Is the Singapore Government Listening?

The Straits Times had reported today that Singaporeans are “renowned for complaining yet do not make their displeasure known to companies and that Singaporeans are “likely to share their dissatisfaction with their friends and family members”.

Even though the article had discussed this report in relation to customer satisfaction of commercial entities, it is also very relevant to understanding the Singapore political context. Let’s take a look.

It was also reported that, “The number of customers who feel there is ‘no point’ or that it’s ‘too difficult’ to complain also went up, from 2.5 per cent to 8.4 per cent.” Is this why Singaporeans are said to be politically apathetic, because we do not think that our complaints are being answered? 

The Straits Times had also added that, “Singaporeans are generally non-confrontational, with more preferring the route of blogs or social networking sites to hit back at the offending party.” There is a growing number of blogs dedicated to critical discussions of government policies and issues, as this blog can attest to. A growing number of Singaporeans are speaking up, and expressing their critical analysis of the socio-political scene in Singapore via online blogs and sharing news via social networking sites. The question then is this, how can we use the online medium and social networking sites to allow more the voices of more Singaporeans to be heard and to allow for more representation viewpoints of Singaporeans – so that the only ‘representative’ viewpoints won’t be the ones that the government propagates, which Singaporeans consider biased towards the dominant political party. How we we “hit back at the offending party” in a more coordinated manner? For example, are we able to organise online think tanks or online portals where surveys can be conducted to all Singaporeans, to obtain a more representative sampling of viewpoints? 

Interestingly, it was also reported that, “Regardless of how the complaints are volleyed at the company who has seemingly upset the customer, complaints are a good thing,” because, “Customer complaints can be an invaluable source of business intelligence for companies that react positively to them.” In Singapore, the government has tended, in the past to view any feedback or complaints as a ‘bad thing’. Mass demonstrations aren’t allowed and there wasn’t a space for Singaporeans to express their critical ideas to the government. Only in recent years has the government set aside The Speakers’ Corner for restricted free speech. However, since the opening up of this space coincided with the advent of the flourishing of blogs and social networking sites, The Speakers’ Corner has been rendered useless mainly, except for a few who are able to take advantage of the space to showcase Singaporeans’ support for issues the government has tended to sweep aside, such as PinkDot. Yet, this article suggests that the government can learn to treat complaints as a ‘good thing’. Already, the government already utilises complaints as an “invaluable source of intelligence”. However, as the article suggests, how can the government “react positively to them”? For one, the government has decided not to regulate the online space for now and allow critical discussions to grow, so this is a good sign. 

The Straits Times had also reported that, “These complaints allow a company to close the feedback loop, and save unsatisfied customers from boycotting their company (and) they also provide an opportunity for the company to review processes that have not been delivered as planned.” What is perhaps lacking in our government, is perhaps, because of their resistance to certain feedback from Singaporeans, they have not been able to “close the feedback loop”. Is there any reason why, during the general elections last year, about 40% of Singaporeans have “boycotted” the predominant political party because of “processes that had not been delivered as planned”? For example, over the past one year, Singaporeans have advocated for a minimum wage policy to be implemented. However, the Singapore government has brushed aside this feedback, time and again, even when many other Asian countries have done so, suggesting that a minimum wage policy will upset Singapore’s economy. Yet, the government has not explained why this is so. The government has not taken Singaporeans’ feedback seriously, in this and several instance, and cannot effectively “close the feedback loop”. If the government does not want more Singaporeans to “boycott” the predominant political party in the next general elections, then they have to “close the feedback loop” and explain to Singaporeans intelligently, for example, on why minimum wage isn’t feasible, among other proposals that Singaporeans have recommended. 

Ms Caroline Lim, director of the Institute of Service Excellence, had said, “You have no control over customers complaining, but can control how it’s handled,” as, “addressing customer complaints well will always result in customers who are almost as satisfied as those who did not have any complaints.” One might wonder at this point, by “controlling how complaints are handled”, has the government chosen to ignore the complaints instead? Obviously this is not the case as the government, along with the prodding by Singaporeans, have gradually relaxed their stance on some issues. For example, PM Lee Hsien Loong had proposed that the government will aim to increase the wages of Singaporeans by 30% in ten years and Mr Lim Swee Say had proposed increasing the wages of 1,000 low wage workers to $1,000 by 2015. These are by no means a minimum wage policy. However, it has shown how our relentless prodding has resulted in the government taking more flexible stances. However, these proposals are not sufficient, as online debates have shown. So, how can the government “address our feedback better so that the 40% who had not voted for the predominant political party will be more satisfied”? 

Feedback, it’s reported, “can be cleverly used as an interaction tool, where complaints are used as an engagement tool to redesign and create a great service experience.” Currently, the government has a official feedback channel, Reach, where feedback is solicited, for the government to “feel the pulse of the ground and keep the government apprised of key issues of concern amongst Singaporeans”. Reach also aims to “facilitate the formation of workgroups to develop ideas into concrete proposals for the Government’s consideration.” Reach does, in this instance, serve as an “engagement tool” to “create a great service experience”. But Singaporeans are still angry. Why? The question then, is, is the feedback being taken seriously, or has the government “controlled how feedback is being handled”? Right now, the consolidation of feedback is centred around a portal managed by the government. Can this be objective? There are no referendums or objective public surveys to gauge public sentiments. The universities might conduct public surveys but this surveys by no means challenge the government or offer an alternative viewpoints. They cannot. Also, Singaporeans haven’t learnt how to use and coordinate the online medium and social networking sites to our consolidated benefit. We, as a group of people, need to start looking seriously into how we can do so. 

Dr Marcus Lee, academic director of the Institute of Service Excellence had also said that, “For employees, a mindset of garnering complaints as feedback is an internal signal to staff, for them to question how things are done, to review processes and ultimately improve business productivity.” Our political leaders have shown that they are willing to obtain feedback from the people, as has been shown by the more regular consultation groups that have been organised by them to solicit feedback and generate discussions. The question is – what has changed? DPM Teo Chee Hean had, at one discussion, repeatedly asked its participants, “What do you think?” to the anger of the participants, where one student had used the word, “f***”, in opposition to his lack of discourse. We have also seen how our leaders have tended to provide the same textbook answers, which are aligned to the same thinking. So, what has changed? Are these consultation groups organised for genuine solicitation of feedback or are they organised just so people can feel comforted that they are heard, but without changes being made? Recently, The Straits Times had featured more viewpoints criticising the government. Again, will these viewpoints be taken seriously, or is the government allowing them to be featured to pacify the needs of Singaporeans to want their voice heard, but without action done? 

“Ms Lim advised companies to handle customers’ complaints by telling them what they are doing about it, and to encourage both complaints and compliments from customers.” If perhaps the government is indeed responding to Singaporeans’ feedback, then the government needs to start letting us know how they are doing so. Perhaps the government need to embark on a publicity where they present to us, with clear figures and details about how their proposals have benefitted Singaporeans. For the example of a minimum wage policy, the government has refused to explain why the policy will not be favourable to Singapore, only repeating that it won’t be. The Ministry of Health had introduced higher premiums and coverage for MediShield today, but one can see that the ministry has provided a skewed perspectiveSo, the question is, how can the government inform us better what they are doing that have benefitted us, and in doing so, be truthful and honest about it? And can they, if they might still continue to choose to hide some things that are not favourable to Singaporeans? 

“Customers, on the other hand, can help by not being indifferent and reward good service. They should also find out their rights and entitlements, so that when service lapses or failure arises, they will know how to provide feedback, added Ms Lim.”

Finally, for Singaporeans, what does this mean for us? How can we help “by not being indifferent and reward good service”? More of us need to speak up and voice our critical analysis of Singapore’s socio-political scene. We need to be confident of our right to “reward good service” and “punish bad behaviour” when the time comes. The elections will take place in another 4 to 5 years. We have to have the confidence to either reward or punish accordingly. The government has constantly used the fear tactic to propagate unfounded worry into Singaporeans about how, if Singaporeans vote the “wrong” people into government, that Singapore will fall. Really? In the ministries and statutory boards, there are leaders in these organisations who can continue to run the organisations, even when the ministers change. In fact, they are the one who remain even when the ministers change. Singapore will continue. The only question is, whether these leaders will agree with the opposition leaders that are voted into government. 

Also, Singaporeans need to find out what our rights and entitlements are. We have been so used to the system that we forget about our basic human rights – our basic rights to have the freedom to live the life we want, our right to be happy, and our right to have work-life balance. These are our rights. Singapore has reached a point when our rights can be fulfilled and our rights can be met. The ball is really in the government’s court now. We have told them time and time again what we want in our lives and an elected government’s role is to ensure that its citizens’ needs are met. Are what we are asking for things that are over the top? No, these are basic rights that citizens of other countries already have, and research has shown that these rights do not cause the country to falter, but instead can be beneficial to the country. For example, it has been shown that work-life balance will not only increase the fertility rate, but will not reduce the productivity of the workers. It has also been shown that peoples who are happy will have a stronger stake in their country, and that people who trust their government, and where the government trusts its people too, will then be able to work with the government to introduce policies and reforms to help the country progress.

The government has tried to convince us that we need to “do our part“. But perhaps, the government must first convince itself that it needs to do its part. 


  1. Pingback: CPF: Wages Increased (by 0.1%), But We Still Want to Raise Your CPF Contributions – For Investments « The Heart Truths

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