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Singapore - polls apart

Singapore - polls apart

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Published by Ravi Philemon
Are opinion polls a good way to decide a nation's priorities for governance? Not when public policy has so many shades of grey says former Transport Minister Raymond Lim
Are opinion polls a good way to decide a nation's priorities for governance? Not when public policy has so many shades of grey says former Transport Minister Raymond Lim

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Published by: Ravi Philemon on Oct 31, 2012
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Singapore - polls apart
Are opinion polls a good way to decide a nation's priorities for governance? Not when public policy has so many shades of grey 
 Published on Oct 30, 2012OpinionThe Straits TimesBy Raymond LimTHE launch of the Singapore Conversation has seen many sessions to discuss whatsort of Singapore citizens hope to see in the future.In a recent session, participants were particularly excited by Yahoo! Singapore'sonline poll on what are the 10 most pressing concerns for Singaporeans. A total of21,470 people cast their votes, with the cost of housing voted the No. 1 concern.Many said this was a good way to feel the pulse of the people. And knowing thepopular will, they said, is important as it helps the government set its policy agenda -more resources to housing (28 per cent) and less to public transport, since the publictransport crunch received only 3 per cent of votes, coming in at No. 10.But is this really a good way to govern? Even if we assume the polls or surveys areproperly conducted - with proper sampling methods and so on - is governing byopinion polls and laws by referendums the way to go? One participant said it willmean greater democracy in Singapore. Will it?California in the United States uses referendums and citizens' initiatives to decide onpolicy issues. The result has been to make the state well-nigh ungovernable as thegovernment is tied up with a mishmash of popular demands, often contradictory andshort-term focused.For example, "Yes, to more public services" but "No, to more taxes to fund them". Theproblem is amplified on policy issues, where there is short-term pain but long-termbenefits. This is not surprising as those who are adversely affected have every reasonto campaign against it while the silent majority, well, stay silent.And since most people are concerned with the present, the here and now, presentpain will usually dominate future benefits when they cast their votes.Ironically, introducing opinion polls to decide on policy issues does not necessarilymean giving more power to the people or greater democracy in practice.Often, it is only a segment of the people, special interest groups, who hijack thereferendum process to safeguard or promote their own interests. So it is not the will
of the people that is being manifested but the organised, the well-funded and thevocal interest groups that rule the roost.But populist law-making has a more fundamental drawback. Many public policyissues are not simply a binary matter of "yes" or "no". There are many shades of grey- if not 50, definitely several.Take immigration, for instance. It is an emotive issue. Despite the valiant efforts of theNational Population and Talent Division to educate the public on the issues, mostparticipants in the sessions that we have held, from young and old, want restrictionsto be even tighter on the already reduced flow of foreigners to our shores.But the argument to be open to foreigners is a compelling one - if we close our shoresfar too much, it is not foreigners who suffer but Singaporeans in general as oureconomic growth will fall given our dwindling workforce. It will also take off much ofthe buzz, energy and excitement that come from being a cosmopolitan city that isintimately linked and opened to the world. So it is not an "either or" decision, a simple"up or down" vote.It is, as in many public policy issues, a complex issue that requires debate,deliberation and compromise to decide on the flow of foreigners into the country thatwill not cause major social disamenities and economic dislocations to Singaporeansbut that will ensure sustainable growth.It is this deliberative process that ensures that the majority does not trample on therights of the minority, that special interests are balanced by the general interests andthat opposing views are taken into account when policies are decided and laws made.Critically, this is what gives legitimacy to the policy process and negotiated outcomeseven for those who disagree with the eventual decisions.This argument that for effective governance in a democracy, we need to have debate,deliberation and compromise is also the reason those who demand that their MPshould champion fervently their constituents' positions in the House are wrong.We elect not a postman but a representative to the highest institution in the land todebate, deliberate and make laws that advance the national rather than individualinterest.As Edmund Burke, the British politician and philosopher, said: "Your representativeowes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of servingyou if he sacrifices it to your opinion… You choose a member indeed, but when youhave chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol but he is a Member of Parliament."This is not to say that public opinion is not important. It is an important factor thatyour MP and government ought to hear and take into serious consideration, but itmust never substitute for the exercise of judgment and thought on what is best forSingapore and Singaporeans as a whole.

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