Chua Mui Hoong: We need to honestly discuss how S’pore’s system is becoming one ‘for the elites’

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | April 28, 04:47 pm


Public Trust in Singapore is a book consisting of essays and discussions on the issue of public trust in Singapore, presented at the Behavioural Sciences Institute Conference 2018.

The book, edited by David Chan, examines the dynamics and workings of public trust within the context of Singapore, shedding light on how it is built, lost and restored.

Public Trust in Singapore is published by World Scientific, and you can get a copy of it here.

Here, we reproduce a few excerpts from the book:


By Chua Mui Hoong, at the panel for the Behavioural Sciences Institute Conference 2018

Does the government care about the people?

Thanks for being here. You may know me from my writings in The Straits Times and even though I am here in that capacity, I just want to begin with the usual disclaimer that my views are my own, and they do not represent my organisation.

I wrote a piece on trust deficit just over the weekend, and some of the responses were quite interesting.

One response, in particular, that struck me was a lady who wrote to say,

“It’s good that you wrote this, but would that really change my mind? I don’t think so, because in my mind there are two questions that I want to ask, and I don’t think I will get satisfactory answers. One is, have they got it? And two is, do they care?”

I liked the way this lady framed it — “Have they got it?” To me, it goes to the heart of the trust issue. It is a question on competence. Do you know what is the right thing to do? Are you doing it well? Of course, I am thinking of all the usual gripes on the ground about track maintenance, and so on.

The other issue she raised is, “Do you care?” This is the part that I want to focus in my five minutes.

To me, competence and performance legitimacy are issues that I actually think that the Singapore government does not do too badly.

But I think on the second factor, which is “Do you care?”, there is a lot more that can be done.

Growing perceptions that public policy is increasingly skewed towards the elites

When I raise a care issue in relation to trust in Singapore, I am trying to get to the whole question about whether public policies and decision-making is viewed as being on the side of citizens, and on the masses, or whether it is increasingly seen as skewed towards the elites.

So, to put it very bluntly — and because I am a journalist and I love headlines — it is really a question of, “Do we have rule of the elites, or do we have rule for the elites?”

It is a very sad thing for me when I read things on social media, and when I meet my friends and they include civil servants, ordinary people, and people who are actually from the establishment.

It is very disturbing to me when I hear more and more views like, “Oh, the system is actually sort of stacked” and “There is actually an elite bias”.

I realise I am speaking to a very difficult crowd here because in some way or another, we are all members of this elite.

But I am just saying that there is an increasingly widespread perception out there that the entire system is stacked in our favour. If I look at it objectively, I think there is some reason for saying this.

It might be just a perception problem, and that the system is just and that we have an elite bias in our public policy and political system. Or, there may even be some policies that really have some bias towards the elites.

I just want to give one small example from our education policy, in relation to priority admission at the primary school level. I should also qualify, I love Singapore, and I think we have a system that works tremendously.

But I also feel that unless we are able to speak very honestly about the structural flaws in our system that is leading to us becoming a system for the elites, unless we are prepared to talk about that, we are never going to get to the heart of the problem.

And we will never get to the heart of the discontent that is becoming more widespread.

Primary schools that have a very tiny minority of places for people without connections

So, in primary school admissions, you have alumni priority. You get priority if your parents become volunteers in the school or if your parents become grassroots or community leaders, by which they mean people who are active in the government-related kind of grassroots organisations.

To me, it is so obvious that this whole system is, I am going to say rotten to the core but that may be a bit strong, but it is clearly a very flawed system. And it is by no means new.

It is true that MOE (Ministry of Education) is trying very hard to address this. So, one of the things they did recently was to set aside 40 places in every primary school for Phase 2B or C in the admission process.

So, basically there are 40 places now in the primary school that are given to people without connections. You just think about it.

When I read it, I was shocked. How did we come to this system where there are only 40 places in a primary school of maybe 10 classes? So, there is only one class for people without connections. In my time in school, I think it was the other way round.

I think there was, in my secondary school RGS (Raffles Girls’ School), one class where we all assumed people were there because they had certain connections and so on. In a way, that was a tolerable system, but now it is the reverse.

So, I do not want to go on too much about it, but it is just one small example on how we really must look at our policies honestly and talk about them, and be honest about dealing with them.


Change in political leadership is a chance to improve and do things better

David Chan: With the 4G (4th generation of Singapore political leaders) taking over — supposedly to happen anytime but do not know when — is that a good transition point to see changes, because we have talked about all these issues for a number of years already and they keep coming up at conference after conference. So, is a political change in leadership going to make a difference?

Mui Hoong: I will just pick those questions that I want to answer.

Now, what is the reason for this situation? I think David mentioned some possible factors that may have contributed to this situation — elitism, and not being in touch with the ground, and maybe some kind of policy inertia or political considerations. My answer is all of the above.

I think it is quite clear. We have become so used to a certain way of thinking and doing things. There is tremendous inertia. Of course, there are political reasons why the current system works.

If you are the MP (Member of Parliament) or the Minister for Education, you are not going to annoy tens of thousands of well-connected parents — and you know the grassroots leaders — by changing this policy on school admission.

As a former political reporter, I do not want to discount these factors, which are clearly in my view, possible considerations.

David asked whether the political leadership transition is an opportunity. I hope it is. I am from the post-independence generation, and many of the 4G leaders are from that generation.

So, I think they are aware of the growing sentiments and the growing sense or dissatisfaction that the system is not necessarily for the masses.

I was very struck by Laurence’s anecdote about the civil servants. If there is indeed this growing sense that you know you are treated as either you are for us or you are against us, then I think that is very invidious and quite dangerous.

I hope, increasingly, we will speak up more in terms of the fact that we are in this together, we are all on the same side, and we stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

Some policies will be easier to change than others

The final question that I would like to answer from David is his question on whether it is difficult to change.

When it comes to priority admission in primary school, the answer is “No”; it is not difficult to change.

You can do it in just one fell stroke. You just reverse the numbers, from now to where nine classes out of ten will be for people with no connections and one class for those with connections, and let the students compete among themselves.

It is not difficult in that sense, but I understand that for all the various political and relationship factors, and so on, it will not be easy.

But I do hope that this is something that the government is looking at, because it is not just about the primary school admission.

Once you get into the right primary school, so to speak, you go all the way to higher levels.

And because our education system has been so much a part of social mobility and meritocracy, which is one of the hallmarks of our system, I hope this is something that the government will have the political and moral courage to act on.

Top image via Lee Hsien Loong’s Facebook page

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