Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sing Govt's pledge for more openness requires rewiring the system's sensitivity to feedback, removal of vindictive mindset for views it dislikes

In some countries, openness between a government and its people is a given.

In Singapore, the government's pledge to be more open makes Page One news (ST, Govt pledges to be more open, 21 October 2011) - which says a lot about the current state of affairs.

This well-intentioned move will not gain traction without a concerted effort to rewire the system's regard for, reaction to and treatment of Singaporeans who raise feedback.

It is one thing to call for better government-to-people communications. It is quite another dealing with the impression that the system harbours a grudge against people who actually make the effort to speak up. However grand the intention, the first point will not succeed if the impression that the system is small minded, hyper sensitive and vindictive lingers.

When playwright Alfian Sa'at had his application as a relief teacher rejected by the Ministry of Education in June 2007, netizens suspected it had more to do with the tone and subject matter of Mr Sa'at's writings than his qualifications as an educator.

When Opposition supporter Geraldine Soh lost her customer service officer job at a town council in May this year, opinion was split over whether this move was triggered by work performance issues or whether it had something to do with her volunteer role at an Opposition rally.

There are other examples. Not all involve Singaporeans. This includes the 2004 case involving SPR Ryan Goh, who was an SIA pilot.

Such incidents resonate with Singaporeans who have experienced the system's wrath personally. They fuel the impression that the system has low or no tolerance for people with a different social outlook/point of view and is prepared to hit Singaporeans where it hurts most - their rice bowls.

I get the same impression whenever I hear media professionals bemoan how access to certain newsmakers can be switched on and off, depending on whether the tone of the story is acceptable. Such Pavlovian-like social conditioning will damage our country in the long run because the system is signalling that it does not accommodate news that could hurt its ears.

In many specific cases analysed, it is a certain individual or group of influential mandarins in a ministry/stat board/GLC who take a dislike to the choice of words or editing style - rightly the perogative of a news editor - rather than the accuracy of a report. When miffed, they withdraw or hold back access to indicate their unhappiness. Heaven only knows whether the MIW's political appointee (i.e. the Minister) is suitably appraised of such action, but I would guess that Ministers have better things to do than meddle with five cents/10 cents issues such as the day-to-day running of press relations.

In 2009, I paid the price for writing a letter on training safety in the Singapore Armed Forces to a local newspaper and for offending the then-DPA with my online comparisons between MINDEF's Public Affairs Directorate and the Army Information Centre. For as long as I live, I will never forget that episode.

Such punitive action is a blunt instrument that cuts down the well-meaning and malicious alike. It breeds a dysfunctional culture where bad news is swept under the carpet or sugarcoated because an honest, clear and concise appraisal of the situation may offend sensitive bosses.

Worse yet, ambitious individuals may know which buttons to press to advance their career and enhance their CEP because the rewards for towing the line can be tangible and are indeed not insignificant. These Machiavellians are the enemy within that the system has to watch out for because they put self interest over that of the organisation they serve.

I harbour the impression that there is a deliberate effort to blacklist individuals and create a cordon sanitaire by excluding these blacklisted individuals from certain life options.

By extending this exclusion zone all over the island, over time and over a myriad of issues that Singaporeans care enough about to speak up on, such an approach could poison Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's call for building heartware with Singaporeans (more to the point, the GE 2016 voters).

It also creates conditions for a perfect storm when bad feelings are built up in various arenas of public debate and the system has fewer champions to defend it or explain its point of view.

Whether it is in *insert your topic of choice*, this rice bowl wrecking combo of exclusion plus retribution in our tiny city-state gives rise to ever increasing numbers of people who turn their backs on the MIW (Men in White, the colloqial term for ruling People's Action Party) out of frustration or sheer disillusionment with the system.

Are you then surprised that the MIW come under fire whatever topic comes up for discussion on online forums like Yahoo news?

It is ironic that when I catch up with individuals belonging to or allied with the MIW, I can sense that their commitment to serve is neither fake nor self-serving. But there seems to be a serious disjoint between the MIW leadership's inner thought processes and how Singaporeans at large perceive these individuals.

This image disjoint - for example when things are good the MIW takes all the credit and during a recession it's the fault of the global economy - is regrettable because these individuals have their hearts in the right place. They just don't seem to know how to project themselves better, short of Facebook postings and grip-and-grin opportunities in the mainstream media.

Remember that in a city-state with a small population, the number of people who are articulate and prepared to share their views is finite. We are an Asian society and the ones prepared to step up and speak up are the exceptions, not the norm.

When feedback is handled with a heavy hand, this sort of vindictive behaviour will trip up efforts in consensus-building because those who speak up will quickly realise we're all forced encouraged to sing the same tune.

The less articulate and less gutsy won't even bother making their presence felt, but will lurk and continue to snipe anonymously in assorted online platforms.

Those whose rice bowls have been broken will continue to fight on, perhaps with sharper criticism and stronger determination than ever before because they have nothing more to lose, really.

We do not feel the full effects of the perfect storm now. This is simply because the causes people are passionate about are disparate (example: the Bukit Brown greenies may not care what military nuts are passionate about and vice versa) and the various commentators have no reason to cross paths.

It would take a national event such as a GE for you to see the perfect storm in action. That's when almost every issue the MIW had a hand in becomes a lightning rod for criticism online and offline.

At a national level, more openness and better communications may be a strategic ideal.

Alas, Singaporeans who have spoken up know that the system is hardwired to respond in a certain way. These tactical responses kick into play way below the pay grade of the PM and will take some effort to counteract because it is an attitude that has been ingrained - maybe even tacitly encouraged? - over decades.

I bet that if you trawled every grid square on the Singapore map from Changi Point to Tuas, you will find many more individuals with stories similar to Alfian Sa'at and Geraldine Soh that never made the news.

Every one is a lost opportunity at building heartware and a potential obstacle to the vision of engaging Singaporeans.

In this case, the potential roadblock to PM Lee's vision is the system itself.


Anonymous said...

i totally disagree that just the lower beings have a vindictive mindset when it comes to views which the govt doesn't like. history and records have shown it goes right to the top. and there are so many of these cases!

today, one has only to listen to the ministers' speeches at the recent sitting of parliament to see it hasn't changed one lick. and who do you think is calling for the clampdown on the cowboy towns where the lunatic fringe hang out?!

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with anonymous above. The people down the line take the cue from their bosses. In fact, many a time, people below don't agree with what goes out but are powerless to do anything. If they try to reason with the top, it doesn't take a genius to know what they will get from their bosses. And when I say "bosses", I mean people high up!

Anonymous said...

what does this Oct 30 entry got to do with Singapore's military/defence ?

Anonymous said...

In the corporate world, it is the top boss that sets the company culture. In the case of Singapore Inc, it is no different. LKY has set the culture, and the subordinates have no choice but to follow if they wish to preserve their rice bowls. Singapore is so small that once your rice bowl is crack, no one is willing to repair it.

GCT and LHL have inherited the culture but they either have embraced it or have not seen its flaws. Singaporeans are still screwed whether we like it or not.

Anonymous said...

The well of goodwill has already been poisoned... Expect a major shock come 2016...