Commentary: Singapore needs better public opinion polls to sharpen focus for national agenda
In a world of rapid seismic changes, we would need regular, published polls on public sentiments regarding policy matters to understand emerging gaps, says SUSS’ Leong Chan-Hoong.
SINGAPORE: A new Cabinet was announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Saturday (Jul 25), with key ministries shored up with new faces from this election that would bring to bear their experience in public engagement and from the private sector.
The new Cabinet has their job cut out for them. Singapore is now in the throes of a worldwide economic recession. COVID-19 has disrupted our strategic advantage in aviation, tourism and as a regional business hub.
Gross domestic product (GDP) has contracted by 0.3 per cent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2020, while the second quarter saw a deeper decline of 12.6 per cent.
While it is not difficult to keep tabs on the economic well-being of the country, tracking the diverse and complex sentiments of Singaporeans and their responses to government programmes that aim to address the wide-ranging challenges of COVID-19 may be less straightforward. But doing so could enhance the Government’s responsiveness and strengthen its public communications.
THE LACK OF POLLS TRACKING PUBLIC SENTIMENT
Do we know enough about the challenges and changing aspirations of Singaporeans? I doubt so.
Singapore does not have a culture for regular, publicly published opinion polling, let alone an enquiry on public sentiment towards state policies and governance.
Commercial market survey companies like Blackbox Research, and local think tanks such as the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), conduct ad hoc studies on topical issues such as race, religion and class that matter to Singaporeans. Many are also proprietary, commissioned surveys not disclosed to the public.
In addition, few, if any, track broader public opinion regarding attitudes towards the Government. Political polls, for instance, rely a wide range of proxy indicators, such as satisfaction in how the Government tackle crises or specific issues.
These have implications for policymakers who can gauge the effectiveness of public policies and ways to improve their implementation.
REACH, formerly known as Feedback Unit, is the Government’s leading public engagement and sense-making machinery. It was set up in 1985 to connect with citizens on national and social issues.
While this unit has made remarkable strides getting in touch with the average Singaporeans – particularly on the Internet – there is now a need to look beyond the convenient sample of participants, to look for the hard to get silent majority who may otherwise shun away from a Government-led opinion poll.
GETTING GOOD POLLING DATA IS CHALLENGING
Operationally, reliable opinion polling is never easy in a 24/7 city like Singapore. In an environment littered with scam calls, phishing emails, and financial products disguised as legitimate interviews, taking part in a survey is the last thing on our minds.
As best practice, pollsters have to make at least 10 telephone calls to find one person that will pick up the phone.
There is also the issue of whether polls can get a representative sample that are accurate yardsticks of public opinion. Research shows there is a cognitive bias among Asian cultures in favour of processing positive over negative information.
We tend to think of the “good” things rather than the “bad” when asked to evaluate the performance of a company or a national leader. The response bias is further compounded by a cultural leaning to give “face”, leaving a dignified answer even if the experience is less than desirable.
In contrast, Singaporeans who feel alienated by or apathetic to policies are unlikely to be involved in polls.
Getting a random, representative sample of the population requires patience, tenacity and a lot of goodwill with the polling agency. But there are polling methods to get around these challenges.
Global research firm Gallup, for instance, employs a mix of telephone and face-to-face interviews to ensure reliability and representativeness, and have ready polling panels representative of the US adult population.
WHY OPINION POLLS MATTER
Tracking the pulse of the nation and sharing the results widely can provide clarity and focus for the national agenda and is an endeavour worth considering investing more resources into.
Accurate sensing about public sentiments on broad areas of concern can alert us to emerging gaps, the segments of the population that are struggling, and the profiles of those feeling disenfranchised. With that knowledge, the state and social service sectors can reach out to vulnerable individuals more promptly, resulting in a more efficient allocation of public and philanthropic resources.
During the first month of the pandemic lockdown in the US, national polling conducted by the National Opinion Research Center found more than half of adults aged 70 and above reported a disruption to their medical care, and alarmingly, one in six delayed or cancelled essential medical treatment.
Healthcare professionals have stepped up remote telehealth consultation as an interim measure. About half of those (49 per cent) who had received the treatment reported that experience as comparable to in-person consultation.
More crucially, a candid albeit dispassionate discussion on topical concerns offers a meaningful platform to stimulate national conversations to drill down into what are top-of-mind issues.
It is a starting point and a means to proactively engage the silent majority. It will bring to the fore debates traditionally dominated by political elites and eloquent public intellectuals.
This philosophy of a deliberative engagement is not new. It was tried and tested in the form of a “Citizen Jury” more than two years ago by the Ministry of Health, which brought together over 70 ordinary citizens to discuss a specific public problem and brainstorm solutions to tackle Singapore’s war on diabetes, culminating into a report with a list of recommendations.
The approach is rooted in the principle that “citizens can contribute meaningfully to co-creating and implementing ideas, especially for issues that affect them”, according to the Ministry’s website.
At a strategic level, national opinion polls are the conduits of this dialogue. Getting Singaporeans to speak out on what matters to them and debate what the trade-offs that we can accept, is the first step to engaging the masses and bridging the plurality of voices.
Indeed, at a REACH-CNA dialogue session on Jun 15, Mr Heng spoke about a partnership to co-design and implement policies with fellow Singaporeans. “We will listen to your views and explore together what the Government can do,” he said.
IMPROVING THE QUALITY OF POLLS
Getting an honest reading on the ground goes beyond a question and answer, requiring its conduct at regular but predictable intervals.
For the feedback to be authentic, it must also be performed by a dependable, non-partisan institution, with a mission to serve as an “opinion compass” to collate, analyse, and disseminate sentiments about the fabric of Singapore in an objective and transparent way.
For this institution to be regarded as a legitimate authority, an autonomous social enterprise can be set up for this purpose. This arrangement offers flexibility on the type of projects that can be taken up, and the nature of a social enterprise promotes a greater sense of public inclusion and ownership.
More importantly being operationally independent will enable the institution to react more quickly to polling the evolving sentiment without going through a chain of command expected in a traditional research environment.
A model similar to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (HKPORI) can be explored. HKPORI (originally as HKU Public Opinion Programme) was established in 1991 under The University of Hong Kong, and spun off in 2019 in a bid to widen the range of clientele.
HKPORI is seen as an independent polling agency, and has worked with various government and non-government organisations, political groups and professional bodies to help make sense of people’s sentiments and social problems in Hong Kong.
A recent survey on climate change released in January, for instance, has galvanised both policymakers and community to step up, debate, and implement action plans to reduce carbon footprint in the power sector and improve building energy efficiency – a rare concurrence of opinions considering the divisive relationship between the Hong Kong administration and the public following half-year long of protest movements and clashes in 2019.
Tracking and sharing the pulse of Singaporeans’ opinion on the country’s long-term challenges, particularly contested issues on the economy, population, inequality and racial identity, is the first step to engaging an increasingly diverse and sophisticated populace who wish to be engaged and make informed decisions.
Opinion polling is not fortune-telling, but having credible and impartial polls and open but constructive dialogues on the outcome of the polls can make a difference in politics, policies and citizens’ well-being.
Leong Chan-Hoong is Associate Professor at Centre for Applied Research, Singapore University of Social Sciences. He is the Singapore National Representative for the World Association for Public Opinion Research, and the founding Principal Investigator for the Singapore Panel Study on Social Dynamics, and the Youth Study on Transitions and Evolving Pathways in Singapore.