Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sing govt's pledge to engage citizens will face tough tests in 2012

Whether or not those dark clouds on the horizon will result in an economic storm next year, the system's public relations (PR) professionals better belt up for a hectic 2012.

It won't be business as usual and stock replies plucked from the time-tested PR stylebook are likely to fall flat because the game has changed in three major ways.

Firstly, corporate disclosure in 2011 was cheered by report cards that reflected a global economic recovery. After the financial crisis of 2008, this year was no annus horribilis thanks to the recovery that kicked in last year. The report card tabled by Singaporean sovereign wealth funds and government-linked companies therefore showcased respectable performance figures and nice sounding text that describe the growth story.

This may not be the case in 2012. The benchmark set this year with full page, full colour ads in the mainstream media will expose the system's PR professionals to brickbats when the numbers don't look so rosy. Steering clear of publicising the results in major newspapers will not help as people would read it as a retrograde movement that unravels the benchmarks in corporate disclosure set this year.

When one's portfolio of investments is bruised, the standard response that investments are, ahem, "long term" may not go down well with heartlanders who have heard it all before. This may be true. This may indeed reflect a financially sound and prudent approach to coaxing maximum value from one's investment war chest. But outsiders may not share the same long term vision, especially when the dollar amount of losses (realised or paper losses) is trailed by many zeros.

The volume and intensity of criticisms in the real world and cyberspace will go hand in hand with the extent of losses reported - the higher the sum, the greater the fury.

Corporate disclosure is a double edged instrument. This means that whether the report card is good or bad, a poorly-written media statement or unconvincing sound bite may come back to haunt the system the next time Singaporeans head to the polls.

Secondly, one needs to recognise that world opinion on matters of national concern to the Singaporean government, such as nuclear energy and National Service, will make it more challenging explaining such matters to people on this island.

The days when the system's spin doctors could reinforce an argument with a string of first world countries who made similar decisions is fast slipping away. In the case of nuclear energy, one will be hard pressed to argue the case for nuclear power when industrial heavyweights such as Germany and Japan appear to be turning away from nuclear power to other sources of clean energy.

The challenges in explaining the need for and importance of National Service (NS) are similar to that faced by nuclear energy proponents because the number of countries who maintain conscript armies is dwindling. Taiwan is the latest example.

The old chestnut that NS is needed for citizens in the Lion City to sleep well at night will lose its appeal at a time when our neighbours are all smiles and courtesy. Furthermore, the lack of depth in defence discussions here coupled with the general reluctance by the Singaporean Ministry of Defence to foster such debate may prompt people to rationalise that the Special Operations Task Force, rather than armed teenage soldiers, are Singapore's best defence against transnational terrorism.

Thus far, foreign deployments spearheaded by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) have all relied on professional arms such as air, naval and special forces, raising a poser in some minds whether NS is still relevant in this changing strategic milieu.

If you think about it, the publicity generated by the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States may prod people in Singapore to likewise ponder over the issue of corporate payscales. More to the point, heartlanders may see an oblique link between the restiveness shown by Americans towards payscales on Wall Street with the hot potato issue of ministerial pay scales. Mind you, both issues are explosive and unresolved.

The paradigm has changed. Standard PR lines for damage control or consequence management that may have worked wonderfully well in the recent past need to be recast to reflect changing world opinion.

Lastly, the success (of lack thereof) of the system's spin doctors in handling the PR challenges of 2012 will indicate whether or not Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's call to engage Singaporeans and be more open has been taken to heart... or given mere lip service.

One can obviously follow the old PR playbook with the same old standard responses repackaged for local consumption.

But there is a price to pay for half-hearted explanations of a fait accompli in government decisions. There is a penalty incurred for reacting to feedback from citizens rather than proactively championing the same, and a cost for typecasting cynics and critics of a particular standpoint as dangerous radicals out to tear down the house.

To a defence-aware audience, the word "engage" has two meanings.

One is the warm, fuzzy, consultative spirit that PM Lee surely had in mind when he urged MPs in the 12th Parliament to engage their constituents better.

The second meaning is the kind of engagement the SAF is used to. In this instance, to engage means to kill (in the context of hearts and minds, this is a metaphor).

One hopes the system can tell the difference between the two and engage Singaporeans properly.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

your current malaysian employer must be giving you a high salary for you to start writing this type of article about Singapore.