Saturday, February 2, 2013

Singapore's Population White Paper in review: Getting the message and medium right (Part 1)

Amirah (not her real name), an Entry Operations (Ticketing) crew with a major tourist attraction, leafed through the morning brief as she always did before the start of her work day.

Her attraction, along with many Singapore businesses, had expected a surge in business thanks to cash vouchers the Singapore Government planned to mail to Operationally-Ready National Servicemen (NSmen). These vouchers are the Government's way of thanking all NSmen and full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) for their contributions to NS, which marked its 45th year in 2012.

The morning brief indicated otherwise: the promo would be put on hold. NS45 vouchers would not be mailed on 29 January 2013 as planned. Amirah made a mental note of other ongoing promotions, lifted the sunscreen in her ticketing booth and began servicing the already-long queue of eager visitors waiting to buy tickets.

If one joins the dots, one may find that the prelude to the release of the Singapore Government's Population White Paper, A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore (click here for your copy), was marked by subtle messaging aimed at ensuring the document would receive as positive an audience as possible.

There are indications a public communications masterplan involving several ministries was charted out to show who would say what, at which point in time, so that the messaging would roll-out smoothly.

NS45 vouchers on hold
Whether by chance or deliberate intervention, the move to hold back NS45 vouchers was an astute one. The mailing date, 29 January, coincided with the release date for the Population White Paper. Hands up any NSman who has received your NS45 vouchers. Anyone? It's a safe bet many of you have not....

If the first wave of NS45 vouchers had gone to the SingPost mailroom as planned, NSmen across our island would have received them on Wednesday 30 January - the same day newspaper headlines stunned Singaporeans with news that our population could hit 6.9 million by the year 2030.

That news sent tongues wagging, fuelling lunchtime conversation and whipping up a storm of comments in the real and cyberworld so intense that by Friday, officialdom had to climbdown by saying that figure was a "worst-case scenario".

If the 6.9 million was a target and worst-case forecasting, the language used to sell that magic number in the Population White Paper certainly did not say so. It was a wasted opportunity in managing expectations and shaping perceptions of Singaporeans right from the first time they flipped through the document.

White Paper, black faces
Days after its release, it is clear the White Paper is responsible for many black faces among Singaporeans unhappy with the future Singapore we could march towards.

If the public communications plan failed, it was certainly not from want of effort. All signs indicate an all-of-Government approach in supporting its messaging.

Again, let's join the dots and see what we get:
Monday 14 January 2013: The 90 cents newspaper reports "13 fish farms in Pasir Ris to close by end 2014". By itself, an unremarkable story. But the closure of these farms indicated land use planners have bigger things in mind for the Pasir Ris area.

Thursday, 17 January: Minister for Transport Lui Tuck Yew announces plans to double the island's Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) rail network by 2030. Two new lines, three extensions would upsize Singapore's MRT network to some 360 km, up from 178 km today. Commuters interviewed cheer the news because it means a quicker commute and less congestion. Of course the vibes are positive: they do not know of the 6.9 million projection for Singapore's population by 2030 as the Population White Paper is still a classified document.

Monday, 28 January: Businesses informed NS45 vouchers would not be mailed from 29 Jan'13. This happens often enough with voucher promotions. Nothing remarkable.

Tuesday, 29 January: Release of Population White Paper charting roadmap for population policies from now till 2030. Singaporeans learn that the city-state may have 6.9 million people 17 years from now.

Thursday, 31 January: Release of Land Use Plan which spells out how Singapore intends to house a growing population by 2030.

Friday, 1 February: In a blog post, Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan explained that the 6.9 million figure is "not a forecast or a target". Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong jumps in to support the explanation.

What we see here are many spin doctors, doubtless working assiduously, pushing out their respective public communications messages.

What Singaporeans deserve is a better show of integration between the Government's public communications arms.

White Paper's biggest lapse
This lack of integration is the biggest failing of the 76-page Population White Paper which assails readers with a mass of forward-looking projections and factoids without explaining what it means for them.

Had the White Paper joined forces with the Land Use Plan, this upsized, joint document would be worth more than the contents of each document read on its own.

This is because readers would know that Singapore intends to house a larger resident through a long-term effort at relooking land use on mainland Singapore, through further reclamation and so on. It is more than merging content as the synergy from the effort would mean 1+1 is more than 2.
In a similar vein, the PR effort that told Singaporeans the MRT network would double by 2030 achieved nothing except to sow false hopes before the Population White Paper was declassified.

The average Singaporean would probably have been cheered by news of plans to scale up the MRT network (assuming their home or business would not be hit by land acquisition to build this network). This means the PR messaging and Page 1 stories on 18 Jan'13 were a success.

All this goodwill was derailed once that same individual learned of the 6.9 million figure because the number conjures mental images of overcrowded trains.

Everything should have been better orchestrated to help Singaporeans understand better the limitations of their country and assure them steps are been taken to address pain points.

Alas, the best intentions and the sharpest and most crisply written news release in Singapore will never achieve its objective if credibility of the source has been compromised.

Stay tuned for Part 2 as we dive into the Population White Paper to examine its implications on the SAF orbat and national security issues.

You may also like:
Credible feedback process needed on population issues. Click here


Anonymous said...

Dear David, The govt believes native Sporeans are daft, therefore they blatantly write a White Paper with no facts, substance, figures, co-ordination and shaft it down our throats. The "genocide of native Sporeans" started in 2004 Now is the next wave to keep the powers in power by robbing our land, water, monies, schools, unis, medical care, etc and NS=lives to bring in "Fifth World Ftrash" Not third world trash. The govt should stop and get on with fixing the current list of issues. Best regards

jang said...

Dear David,

Hope that you can touch on issues related to C2D as a result of the population target in the second part of your post. Would like to see your views on it.


Anonymous said...

When they started the NS highway project and clearing bbc, i already smell this coming.

When they said they are building more flats, spent 1.1 billion to buy buses, double confirm this is coming.

When they said they are going to double the MRT lines, triple confirm this is coming.

These people only have $$ in their minds and hearts. Not at any point in time do i believe that all the above is to relieve the current problem we are suffering due to the 5.3 million people. They are not staying the pigeon holes or taking the public transport. They are untouchable !

6.9 million is a figure to test the water, i believe they are looking at 8 , 10 or even15 millions ultimately.

Singaporeans, please wake up and unite as one before we become extinct. Its a form of '' genocide".

Sad but true ?!!

Anonymous said...

Too late. Your vote is gone forever. See how many hundreds of thousands of new citizens vote in 2016.

Anonymous said...

A bit out of topic here. Anyone notice the obituary of BG(Ret) Dr Lim Meng Kin in the papers today? He was the Chief Medical Officer during the Hotel New World disaster.

Anonymous said...

The plan was in place, and presumably well planned. The PE by-election threw up the need to announce the various project as 'incentives' to vote PAP. Now we all know the projects are to be for our new fellow citizens.

Gary said...

This reminds of a conversation I had a few days ago about the by-election. Nobody seemed to have noticed commented on the chain of events.

Mar 2012 - White Paper on Population reported being worked on, due by the end of 2012.

Nov 2012 - MTI Occasional Paper already hints at immigration and foreign worker influx not relenting. Needed to be "calibrated" to support continued economic growth.

11 Dec 2012 - Michael Palmer resigns because affair.

09 Jan - By-election announced for 26 Jan.

11 Jan - Property cooling measures announced. Sold as a measure to stem rising housing prices and further differentiating and favouring citizens, over PRs and over non-residents.

18 Jan - Expansion of MRT network by 2030 announced. No hint that it was developed amid an overaching masterplan to increase the population significantly.

21 Jan - Marriage and Parenthood package announced.

26 Jan - By-election

29 Jan - Population White Paper announced.

This chain of events makes me highly suspect the Palmer affair seriously derailed the Government's plans to manage the news of increasing the population. Methinks they had to stall the announcement and call a by-election before it for obvious reasons. But the announcement of the more populist initiatives during the campaign period clearly shows them quite blatantly manipulating the electorate. Not that that is terribly sinister and not within their prerogative but it is distasteful nonetheless. Also I think they had to squeeze this all before the budget 2013 debate (which starts now I think)or risk delaying the setting of things in motion for another year.

Paul Ananth Tambyah said...

BG Lim, passed away on Thurs. He was a real hero - someone who actually risked his life for Singapore - see
His account of the event is also very instructive -
I had the privilege of serving as his SO in the then HQMC. Rest in Peace BG Lim

Anonymous said...

Not sure how the delay in distributing the NS package had any relevance, but thanks for this post. Enjoyed reading it. And good point, Gary.