Of politics and policy, canvassing and engagement

~by: Howard Lee~

By the time you read this, Parliament would probably be in session, or maybe over. Following a startling year of general and Presidential elections, we now have a President that has a questionable mandate, a record number of elected opposition candidates, and a ruling party that has barely two third of the nation’s vote. All makes for interesting politics.

As such, many are expecting that Parliament would never be the same, not to mention the fringe excitement of the fireworks expected of an emboldened opposition sparing with many a newbie from the ruling People’s Action Party thrust into key political appointments.

But to think so would really be to extend the hype and excitement of the elections. It is interesting to note that even the Workers’ Party has categorically declared that it would not oppose for the sake of opposing. It would appear that the impending fireworks will be rather civil, and by all counts it should be that way.

It should now be a time for our elected representatives to roll up their sleeves and get down to doing what they have been elected to do. In other words, it is time to get out of politics and into policy. This should be realised in changes and updates to existing policies that Singaporeans so wanted to see, which I believe drove the decisions that many voters made in this election year.

To their credit, some Ministries have been ahead of others. The Ministry of National Development, for instance, has been quick to tweak policies that made it easier for aspiring flat owners. It does not solve the fundamental issue of what many believe to be the root causes of housing costs, but killing some cow is better than killing none.

The Ministry of Environment and Water Resources have convened an international panel to study urban flood mitigation.

The Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports has initiated at least two public consultation exercises, the Enabling Masterplan and Vision 2030.

But these efforts, while progressive to varying degrees, lack learning from two key lessons of the 2011 elections: Transparency, and perceived responsiveness.

For too long, the ruling party has been wont to push out policies with little or token consultation, and those that did reside in controlled environments, such as REACH and face-to-face channels. Actions have been public suspect because there was no clear documented proof that they were the wishes of the people. The “we do things this way because, while we have heard you to the contrary, we ultimately know better than you” has been used once too often. So we can’t really blame Singaporeans for being critical of their intent, no matter how consultative they have been.

If anything, the 2011 elections have also proved that online conversations have the effect of enhancing transparency. When Channel NewsAsia interviewed a number of our Ministers about their online engagement efforts, they might really be on to something. Because the proof for policy decisions can no longer be “Minister knows best”. Increasingly, our elected representatives must demonstrate that what we bother to voice out to them in the public domain needs to be accounted for in their policy decisions, or risk ridicule for being arrogant, self-serving, or any combination of bad vibes.

And it is clear that cyberspace has an ever increasing influence on Singaporean lifestyle and how we negotiate and navigate our public space. Believe what you like about the latest survey by the Institute of Policy Studies, 2010 statistics from the Infocomm Development Authority indicated that more than 80 per cent of the populations is connected to the Internet. Separately, more than half of our population is on Facebook.

So as we roll into a new political landscape – or to be exact, roll out of the political landscape into a working policy one – our elected representatives need to realise the mandatory transition into an open and honest engagement with their constituents. In this new environment, function matters more than form. It is not just sufficient to be seen online. It is more critical to demonstrate that what goes online is taken as valid feedback and in turn informs policy decision.

And in this new environment, we find the same efforts by those interviewed by CNA lacking.

Khaw Boon Wan’s blog technically did not feel very different from his predecessor’s – a mono-directional rambling with comments disabled.

Lui Tuck Yew’s Facebook page held many discussion threads, but he demonstrated little participation, much less an indication of how he plans to incorporate feedback into his policy decisions.

Tan Chuan-Jin’s Facebook page, while a great representation of his grassroots work, does little to expand on his take on policy issues, and his interview with the Straits Times describes this reluctance as much.

Chan Chun Sing’s Facebook page documented a number of discussion topics, until you realise that they are event postings for face-to-face forums, without any discussion records.

And if you take a closer look at the Facebook activity of many Members of Parliament, it is clear that they continue to be elections-driven, playing up grassroots activities and interactions with residents through meet-the-people sessions. If our elected representatives are permitted to do some naval-gazing online, these pages best describe it. The problem is, these ramblings are too painfully obtuse to even be amusing.

Least you think I’m taking on just the juggernaut, a quick browse of WP’s website and Facebook page (as well as the pages of its elected representatives) and the Singapore People’s Party’s website and Facebook page yielded similar results.

These online engagement efforts begs a few questions: How does the discussion here advise how you formulate your Ministry’s policy? How does your online activity guide your decisions in Parliament sittings? If I was unable to attend all your face-to-face dialogues, how would I judge your effectiveness as a policy maker to give you that vote of confidence again? Most importantly, as a netizen, how do I participate in what you have planned for our country?

Perhaps I am being too demanding, and these will in no way reflect what we will see on 10 October. Perhaps even public figures deserve their private time online. Perhaps it would be too difficult for our elected representatives to respond directly to each and every suggestion. And in truth, having a totally open discussion on everything might not always lead to the most constructive policy outcome. But if so, why open the channel to begin with, when your policy formulation clearly remains anything but transparent, multi-directional and citizen-driven?

If our political leadership wishes to engage Singaporeans online, let’s do it with efficiency and not let it unravel into idle chatter, and still claim it to be “engagement”. Otherwise, nothing has really changed, and we cannot be blamed for seeing these efforts cynically as advance canvassing for the next elections.


The writer apologies that he is unable to trawl all sites to fully evaluate examples of transparent policy engagement online. But if you come across any, please post them here.

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