Sunday, June 04, 2006

Inconsistent Surveys, Polls and Values?

A straw poll done by The New Paper finds that cost of living and jobs are the most important election issues. These items are cited by more than 60 per cent of 150 people as those about which they have strong feelings.

When the PAP’s Eric Low does a survey of 12,000 people in Hougang, interim and lift upgrading are among the top desirables, together with better transportation.

A Straits Times survey of just over 400 people, meanwhile, finds that cost of living, jobs and housing are the most important issues. A quote from one of the ST reports:

“Close to nine in 10 say the cost of basics, including health care, public transport, food and utilities, can influence their vote. More than seven in 10 cited jobs and unemployment issues, while slightly below seven in 10 pinpointed housing.”

Enter the Institute of Policy Studies, and its survey of about 1,000 people and finds apparently otherwise. Here is what ST’s front page report says:

“A recent survey of Singapore voters has found that, contrary to popular belief, bread-and-butter issues such as the cost of living and jobs were not what mattered most to them. Instead, the top concerns were the need for an efficient government and fairness of government policy.

“These surprising findings were contained in a survey conducted just after the May 6 polls by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).

“ 'In the end, people don't really look to the Government for their pocket book issues to be settled at the ballot box. What they do want is a Government that is fair, that will treat all citizens equitably,' IPS senior research fellow Gillian Koh said.

“Eligible voters also said that they were influenced more by the need for alternative views and checks and balances in Parliament than by material concerns, whether it was cost of living or estate upgrading.”

And now, the PAP needs to change tack in the next election, says SM Goh Chok Tong, according to the front page report in The Sunday Times (June 4).

But wait, the stark difference between the IPS survey and the others should not be passed over without scrutiny as the PAP – or any other political party – kicks into action to revise and to re-strategise.

Why is it that one group of surveys and polls finds “bread-and-butter” issues of utmost importance while the another survey does not? Why are people saying one thing and then another?

My theory is that, in fact, the two groups of polls and surveys do not show inconsistent values in voters but different priorities assigned to these values at different times.

Each person can be said to have a prioritised list of values. The basic ones would include the bread-and-butter values, such as those in the newspapers’ poll and survey, but there would be others, too such as fair play, honesty, and so on.

The priority given to these values can change according to the situation the person finds himself in. For instance, he may strongly disagree with a political party’s position and be critical of it but when a foreign party enters the fray, his nationalistic values may come to fore as he ticks the foreign party off and, in the process, he may even defend the party he is critical of.

The newspapers’ and Eric Low’s polls and surveys were done prior to the GE. Bread-and-butter issues were, indeed, important to the people in these polls and surveys. Fair play, efficiency of government and so on, were also values but there was nothing, at the time, to cause a re-prioritisation, to put them higher on the list.

But then, the campaign started and I believe two issues made people re-prioritise their values. The first was estate upgrading, and the second, the treatment of James Gomez. In both these cases, there was as strong feeling that the PAP was not playing fair.

Hence when the IPS came along and asked them what was important to them, so close after GE 2006, they gave a higher priority to items like fairness of government. It did not mean that bread-and-butter issues were not important to them. They were just reporting what was important to them at the time.

An observation that can be made is that if the voters in Aljunied saw the treatment of James Gomez as a case of lack of fair play and hence gave his party a sizeable portion of their votes, the same cannot be said in Sembawang. There, the relatively poor showing by the SDP suggests that voters did not sense as much (if any) lack in fair play in the lawsuits taken out by the PAP against the SDP.

Will the re-prioritised values keep their places permanently? This is a tough one. There appears to be heightened consciousness of values beyond bread-and-butter ones. However, it would be a mistake to think that the basic values are not important any more and that they cannot move up in priority again given the right circumstances.


At 10:25 am GMT+8, Anonymous Billy said...

Dear Fisherman,

too much emphasis on bread and butter issues always leads to a jam, but these surveyors ought to be toasted.

The People know which side of their bread is buttered before and after an election.

But inevitably during the election period, having a strong opposition seems to be the hottest thing since sliced bread.

Yet, at the end of the day, it's always about "Show Me The Dough".

At 6:41 pm GMT+8, Anonymous Yawning Bread said...

I agree with your main argument: that the differences in polling results may simply reflect changing priorities. Certainly, if the next election is held in the midst of an economic downturn, livelihood issues can be expected to trump everything else.

However, all these surveys by IPS, ST, TNP (and straw polls are hardly surveys of much worth) have such different methods and questions, it's really hard trying to draw comparisons among them.

A final note: that fairness and checks and balances became as important as they did post-election can also be read in a new way: that the PAP's campaign was so hamfisted, they made themselves and their style the issues where at the start of the campaign, they weren't (at least not to such an extent).


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