Growing With Our Citizenry

The social contract between Singaporeans and the government is changing. How should government agencies respond?

Growing With Our CitizenryA 2013 Gallup poll showed that among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, confidence in public institutions has declined from the year 2007 to 2012 – in part due to economic woes (in Europe), unpopular wars (carried out in the Middle East), and nuclear disaster fallouts (in Japan).

As highlighted by Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Tharman Shanmugaratnam in March 2014, trust in governments has indeed fallen in many countries in recent years. Referring to the annual Edelman Trust Barometer at the Administrative Service promotion ceremony, he shared: “In more than half of the countries surveyed last year, the majority of their populations no longer trust governments to do what is right.”

The 2014 Edelman survey findings showed that trust in Singapore’s government remained significantly higher than the global average. Nonetheless, DPM Tharman pointed out: “Nothing is permanent, and the ease with which trust has slipped in many countries is instructive. It is a warning.”


All around the world, relationships between governments and their people are fraught with new challenges. Leading the change is a younger, more educated generation with rising aspirations and expectations, facing leaders who now deal with more complex issues, often amid fewer resources.

In Singapore, too, people’s aspirations have risen dramatically and continue to rise, said DPM Tharman. The younger generation, having grown up with better homes and career prospects, have vastly different expectations from previous generations.

He noted, however, “it is not a bad thing” that Singaporeans’ expectations have gone up, even if governing becomes more challenging. With more diverse interests in the population, and Singaporeans being more vocal in expressing their views, ideas are more robustly contested. “If everyone was happy with what we have in Singapore, nothing improves,” he said. “We have to respond to rising expectations.”

While Singapore is unlikely to see the upheavals of other countries, public criticism of its government has increased noticeably. In the past year, there have been public protests over the Population White Paper, petitions for the authorities to reconsider the Cross Island MRT line, and questions about Singapore’s security capabilities after the Little India affray.

The citizenry of Singapore today is made up of more highly educated people with overseas experience, many in professional and managerial occupations. They will expect to play a greater role in governance, said Professor Chan Heng Chee, Ambassador-at-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Singapore Perspectives 2013 Conference.

A 2010 IPS survey of 1,090 Singaporeans aged 21 and above showed that younger Singaporeans (below 39 years old) participated more in political matters than the older citizens surveyed. The younger citizens were more likely to follow online and offline discussions on politics, sign petitions, and write to newspapers. About 25.5% of them did so, compared to 16.8% of the total surveyed.

More talk, more action

With new media today, people can communicate and share information with fellow citizens at a scale and speed not possible before. Social media also provides means to quickly organise or bring attention to protests, bypassing traditional news sources.

“More than information, the individual has a conversation [with other citizens], a critical improvement over old media communications,” wrote Mr Arun Mahizhnan, IPS Deputy Director, in an essay titled “New media and politics: Can old rules apply?”.

These individuals will form virtual communities and in turn shape the debate of public policy issues, said Mr Peter Ho, Senior Advisor, Centre for Strategic Futures, and former Head of Civil Service, at the IPS Singapore Perspectives 2012 Conference. The government-knows-best mentality is increasingly outmoded because citizens can easily gain access to information once controlled by governments.

All this affects how the Public Service works, as it increasingly ropes in citizens as partners and co-creators to achieve better public outcomes together.

Growing With Our Citizenry

Citizens to partners

For the Public Service to serve citizens well, the public’s greater interest in national affairs should be embraced.

Environmental interest groups have been particularly active in citizen-driven initiatives. They have joined the annual International Coastal Clean-up, come together to form Facebook groups to preserve Singapore’s green spaces like the railway corridor, and rallied against the exhumation of the Bukit Brown cemetery.

The Public Service should expect more of such activism from its citizenry. However, “more disagreements and criticism of government policies does not automatically suggest a decline in trust,” said Professor David Chan, Director, Behavioural Sciences Institute, Singapore Management University, in a Straits Times commentary. Rather, they are an expression of diverse perspectives.

Leading the change is a younger, more educated generation with rising aspirations and expectations, facing leaders who now deal with more complex issues, often amid fewer resources.

He also warned against dismissing counter-proposals from citizens, especially those on social media – some are constructive and can lead to real improvements in policies.

In his commentary, he wrote that a significant segment of the Singapore population is likely undergoing “trust-in-transition”. These are people “in a committed relationship with the Government”, he explained, but who now have mixed feelings towards leaders as they compare the government’s previous positive record with ongoing challenges, such as procurement lapses.

Recognise and respond well

For the Public Service to serve citizens well, the public’s greater interest in national affairs should be embraced.

To this end, strategic risk consultant and former public officer, Mr Devadas Krishnadas, suggested that the Public Service share more information to help the public understand policies or programmes, beyond just having awareness. Adopting various channels – social media, press conferences, interviews, videos – would make the periodic release of important information more relevant and their key messages clearer to the public, Mr Krishnadas told Challenge.

He also suggested putting more public officers in the public eye to explain (and be accountable for) policies. “A ‘human face’ to proposals is something that the public increasingly expects,” said Mr Krishnadas. The Ministry of Communications and Information is already training officers (who are not communications specialists) to be accessible and ready to speak to the media.

Many government agencies are keenly aware of Singaporeans’ desire for greater involvement in public affairs, and are already finding creative ways to respond. Some are opening up their databanks and roping in citizens as co-creators to achieve better outcomes, while others are tapping social media to reach out better.

So as Singaporeans become more vocal about their interest to participate in public affairs and policy-making, the Public Service is also taking steps to listen and empathise with citizens’ viewpoints while continuing to make decisions that will benefit the country.

What are your thoughts on responding to a more active citizenry? Join the 
conversation on Cube.


This article is part of a series 7 Ways To Go Steady With The Public.

  1. Earn Trust By Connecting Emotionally
    Head of Civil Service Peter Ong on the elements of trust and where the Public Service can do better.
  2. How Openness Strengthens Relationships
    Sharing data and crowdsourcing through hackathons is bringing two public agencies closer to the public.
  3. Bringing Help Closer To Homes
    Moving into the heart of communities and working closely with partners, the new Social Service Offices do their work guided by the principle that it's all about the people.
  4. Co-Creating Singapore: Citizens Have Their Say
    As Singapore moves towards a new relationship between people and government, three active citizens say it's time to give the people a bigger role in co-creating Singapore. 
  5. Let's Get Personal
    There is no foolproof way to make any Facebook, Instagram or Twitter post go viral. But some public agencies have begun to show that humour and "keeping it real" can help them engage the public like never before.
  6. They've Got Your Back
    Challenge talks to four winners of this year’s PS21 Star Service Award who have earned the public’s trust by being there for them.
    May 12, 2014
    Cerelia Lim
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