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What do Singaporeans really think about the current state of Singapore and the most important issues facing the country? In Stage 2 of The Citizens’ Agenda, the answer came back very clearly: Sustainability. People are apprehensive about the quality of our lives, and they want to live in ways that are economically, physically, mentally, and environmentally sustainable.

Note:  This report only includes results from Vase.ai (1,034 respondents) and does not yet include results from JotForm (56 respondents). The report will be updated once we have finished processing those results, but the JotForm results will not change the overall results in any significant way.

Results

Here are the top 5 issues identified by our respondents:

  1. 💸 COST OF LIVING & WAGES
    What is the government planning to do to address the rising cost of food, energy, healthcare and property? Why is the government raising GST and other taxes while the economy is still recovering? What measures are taken to increase wages to a decent living standard? 
  2. 📊 📈 ECONOMY & JOBS
    How do we keep attracting investments to maintain our status as a high-income country? What policies are in place to provide more jobs to Singaporeans, not just foreigners? How can we improve local graduate employability?
  3. 🏘 HOUSING
    Why are HDB prices so unaffordable to the average Singaporean? Should the government allow single citizens below 35 years old to purchase an apartment? Why must we have 99-year lease periods which prevents the accumulation of intergenerational wealth? Why is the waiting time so long?
  4. 🩺 PUBLIC HEALTH
    How do we better prepare for a future Covid-19 wave/new pandemic? Are our SOPs effective in curtailing infections? Do we have adequate protection from dengue, monkeypox, or other epidemics?
  5. 🌻 WELLBEING
    Is the government addressing rising cases of mental health issues, suicide, and high-stress levels? Should the government introduce laws to promote work-life balance and prevent work abuse by employers, such as a 4-day working week? Can our society focus less on work and academic achievements, and more on happiness via sports, etc.?

Click here for an interactive datastudio presentation, including a breakdown of demographic data, and click here to view the raw data (see below for an explanation of methodology).


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Analysis and Observations

Observation #1: Economic issues are, by far, the primary concern for respondents. People want to have a job and be paid a fair and living wage for it.

Nearly two-thirds of people chose Cost of Living (641 respondents). If we expand economic issues to include Economy & Jobs and Inequality & Social Mobility, 42% of people chose the Economy & Jobs (431 respondents) and 17% chose Inequality (174). 894 respondents (86.5%) picked at least one of the three; 359 respondents (34.7%) picked both Cost of Living and Economy & Jobs; 79 respondents (7.6%) picked all three.

To flip it around, only 140 people (13.5%) didn’t choose at least one of Cost of Living, Economy & Jobs, or Inequality & Social Mobility

Observation #2: Human health and welfare, and environmental sustainability are overwhelming concerns.

Close behind the Cost of Living and Economy & Jobs comes Housing (#3), Public Health (#4), and Wellbeing (#5). They are followed by Environment & Sustainability (#6), Social Security & Welfare (#7), and Food Security (#8).

Overall, it is evident that Singaporeans are deeply worried about their future—but not just about financial sustainability. The high placings of Public Health, Wellbeing, and Environment & Sustainability indicate that people want sustainable futures, including mental and physical health, financial health, and the sustainability of the environment and the planet.

Observation #3: Singapore remains very divided on racial lines

The top five issues for those classified or self-identified as “Chinese” were identical to the overall top 5: Cost of Living, Economy & Jobs, Housing, Public Health, and Well-being. Their concerns broadly mirrored the overall rankings. This is not surprising as they formed 75% of the total respondents, virtually the same percentage as the country as a whole.

However, for those classified or self-identified as “Malays” and “Indians”, however, there was one glaring difference: Racism & Discrimination. It finished as #3 for “Malays” and #5 for “Indians”. This suggests the experience of Singapore for the two main minority races remains very different from that of the “Chinese”. The description for Racism & Discrimination specifically mentioned “Chinese privilege”, which was something mentioned in Stage 1 by many respondents who identified as “Malay” or “Indian”. This suggests that despite the academic debate about the existence and usefulness of “Chinese privilege” as a term, our respondents genuinely feel its impact on their lives and believe it exists.

The #5 issue for “Others” was Safety & Security. This was not an issue that resonated strongly with any other group. The description for Safety & Security specifically identified crime, cyber threats, including religious extremism, and international neutrality amid the Russia-Ukraine war and US-China tensions. 

Observation #4: Broadly, there’s not much difference between “male” and “female” genders…

Wellbeing was ranked significantly higher for those classified or identifying as female (#4) than male (#9). This may have several explanations: Women face more challenges and discrimination than men, and therefore face more well-being issues; Women are encouraged, more than men, to be in touch with their feelings; and the general feminisation of the wellness industry.

Apart from this, there was very little significant difference.

Observation #5: … but once you break down the data by race and gender, more differences start to emerge.

The #5 issue for “Chinese males” was Governance & Leadership. This perhaps reflects the common perception that genuine political leadership is restricted to people who identify as Chinese men and come from a specific socio-political group. After all, why worry about an issue when you’re not allowed to participate in it directly?

The #5 issue for “Malay males” was Education & Human Capital. It was also highly ranked for “Malay females” (#8) and “Indian females” (#6), but not for other groups. This perhaps reflects a perceived lower opportunity for people of these groups to access educational opportunities.

The #4 issue for “Indian males” was Digital Infrastructure, an issue which was in the bottom five for every other race-gender group. This issue, as phrased, focuses on internet connectivity, AI, cryptocurrency, and data protection. It possibly reflects India’s high emphasis on technological literacy and mastery and perhaps indicates a substantively connected network of Indian diaspora across countries including Singapore.

Observation #6: Concern about the Cost of Living is highest (#1) among those under 40 and 60 and above; Concern about the Economy and Jobs is highest (#1) for those between 40 and 59.

For all age groups, one of the two issues was ranked #1, but there was one significant difference. While Economy & Jobs ranked in the top 3 for every age group, Cost of Living was ranked in the top 4 of every age group except people 40-49, where it plunged to #9. 

Our theory is that people between 40 and 59 are at the peak of their earning power, have managed to pay off most of their debts, and have yet to retire, and thus are most concerned about spending/investing their money wisely. Hence, they have a greater emphasis on Public Health, Environment & Sustainability, Housing, and Wellbeing.

Note: Respondents below 20 and above 70 comprised only 3.7% (38) and 1.9% (20) of the total respondents, respectively, so we are less confident of the results of those groups.

Observation #7: The younger you are, the more likely you are to identify Racism & Discrimination as an issue.

Observation #8: Older groups are more likely to identify Public Health as an issue.

Similar to the results in 2019, these are perhaps under the “obvious” category. However, there is one major change:

Observation #9: Everyone is now concerned about the Environment & Sustainability.

In 2019, there was a general correlation between age and identification of Environment & Sustainability as an issue—the younger you were, the more likely you would identify it as an issue. That correlation is gone. Now, everyone identifies it as a major issue, and in general, just below the economic issues.

However, we should be careful of comparing the data from 2019, as that was not designed to be a statistically representative sample of Singaporeans, whereas this year’s results are.

Observation #10: Concerns about political leadership were consistently one of the top ten issues, while political stability was ranked far lower. However, the relative ranking correlated to location, particularly how people voted in the last General Election.

Overall, Governance & Leadership ranked #8. This issue included making politicians more responsive to citizens’ needs, wanting accountability for their promises and actions, ensuring transparency and effectiveness, and Ministerial salaries.

When you look at the location, however, it differs in importance. It was ranked as high as #7 in the North-East and as low as #10 in the West. This correlates with voting for the opposition in the last General Election as the North-East includes Hougang, Sengkang, and Punggol, while the West includes Jurong, Bukit Batok, Bukit Panjang, and Chua Chu Kang.

This was the reverse of Political Stability (“How do we ensure the PAP keeps governing Singapore?”). Overall, it was ranked #16 out of #23, but was ranked highest in the West and East (ranking), but lowest in the North and North-West (ranking).

Observation #11: The “Culture Wars” are outweighed by the issues related to our physical, mental, and environmental sustainability.

In recent weeks, political discourse in Singapore has been dominated by issues that are usually identified as part of debates over identity, rights, and values: the death penalty, the repeal of 377a and LGBTQIA+ rights, drug policy, and so on.

However, this survey suggests that Singaporeans see the sustainability of their physical and mental lives and the planet as far more urgent and pressing issues. Singaporeans want to see the government tackling the cost of living, the quality of their lives, and the environment. Singaporeans are worried about being unable to afford to live, of working themselves to exhaustion or death in order to earn enough to live on, of their physical and mental health, and they want to do so in an environmentally sustainable way.

Other Random Observations

The youngest respondent is unknown as we had a lower age limit of 18, but there were twelve 18-year-olds who responded. Their answers were very diverse—between them, they selected 22 of the 23 issues at least once. The exception? Culture & Identity. The most frequently chosen answer was the Justice System (five respondents). Perhaps it reflects recent fierce debates on the death penalty.

The oldest respondent was 100 years old, identified as “male” and “others”, and answered in English. He lives in Bukit Merah and selected Wellbeing, Public Health, Immigration & the National Interest, Racism & Discrimination, and Economy & Jobs as his top five issues.

Of the 1,034 respondents on Vase.ai, 11 responded in Chinese and the rest in English.

Please see the interactive datastudio presentation for a further breakdown of demographic data.

Comparison to Malaysia

Singaporeans tend to perceive Malaysia as more divided than Singapore, but The Citizens’ Agenda shows that it is the opposite, at least in terms of the people’s concerns. Malaysia is far more unified in terms of what it considers the most important issues across all races, genders, ages, and locations. On racial issues, in particular, there is a far larger gap between the perceptions of minority races vs the majority race in Singapore than in Malaysia.

One explanation may be that these specific issues are far more pressing in Malaysia relative to other issues. Another might be that there is freer political discourse and freedom of expression in Malaysia, leading to these issues being discussed more openly and thus the wider population being able to build more consensus through this discursive process. This suggests that—contrary to what the Singapore government argues—freedom of expression would lead to more unity and less division rather than more.

At the same time, Malaysia appears to have a narrower range of concerns than Singapore. In summarising issues from Malaysia, we found that several issues overlapped (Rights & Discrimination vs Race Relations vs Gender & Equality; Political Reform vs Public Institutions; COVID-19 vs Healthcare), but people talked about them in diverse ways. We sought to capture the nuance in people’s responses and so ended up creating different issues. Singapore, by contrast, had a wider range of issues, with several (e.g. Inequality & Social Mobility, Digital Infrastructure, Well-being) not featuring in Malaysian responses. Still, people who brought up an issue tended to talk about it in similar ways, allowing us to create more distinct issues. Again, an explanation may be that Singaporean society is more atomised and divided into smaller “echo chambers” due to relatively less freedom of expression.

People in both countries are worried about the cost of living, which is rising significantly in both countries. They are also worried about the economy and jobs, even in different ways. Having an overall more developed economy with greater inequality, Singapore is far more concerned about the sustainability of their lives (economically, mentally, physically, and environmentally)  and about the inequality inherent in their economy than Malaysians. Malaysians are more concerned about the overall development of their economy and having access to jobs. They are less concerned with the environment than Singapore, which as a small island-city is more exposed to the climate crisis than Malaysia.

Both countries are also worried about the quality of the leaders, but again in different ways. Malaysians are more worried about politicians being corrupt and corruption within the system, while Singaporeans worry more about politicians being unaccountable and uncaring of people’s needs. 

Overall, the difference between the countries is not surprising, given the two countries’ different economies, demography, and geography. What is surprising is how Malaysia—a far larger and more diverse country—has far more unity of purpose than Singapore while also being more limited in its range of issues.

Read the Malaysia report here


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Methodology

In Stage 1 of The Citizens’ Agenda, we asked them to answer the following question:

In your opinion, what issues do you consider important to Singapore? What do you think the candidates should be talking about as they compete for your votes in the upcoming election?

The survey was run in the four official languages of Singapore. We worked with a survey company, Vase.ai, to ensure that we surveyed a statistically representative sample of Singaporeans. We also ran the survey publicly via JotForm. There were 1,232 people who responded. We read through all 1,232 responses and then grouped all the responses into 23 broad issues. People brought up many different topics, from job security to environmental issues. You can see our Stage 1 report here.

We then ran a second survey (Stage 2) where we asked Singaporeans to pick the top five most important issues facing Singapore from the list of 23 issues. The order of the issues was randomised in the survey. Participants also provided some demographic data: gender, age, race, and location. This was provided as part of the panel on Vase.ai but optional on JotForm.

A note on demographic data: Vase.ai is a survey platform that has 3.6 million people across Southeast Asia in its panel. It aims to provide surveys as an automated service, thus making it easy and affordable to run statistically-accurate surveys across the region in different countries. However, this automation also involves constraints and trade-offs, and one trade-off is that we have to conform to its pre-defined panel demography. This includes only two genders (male and female), the CMIO racial categorisation, and a geographic location based on Singapore’s planning areas rather than constituency or other commonly-used geographic boundaries. In New Naratif’s public survey on JotForm, we sought to be more inclusive, but the majority of the data comes from Vase.ai, and the results are accordingly limited.

In processing the responses from Stage 2, we noted a problem: Vase.ai was unable to limit people’s responses to exactly five. Only 65% of people selected exactly five issues (so much for the stereotype that Singaporeans are mindlessly obedient!). 14% of the respondents picked between one and four issues, 15% selected between six and 10 issues, 6% picked 11 or more, and 17 jokers selected all 23 issues (seriously, you people…why?). At the suggestion of Vase.ai, we eliminated responses from those who had picked fewer than five, and asked respondents who had selected more than five issues to rank the issues they selected. This enabled us to determine their top five issues. In total, we had 1,034 qualified responses—1,034 from Vase.ai and 56 from JotForm.

If you’d like to see the raw data, please click here. We welcome any statisticians or data journalists who would like to use the data—it is licensed as Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Conclusion

The people have spoken! They are most immediately concerned about economic issues and, more broadly, about the sustainability of our way of life, particularly physical, mental, and environmental sustainability. But the experience of Singapore remains very different for people depending on their race.

A big THANK YOU once again to everyone who took part in the survey!

What’s Next?

  • We will be running articles and democracy classrooms about these issues over the next year. If you’d like us to let you know about upcoming articles and democracy classrooms on the above issues, sign up for our weekly newsletter—or, better yet, join as a member to support New Naratif’s mission to democratise democracy in Southeast Asia!
  • Please share this article, fill out the form below, and let us know your thoughts! We will highlight the best responses on social media over the next few weeks.

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Thum Ping Tjin

Thum Ping Tjin (“PJ”) is Managing Director of New Naratif and a historian at the University of Oxford. A Rhodes Scholar, Commonwealth Scholar, Olympic athlete, and the only Singaporean to swim the English Channel, his work centres on Southeast Asian governance and politics. His most recent work is Living with Myths in Singapore (Ethos: 2017, co-edited with Loh Kah Seng and Jack Chia). Reach him at pingtjin.thum@newnaratif.com.

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