public Complaints Bureau.

'Not all views of the people can be implemented but all opinions will be used as guidance so that the government can reduce mistakes in policy planning,' said Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.

Datuk Seri Abdullah said he hoped Malaysians would take part actively in the opinion polls, which would be used to help plan programmes under the government's Ninth Malaysia Plan, a 10-year development blueprint that will be revealed at the end of the month.

The government took its first poll yesterday by asking ordinary Malaysians for their opinions on how the money saved from the recent reduction in fuel subsidy should be spent.

They were asked to choose from one of the five options - education, public transport, water supply, schools and public welfare.
'Of course we will not ask things like whether you like the idea of petrol prices going up. You must be out of your mind to say you like it,' the Prime Minister quipped.

According to Public Complaints Bureau officials, polls would also be conducted on issues such as government plans to build a highway or clear a forest for development.

Focus groups would also be formed to accurately gauge opinion for certain issues.

'This is part of efforts to have a more open government and to ensure more transparency and accountability,' said Tan Sri Bernard Dompok, a senior minister in the Prime Minister's Department, who is in charge of the programme.

He said that public opinion would be sought for various government programmes, policies and projects. Malaysians will also be asked about the performance of government departments.

'With this programme we hope to avoid any feeling of dissatisfaction among the people with the government,' the minister said.

The Abdullah administration's popularity has been shaken in recent weeks following its decision to reduce fuel subsidies, which caused pump prices to rise substantially.

Datuk Seri Abdullah, now three years into his job as Prime Minister, has pledged to combat the corruption and excess associated with his predecessor, Tun Mahathir Mohamad.

He said recently that he was determined to stay the course of openness, and to allow for more public debate of issues.


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