Confidence in public sector shaken this year

Alicia Wong

From the bumpy hosting of the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) to the Orchard Road floods, confidence in the public sector may have been shaken this year, according to some political observers.

And in the year ahead, Singaporean residents will continue watching the government closely, in particular its measures toward housing and immigration.

Yahoo! Singapore spoke to several political observers, as they took stock of this year’s significant events and shared their expectations for 2011.

One highlight was the inaugural YOG hosted in Singapore in August. While it was a celebrated event for some, the event was marred by a string of issues ranging from food poisoning to an over-blown budget.

Senior Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Dr Terence Chong, termed the YOG a “bittersweet event”. It celebrated youth and sports but triggered doubt over the government’s strategy of  using”mega events” to distinguish Singapore as a global city when the YOG received poor international attention.

“I don’t think (the YOG) turned out the way the Government had hoped for it to be,” commented another political watcher and law lecturer Eugene Tan. He questioned if the plan to showcase Singapore to the world and excite young Singaporeans “backfired”.

“It was a tremendous success to all those involved but to the average Singaporean, the price tag of close to half a billion SGD was perhaps a bit too much for most Singaporeans,” he pointed out.

Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Viswa Sadasivan also highlighted events that collectively ”jolted public confidence” in the public sector usually touted for its efficiency.

He cited, the floods, SMRT’s train graffiti, the S$12m Singapore Land Authority fraud saga, gang violence and the revelation of Mas Selamat Kastari’s escape.

Mr Tan also felt public confidence has been “dented but not severely affected”. Since the government prides itself in being effective and efficient, this dent is “of course a significant setback”, he said.

He acknowledged, Singaporeans could have unrealistically high expectations that will have to be managed going forward.

But former NMP Zulkifli Baharudin disagreed public confidence was affected this year.

“All these events, to me, reinforces the fact that Singapore is vulnerable,” said Mr Zulkifli, citing vulnerability in the country’s physical and social make-up.

He said, Singapore must do things well because it lacks natural resources, but mistakes are inevitable. “The key is to learn from mistakes and not repeat them.”

He urged Singaporeans not to be “armchair critics” but to “do something about it”.

On the bright side, 2010 was also a year of highs in other areas.

The Republic’s economic growth surged an estimated record-breaking 15 per cent.

The land swap deal between Malaysia and Singapore provided closure to a “decades long thorny issue” and paved the way for “deeper trust and substantive cooperation”, said Mr Viswa.

Watchers highlighted the launch of the integrated resorts (IRs), Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa, as significant in boosting tourist arrivals and tourist dollars. Yet, the IRs have also given cause for concern for social ills such as problem gambling, they cautioned.

Dr Chong also pointed to the public censure of Christian pastor Rony Tan’s insensitive remarks about Buddhism in February indicating a “self-regulatory mechanism at work in society”.

Going forward, observers predicted immigration, housing and cost of living will continue to be hot topics in 2011 and key issues in the General Election, due by February 2012.

This year, escalating property prices and immigration policy drew some of the hottest debates, prompting the government to introduce property cooling measures. In 2009, the government signalled a slower intake of immigrants.

Mr Viswa cautioned, it would be difficult for the government to “adequately satisfy the ground” even if HDB prices rise at a slower pace as this is an emotional issue.

He added, top civil servants’ salary is likely to be “a hot-button issue” linked to many other concerns as there appears to be a “diminishing tolerance for mistakes by (the)  government.” It is a case of being a victim of its own success, he noted.

Mr Zulkifli also predicted some structural adjustments in the economy, for instance, as Singapore looks toward exporting to China, rather than selling mainly to the West.

“We saw terrorism of a different kind (this year),” he said, referring to WikiLeaks. “That is something that may also occupy our time.”

Mr Tan, who expects the GE to be in the 2nd quarter of 2011, and the Presidential Election to be in August, said next year should see “new levels of political excitement”.

“Immigration and the associated issues of high property prices, sense of over-crowdedness and increased competition in schools and at work will feature in the GE,” he said.

Added Mr Tan, “The PAP (People’s Action Party) government has sought to assure that Singaporeans do come first but a deep sense of unease persists. If that unease gets heightened in the GE, we could expect the PAP to pay a price.”

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