REACHing out? Try a little humility first

Howard Lee/

Today published an article on 24 May, “Going through REACH alone might not work”.

The headline is about as close as we will get to the People’s Action Party admitting that the crown jewel of its engagement efforts since the dawn of Goh Chok Tong’s consultative style of government has really fallen flat on delivery.

But the key reason why REACH remains ineffective is not that it does not reflect ground sentiment. Rather, REACH has failed chiefly because the ruling party has done little more than let it be a sounding board for the people without a clear plan for it to a) have an organised system of honest two-way engagement, and b) be the same platform for closing the feedback loop, if at all.

Zaqy Mohamad puts it best, but still mildly, when he said, ”to have all Government communications only go through REACH is very difficult because online space is so diverse”. The online world is not just diverse. It is no-nonsense and unforgiving, intimately personal, and voluntarily generates synergy and evolution of ideas.

I could give a blow-by-blow elaboration of what each of these qualities mean, but suffice to say that the PAP, and by extension REACH as a consultative platform, has not been able to accept hard criticism, empathise with the direct needs and aspirations of citizens, and keep up with the growth and emergence of a groundswell of differing positions on problems identified and solutions proposed.

REACH remains a black-hole, and the ruling party has been happy to let it be that way. This has resulted in a growing distrust of the channel, chiefly by the online community, which ironically is the key group that the ruling party needs to build trust with.

Instead, terms such as “astroturfing” and “wild wild web” has been used when proposals are at odds with the set policy direction. The result has been a distancing of the online community, who migrate their woes and aspirations to their own communities. At one end of this larger online realm beyond REACH, civil society is built independently, which contributes to the progress of the nation without contributing to the sanctioned national conversation. At the other end, perceived futility festers and is reflected in the finale of democratic choices – the ballot box.

Today, the PAP (by choice) and the public service (likely by grudging adherence) is so far behind in cyberspace, that they have lost the momentum and trust that is needed to be effective. To get back in this circle of trust, the steps to take will be phenomenal, by overcoming ideological barriers as much as by physical effort.

Yes, you heard me right. The political elite has squandered its chances of building an honest and consultative position online, picked its fights as it sees fit, and practically ignored the validity of online communities instead of establishing itself as part of it. It has placed itself in a position of self-appointed supremacy, when the online world demands precisely a community where social position matters little. It will now have to struggle, perhaps grovel, more than twice as hard as it had originally thought needed, if it wishes to enter cyberspace.

Yes, you heard me right again. Enter, not re-enter. The political elite has never stepped into the online world before. So far, it has created its own little playgrounds, at best some playgrounds with a token thin line to the carnivals of reality beyond their safe fences. It has realised, hopefully not too late, that it is paying the price for its arrogance. Hence, all the recent promises to listen to the people.

The simple solution would be to kill REACH and all other so-called
feedback channels that are establishment-owned, listen in to the
online conversations that are already on-going, and be led by them
rather than try to lead them. When sufficient action has been taken to implement the ideas generated from these conversations, some semblance of trust should have been established. Only then do we talk about having an official government online feedback channel.
But how critical is online engagement in this listening process, compared to face-to-face interactions, to be worth the dignity and effort? Actually, it is not mandatory, but there are three distinct advantages:

Speed – The conversation is already there, just tap into it. The online world has earned, if nothing else, the reputation for rapidly getting its hands on issues. In addition, the ideas that are generated from the mere mention of issues spread and multiply easily. If you are looking for a quick brainstorming session, forget the traditional face-to-face forum. Just search for your topic of interest, and chances are you will be in the middle of a firestorm. The challenge would be to sort out the critical from the cynical, but even the downright rude can be valuable as a gauge of ground sentiment.

Honesty – Say what you like about anonymous cyberspace, it is nevertheless one place where people do not disguise their true views about issues. But to benefit from this, the ruling party needs to get off its high horse and accept that not having a name to the idea does not mean the idea is worthless. I tend to believe we lost many good solutions because of this, just as we did when the ruling party failed to give credit to a known opposition voice with a sensible suggestion.

Alternatives – Acknowledging that you do not have all the answers is one thing. But if you still refuse to accept that someone else might have it, that’s just plain arrogance. The benefit of going online is to tap on the wisdom of the crowd, to discover alternative solutions or maybe even new problems. Strangely, there are already known methods and a budding industry that allows access to and analysis
of this wisdom, only lacking the political will and humility to use it

At the end of the day, the secret to a successful online engagement strategy is not about reach, or REACH for that matter. The Singapore online population has grown weary over the years, not of too little done, but of what was done. The PAP to date has focused on reaching out to citizens online, but has given scant regard for understanding us in any real way, beyond paying lip service to bulk
of our grouses.

Technology was exploited, but in a very bad way. The way to redemption is not about “teching it up” some more, as Alex Au seems to suggest in the Today article with digital townhalls. It
is about getting back to the fundamentals of what it means to go online, doing what every blog/forum/Facebook junkie has been doing all this while.

It is about being level and honest, valuing ideas and ideals for what they are worth, not just who utters them, respecting and reveling in diversity rather than view it as messy and flippant. It is about a change in attitude, the courage to act on views that demonstrate precisely how clueless our best-paid brains can be. It is about a certain humility that we are only beginning to see in the ruling party, but would definitely be the better side we have seen in decades.

The writer has been focusing on REACH for a while. Too long a while, in fact.

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