Thursday, November 4, 2010

Nuclear energy for Singapore? A first look at the Lion City's information management and PR strategy for nuclear energy

If you have been tracking Singapore’s strategic resources, you’re likely to notice that your file of newspaper clippings on nuclear energy has been getting fatter recently.

If you haven’t been tracking Singapore's energy options, this blog post will bring you up to speed.

The Singaporean government appears to be easing people’s mindsets towards nuclear power through statements made at seminars and Parliament sittings.

This is strategic public relations (PR) in action. In other words, the long-term cultivation of mindsets and points of view through overt and subliminal messaging using the mass media and other devices.

It long as your message is consistent and credible.

This isn’t the case for nuclear energy.

As recently 14 December 2007, the Today newspaper published a story in which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ruled out nuclear energy as a power source.

Three years later, there’s been a clear change of heart.

This week, Singaporeans woke up to see the banner headline in The Straits Times which said: “Govt preparing for nuclear power option”.

“It will be a long time before we make any decision on nuclear energy,” said PM Lee in the ST Page 1 lead story. “But we should get ourselves ready to get ready to do so. That means to give Singapore the ability to exercise the option should it one day become necessary and feasible."

No time frame was given.

But in the same story, PM Lee did say that Singapore might arrive at a decision on nuclear energy “possibly during my lifetime”. PM Lee was born in 1952.

The change of heart which is apparent from the two newspaper stories underlines the PR rule of not making definitive statements from which no climbdown is possible without loss of face/credibility.

If one has to sound decisive, do give yourself some wriggle room should future, unforeseen circumstances arise which force you to sing a new tune.

Ships have been sunk after being declared unsinkable.

Fortresses have been captured which were deemed impregnable. Case in point: Fortress Singapore.

Closer to home, torrential rainstorms have reappeared after being described as something we'd see once in 50 years. Don't we know how that PR fiasco panned out?

The takeaway from PR gaffes in the past is this: Many were own goals from improper media coaching or slips of the tongue.

For a potentially explosive (excuse the pun) issue like nuclear energy, utmost care must be taken to inform and educate Singaporeans and neighbouring countries in a timely manner.

Thus far, Team Singapore has done well.

This brings us back to the Today story in which PM Lee ruled out nuclear power. Reading through the story closely, one would come across the line in which PM Lee said the Republic's dependence on fossil fuels was unlikely to go away within the next 10 years.

This line saves the game because it gives the newsmaker room to manoeuvre, now that the nuclear option is being examined thoroughly.

Once Singaporeans wake up to the reality that their household appliances and home computers will one day be juiced up by nuclear power, it won’t take long before an anti-nuke lobby takes root in Singapore. Looking at the anti-nuke lobby in foreign lands, we can expect many of these voices will be strident, emotional and vociferous in their demands.

The quality of Singapore's PR and information management strategy will make or break public perceptions towards having a nuclear reactor in (or more correctly, under) Singapore island.

And if that PR war plan fails, one can always blame journalists for taking quotes out of context and dreaming up a sensational headline to sell newspapers. This has happened before. Many times.


Ben Choong said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ben Choong said...

*earlier typo*

Strategic ambiguity - to set goals in a certain direction but not making things clear so that there is room for 'creativity'.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out. Given that no small amount of the younger generation has played or seen Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, in which a mission takes place in the vividly detailed ghost town of Prypiat, I wonder how resistant will Singaporeans be to this idea

David Boey said...

Hi bdique,
Coming from the Space Invader generation where Galaxian was cutting edge, I had to google Call of Duty and Prypiat to figure out the link with nuclear power.

Have since realised that Prypiat is the abandoned town near Chernobyl.

The info management for nuke reactors must steer clear of simply presenting dry scientific arguments (it's safe, it's efficient, not had a meltdown since dunno when etc) while ignoring people's misgivings towards having a reactor on S'pore soil.

Ben Choong said...

Hey David,

Yikes! I had to Google Galaxian to find out what it was >.< I did remember playing Space Invaders though :P

Thankfully imagery of Prypiat is not salient (I think!) in most Singaporean's minds. A small thriving town abandoned due to a nuclear accident is a pretty bad mental image - the fact that Singapore is an island nation with only the sea to run to is not going to help things either!

That being said, if the government can find a way to safely generate nuclear energy i.e. underground, personally I'm for it, but that's me. I have to agree though, a purely logical argument is not going to work. We are humans after all, not robots acting on which choice offers the greater benefit.

diCam said...

Read the news report "Oil will run out 100 years before new fuels developed: study" at CNA.

Is this a good reason for Singapore to develop nuclear power plant?