Saturday, February 9, 2013

Singapore's Population White Paper in review (Part 3): Mending the credibility gap in Government communications

If snap elections were called today, who would you vote for?

With Singapore abuzz over that now infamous 6.9 million figure, it's a safe bet many voters will give the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) a drubbing the likes of which they have never seen before.

We did not need a week's worth of Parliamentary debate on the Population White Paper (click here for your copy) to conclude that the House would eventually give it the thumbs up. The PAP's overwhelming majority guaranteed the 76-page review would be endorsed. So it was a foregone conclusion they would win this battle.

Outside the House, ground sentiments are strikingly different. Hearts and minds have not been won in the real world and in cyberspace.

Public relations shortcomings
With the Government's enormous public relations (PR) machinery at their disposal, with union leaders and grassroots organisations as their allies, with a compliant mainstream media waiting for them to call the shots, why did PAP spin doctors see their PR campaign die a painful death?

The short answer: The White Paper was the lightning rod for island-wide unhappiness over the party's refusal to listen and its inability to win credibility with Singaporeans.

Damage control would entail getting to the heart of why the party's messaging fails to resonate with Singaporeans.

Erosion of credibility
Party strategists should recognise that of the two failings, the gradual erosion of credibility is more damaging than one's inability to listen.

This is simply because if the party's credibility is in shambles, it would fail to connect with the people even if it is prepared to listen and act on heartlanders' feedback.

Why is Warren Buffet so popular among stock market punters? It is because his investment record has earned him immense credibility as a stock picker par excellence. Many Singaporean punters will happily lap up and trust his investment advice, never mind that they will probably never meet the man in their lifetime.

Why are some polyclinic doctors more popular with heartlanders? The queue outside their door is longer than newbie doctors because word would have gone round among heartlanders that the wait is well worth it. These doctors earned their trust with their patients with their track record in making sick people better.

Why are some casino tables more crowded than others? Those tables probably have some gambler with luck on his side. When one bet after another results in successful winnings, it will not take long for other gamblers to take notice of this winning streak. The crowd is there because punters want to ride on the good fortune and many will place their bet on the same outcome that this lucky person has predicted.

So why did the Population White Paper turn out the way it did?

Because credibility was eroded long before the first copy was printed.

Stealth immigration
The PAP's after-action review must recognise and accept that the finely-calibrated messages in the population review were compromised by lifestyle inconveniences brought on by stealth immigration some years ago. These were own goals.

The PAP government failed to tell Singaporeans that one million-plus immigrants would descend on their Little Red Dot from around 2005 onwards. Even businesses were caught wrong-footed by the stealth immigration and the intense (or unintended?) secrecy robbed transport planners of the lead-time needed to revise MRT train schedules and bus timings.

Our housing sector went haywire with prices of some HDB flats skyrocketing past the million-dollar level. Fresh graduates saw jobs stolen by foreign talent. Marriages were wrecked by smooth-talking FTs. Operationally-Ready National Servicemen (i.e. reservists) were seen as a liability by some companies who preferred to employ cheaper FTs with no NS liability.

Paying for miscomms
Thanks to the PAP's failure to communicate its intent to the same people who voted it into power, the common Singaporean was made to pay the price.

Fast forward to 2013. That same political party now wants to right past wrongs. They are trying to fight the last war by fixing every pain point from the last wave of immigration. The White Paper is supposed to convince us things will get better and is trumpeted as an example of transparency.

And when Singaporeans learn about its contents, all hell breaks loose.

The ground isn't sweet because various points in the White Paper are compromised by past failures that chipped away at the PAP's credibility.

For transport: Can one seriously expect Singaporeans to be cheered by news of a massive increase in the MRT network when a brand new MRT line cannot even run properly? The string of service disruptions that beset the Circle Line compromised credibility because these problems do not reassure people that upcoming train lines will be free from defects. Coupled with the fact that we have no definitive reason behind the SMRT's high-profile December 2011 breakdowns, the message that new MRT lines will solve congestion problems naturally fails to convince skeptics.

For immigrant management: There is an ominous silence on how immigrants actually come to this island. By this I don't mean by airplane, passenger ship or by bus from Malaysia. Singaporeans deserve to know how their future neighbours will come here as new citizens. Do they apply online? Are they picked by lucky draw? Does a foreign talent family simply pack their bags and arrive with all worldly belongings and then what?

The calibration of immigrant numbers is also a mystery. Who decides how many we need and on what basis?

Are we to be assured by news that the ratio of Malays in Singapore will "remain the same"? Does this mean if our Malay brethren heed the call to produce more children, some mysterious mechanism will kick in to import more PRCs to balance the racial makeup of Singapore so the ratio will "remain the same"?

For government preparedness: The White Paper reveals next to nothing about why planners failed to plan for the immigrant crush. This lack of planning is a major reason why Singaporeans look at their PAP government differently.

The population paper makes grudging reference to this lack of foresight in the Executive Summary: "By planning our infrastructure developments well in advance, and implementing them in a timely and effective way, we can overcome our current strains and congestion, and accommodate a larger population." PWP, Page 5

The reader has to wait till the last chapter before more is revealed. And here it is:"Major infrastructure planning requires long lead times and far-sighted planning and investment. To avoid falling behind in our infrastructure again, we will plan in advance etc etc...." PWP, Page 56

The White Paper's authors failed to use this opportunity to tell Singaporeans what went wrong. If there was a rewrite, this point should be expanded and brought right up front. Government communications was a let down. It was too academic in character - lofty, out of touch, cold and calculative - and lacked the warmth and sincerity one expects from their political leaders sharing messages on our country's future.

To be sure, most Singaporeans are not looking for a scapegoat. They just want to run their lives and need assurance that the same system that dropped the ball because of poor or inadequate planning isn't going to make the same mistake again.

First we had stealth immigration. Now we have a change of tactics where the White Paper appears to keep people informed on immigration matters. And just as a street flasher who exposes more than we are prepared to see, Singaporeans recoiled in horror at the vision of Singapore's future.

The PAP's publicists must think us mad: Say nothing and they get flak for trying to sneak in immigrants. Tell people in advance and they get flak for their vision of the future.

Unless its PR machinery plugs the credibility gap, assurances from party big wigs will amount to hot air people can do without.

Role of the private sector
The White Paper gives people the impression all bases are covered. But no one can tell if the government's sudden realisation it needs more and better infrastructure will be matched by the private's sectors ability to deliver the same within the same planning horizon.

What is the point of being able to get from A to B on some spanking new expressway/MRT line when food courts are packed because the private developer did not build in advance or had no funds to do so?

Better housing will be tripped up if residents who need to shop and entertain themselves end up seeing enormous queues at the NTUC, at the cinema and must time pee breaks judiciously because the shopping centre did not build enough toilets for the 6.9 million.

You and I may get the picture, but what about our long-term planners?

It is heartening to hear Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong indicate that a population review will kick in nearer to 2020. It signals nothing in the White Paper is carved in stone.

But before PM gets to 2020, he has to first cross 2016.

Gong Hei Fatt Choy.

You may also like:
Population White Paper: Getting the message and medium right. Click here
Population White Paper: Assessing the Commitment to Defence dimension. Click here
How not to manage irritating blog postings. Click here
Mastering social media comms. Click here

Coming soon:
SAF 2030


sgcynic said...

"A population review will kick in nearer to 2020". If all goes according to PAP's plan, we would have 6.5 million by then. But it will probably be only 6 million, cause as you have pointed out, in 2016, WE WILL GIVE THE PARTY THE DRUBBING IT HAS NEVER SEEN. Coming 16 Feb will be a preview.

Anonymous said...

Never seen such a lousy son of a bitch of a leader.

Anonymous said...

Economics are merciless, figures are heartless. PAP have the guts to face the facts but dont have the glib to convince its voters.

regardless who comes to power in 2016, 2020 or 2030, the cold hard facts will force the govt of the day to either act prudently as economics dictate, or see singapore sink into oblivion.

WP and any opposition party are no GOD, singaporeans will always demand the horse to run fast but no eat grass.

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