This piece was written for the NUS Students’ Political Association The Diplomat publication. I was a panelist at their Top Gun Forum held on 17 October 2012 which had discussed government-citizens engagement since GE2011. I had contributed this article in October at their invitation. This issue of The Diplomat will only be distributed in January 2013. The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Workers’ Party or the NUSPA.
Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, minister for the new Ministry of Communications and Information, said in a TODAY news report that more ministries and statutory boards are stepping up efforts to make their presence felt online by having Facebook and Twitter accounts. The government has also started a National Conversation with citizens. Since GE2011, the government seems to have a renewed zest to want to be seen to engage.
It is good that the government wants to engage with citizens. However, I think in order to truly engage, government institutions need to go beyond posting information on Facebook and Twitter. One can use these channels to disseminate information, but is that true engagement? How prepared are these institutions to be open with information and be responsive to alternative views? How will they deal with hard questions?
It is not the first time the government wants feedback from citizens. In 1985, it set up the Government Feedback Unit. It was once referred to by then-PAP backbencher Dr Amy Khor as “a black hole from which no light emits”. She was later asked to chair the Unit, which was renamed as REACH, or Reaching Everyone for Active Citizenry @ Home. The Government Feedback Unit and REACH are supposed to be already engaging citizens actively on a continuous basis. Also, we had major one-time exercises such as S21 and Remaking Singapore.
Despite these efforts, we see growing discontentment on the ground, made more visible by the easy availability of social media for citizens to voice unhappiness. Why have the government’s efforts been less than successful in winning over the hearts of the people?
I believe there has to be a mindset change in the way the government deals with feedback.
I am no stranger to giving feedback. Prior to becoming a politician in March 2011, I was actively writing to the forum pages of newspapers since 1993. From 2007-2009, I became a member of a policy workgroup in REACH, by their invitation.
My occasional frustration in dealing with government agencies are their sometimes evasive replies when it comes to hard questions. In February 2011, in response to news coverage of Budget2011, another contributor and I wrote separately to The Straits Times over how the government supports preschools beyond PCF and non-profit centres. MCYS and MOE made a joint reply which did not fully answer the questions. It prompted former NMP Siew Kum Hong to make a blog post titled “Answering the question you wish had been asked”. In it, he lambasted the joint reply as choosing to evade some parts of the questions.
I continued to pursue the issue after I had become a parliamentarian. It took me several parliamentary questions and speeches before I could extract more answers regarding government’s support for the preschool industry. I found there were occasions where ministries seem to miss out answering parts in questions filed in parliament. In January 2012, I asked about foreign scholarships by our government. I was instead given the figures for ASEAN scholars. I had to follow up in a subsequent parliament sitting to extract the figures for all foreign scholars. That prompted blogger Alex Au to question why the full figures were not disclosed initially.
In our REACH’s workgroup, we made bold recommendations to improve the preschool sector. I found our challenge was not about extracting feedback from the ground. It was to persuade policymakers who would rather have status quo, to go for change. I noted our toughest but most required recommendations were avoided.
In an interview with The Straits Times, former permanent secretary, Mr Ngiam Tong Dow said that “the civil service is in danger of auto-pilot, unwilling to change until reality hits”. He also commented that some civil servants even behave like little Lee Kuan Yews, believing they have the mandate from heaven.
I believe for true engagement to take place, there has to be an attitude change in policymakers. Ground feedback should not be deemed as “noises” and social media viewed as being dominated by those on the “lunatic fringes”. If the government wishes to engage using new media, it must be prepared to deal with some messiness. It must come with an open mind to sieve out and seriously consider good alternative views. Suggestions can come from all mediums – through REACH, through online media, through the forum pages of mainstream media, through focus group discussions and even through other political parties. Amidst the many voices on social media, I have often found sensible opinion pieces.
Engaging is not about disseminating carefully crafted press releases to the public. It is being open with information, being open-minded enough to consider suggestions, and bold enough to push for difficult policy changes when it is necessary to do so.
The government can start with enacting a Freedom of Information Act to make accurate information more openly available to citizens, so that citizens do not have to seek out alternative sources of information. With proper information, citizens can then dialogue more meaningfully with the government.