A week ago, I heard from a friend who heard from another friend (whom I also know – this one’s in academia) that the People’s Action Party (PAP) was confident it had regained lost ground since the 2011 general election. Its confidence stemmed, it was said, from a huge survey that it had been conducting over the past few months and which, by the next general election, will have reached every household in Singapore. By ‘household’, it may mean every citizen household.
Official statistics from the 2010 census indicate that there were 1.15 million resident households (see link). There are probably more today since population has grown in the four years since.
This survey that is quietly being carried out must be a huge and costly exercise, I said to myself.
Then I thought nothing more of it. It didn’t seem possible to speculate further with no other information.
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Four days later, there was a knock on my front door. I opened it to find a middle-aged man with greying hair who knew to speak to me in English. This alone was unusual. Most door-to-door saleswomen – and there are more women than men doing this – are more comfortable speaking in Chinese; almost always, they initiate the conversation with Mandarin when they see a Chinese-looking face.
The gentleman explained that he wanted to do a face-to-face survey. He had tried a few times at my door but I was not home, he said, and eventually found out from my next-door neighbour that Sunday might offer him a better shot at success. My (nosey) neighbour is a little old lady who has nothing better to do most days than to watch television and monitor my movements which, though a little intrusive, has its uses. She might also have told him that I speak English – but that’s just me guessing.
The survey gentleman showed me a letter with a People’s Association letterhead, titled “Survey on the People’s Association Programmes”, providing credentials for this survey-taker from Degree Census. It would take about 30 minutes of my time, the letter said. I normally do not entertain surveys, but since he had made a few attempts before, I decided to make an exception for him, and invited him in.
He had with him a clipboard with a questionnaire that comprised several pages. I sat nearly opposite him about a metre (or slightly more) away, so could not make out what exactly was on the form. I would later wish I sat in a place with a better angle.
The survey began innocuously enough with questions about how long I had been living in this neighbourhood, how much I interacted with my neighbours and what I thought of the local Town Council’s responsiveness.
There were a series of questions about what I thought of the “grassroots leaders” of the area – whether they were doing a good job, that sort of thing – which were largely impossible to answer since I didn’t know who they were nor cared to find out. Images of Chinese national (and Singapore Permanent Resident) Yang Yin flashed through my mind. He has been acknowledged by member of parliament Intan Azura (Ang Mo Kio Group Representation Constituency) as one of her grassroots volunteers, but he has been alleged to have abused the trust of a retiree physician to take control of her assets, and of misrepresenting himself as a director of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce. This kind of thing makes me even less interested in knowing who the grassroots leaders in my area are. Why expose oneself to danger?
Then followed another series of questions about what I thought of certain programmes to promote multi-racial harmony – Good grief, I said to myself, are we still using this jargon from the 1960s? – and foreigner integration. Oh, it’s even worse! We’ve added another layer of jargon!
There were questions about whether I knew what races/nationalities lived in the flats on the same floor, whether I minded that they were “different” from me, and whether I would have preferred that they not be “different”. These were quickly followed by questions as to whether I had friends of different races and nationalities.
Up to this point, I was more bemused than anything: Blinkered though they may be, these are real issues in this society, I thought to myself, even though they’re not an issue to me.
There were questions about what I thought of the Community Development Councils, whether I knew what they were for and whether I thought it appropriate that they did what they did — like giving out money to the needy.
And then the survey really took off. The second half of it had a long list of questions in which I was asked to rate on a ten-point scale other agencies of the State that were certainly not under the purview of the People’s Association. It struck me as most unusual. It’s as if a bank were conducting a survey and after asking about finance- and mortgage-related matters, suddenly veered off to ask whether you’re happy with the efficiency of airport passport control, or the department issuing driving licences.
I quickly picked up a notebook near me and jotted down the questions, so for this part of the article, I am not writing from memory but from contemporaneous notes.
I was asked to rate on a scale of ten my “confidence in the Lee Hsien Loong government”, my confidence in “public services” provided by other arms of the governments, in “courts of law”, in the army, the police and so on.
Somewhere down the list, I was asked about my confidence in “mainstream media” and “online media”.
After going through the “confidence in” questions, I was asked for my opinion as to the “competence” of these bodies or sectors, then about the “integrity of public services”, their “sincerity”, and whether they “understand the concerns of the general public”.
* * * * *
When the survey-taker left, I went to the People’s Association website to see if there is any information about this survey they are conducting. I could not find any.
I don’t know if this survey has any connection with the survey that had earlier been mentioned by friends and from which the PAP was said to be drawing confidence. All I can say is that the second half of the People’s Association survey didn’t seem to have any relationship with the purpose as outlined in the header of the introductory letter: “Survey on the People’s Association Programmes”.
It would also be an extremely expensive survey. Whilst the surveyor couldn’t tell me – he probably didn’t know – the dimensions of the survey, nonetheless what is pertinent is this: This was at least a mathematically randomised survey. He was tasked to visit my particular address and was obviously instructed to make as many attempts as he needed to get to me. It wasn’t a casual random survey. It was also a survey with pages of questions that took at least 20 minutes — if I hadn’t dismissed all those questions about grassroots leaders, it would have taken longer — and will require a frenzy of data entry. The manpower cost alone must be enormous.
The question on readers’ minds will surely be this: Assuming the People’s Association (PA) is paying for this survey, why it is paying for a survey loaded with questions unrelated to itself? What purpose are those questions intended to serve? Who else will have access to the results?
In fact, since the PA is funded with taxpayers’ money, shouldn’t the results be publicly available? There is no good reason why the survey data (in raw form) should not be publicly available when it’s the public paying for it. Please don’t trot out the ‘national security’ excuse again. And if the survey data is processed in any way (e.g. grouped by constituencies) and provided to third parties, the same grouped data should be publicly available too.
Next year, when the PA’s financial statements are released, we should look for this expense item, and members of parliament may want to ask why the survey was as large and as costly as it appears to be.