In Part 1, I discussed the overall design of the survey, highlighting the possible caveats we should apply when looking at the results. Here, we look at the results.
The survey asked a set of questions each on three subjects: housing, foreigners and cost of living. On housing, Today newspaper published these numbers:
In its write-up, the newspaper said “Housing not so hot after all”.
I came to the opposite conclusion. To me, the key figure was 52.4 percent. That’s the proportion — a slight majority — who felt that the government’s recent measures to rein in prices are not adequate. While it may be a slight majority, I think it’s very significant, as I will explain below.
The newspaper might have been looking at the first four questions (“Are you concerned about. . . .”) to arrive at its conclusion. To my eyes, those numbers, far from being “not so hot” are very high. Why do I say that? Because at any given time, about half the population would be existing home-owners, most of whom would not be planning a new purchase. To them rising home prices are either of little immediate impact or may even be seen as a good thing, enhancing the value of their main asset. Only the other half of the population are, at any given time, exposed to the problems of escalating home prices, and as you can see from those numbers, just about all of them are “concerned”. Just about all of them are unhappy with the government’s measures so far.
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The questions in the section on foreigners were poorly crafted. On of the face of them, they each pointed to common complaints we have heard around us, e.g. congestion on public transport, but in this section these issues are now framed in a way that blamed foreigners for them. This linkage is logically sloppy, and turns many of the questions into leading questions.
Take, for example, the question about longer waiting times at government hospitals and polyclinics. You’d notice that 69.7 percent said they were concerned that the influx of foreigners have led to this. Really? First of all, have even 69.7 percent been to a hospital or polyclinic recently as a patient or close relative of one, to have experienced longer waiting times? Are we so sick as a nation? And are we to believe that all those who have been to a hospital or polyclinic as an ill person noticed that the jam was due to foreigners? I seriously doubt that. It is far more likely that once presented with a question phrased in such a manner, the survey respondent felt that it was expected of him to answer: Yes, I am concerned. That’s what I mean by a leading question.
The same effect may be seen in the question about “gambling, prostitution and drunkenness”. First of all, where is the evidence that foreigners contribute disproportionately to these problems? What I have heard is that data-wise, it is the opposite — foreigners in our midst commit fewer such crimes than local citizens+Malaysians. Even with the issue of prostitution, it may be true that most sex workers are foreigners, but don’t forget most of their clients (and clients outnumber prostitutes several times over otherwise the industry can’t be profitable) are locals. Here again, it’s more a leading question than a meaningful one — and worse, a leading question that plants an idea that is horribly unjust to non-Singaporeans.
Take the question about congestion on public transport, where 76.4 percent agreed that they were concerned that foreigners have led to that. As indicated above, there are in fact two separate issues: whether people feel overcrowding is a problem, and if so, whether people feel that foreigners are a significant contributor to that. Plausibly 76.4 percent might represent the strength of feeling about the first part of the question, but I am doubtful if it represents how people see the second part of the question.
Even if it is, I would think it’s more a reflection of racism than any understanding of the issues involved. We just feel more crowded when the persons sitting or standing next to us are different from us.
Then, despite the “concerned” scores in the 60-percent, 70-percent range for the opening questions, when asked the last question — whether they felt the government’s steps to slow down immigration were adequate — a majority said Yes. The steps taken are not particularly drastic, yet they are still satisfactory. This only shows that anti-foreigner feeling is not that strong, suggesting that the high percentages in the preceding questions were more the result of how the questions had been phrased.
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You see the same pattern in the section on cost of living. High “concerned” scores for the first four questions, but nearly a majority still say they find the government’s measures “adequate”. In this case however, the high initial scores are justified by the reality. The Statistics Department has been reporting escalating inflation rates recently; it’s a worldwide phenomenon too.
There are two likely explanations why a near-majority finds the government’s measures adequate. One: people understand that sources of inflation are largely external and there is only so much that the government can do about it. (Actually this understanding is somewhat unfounded. A good part of cost push pressures are domestically generated, e.g. rents and the rent component of anything we purchase.)
Two: people still have faith that the People’s Action Party knows what they are doing.
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To sum up, the more one thinks about these numbers produced by Mediacorp and Today newspaper’s survey, the more unsure one becomes as to what they really represent. Today asserted that the rising cost of living is the “hottest” of three issues. Yet even though the cost of living affects everybody, only about half said they were dissatisfied with the government’s measures. This is unlike housing prices which only affects the (approximately) half of the population that does not own a property, and this entire half (52.4 percent of total) is dissatisfied. So. . . . which is the hottest issue again?
A lot of ink has been spilled, but we’re not that much wiser.