Government online engagement – State of denial?

By Howard Lee

I refer to the letter by Mr Calvin Cheng, “‘Seeking clarifications’ online a disturbing trend” (16 July) published in the Straits Times.

Article written by former NMP, Calvin Cheng
Article written by former NMP, Calvin Cheng

Mr Cheng highlighted what he perceived to be a “bewildering and disturbing trend: that of questioning the veracity of government statements during a national crisis, and the belief that it is better to clarify uncertainties over the Internet rather than with government agencies.”

I believe both Mr Cheng and our government need to get in touch with the realities of modern communication. Governments around the world are grappling with citizen taking to the Internet to verify, share, raise doubts about and provide evidence for all sorts of information that come their way, with or without a crisis. They have learnt to adapt their resources to manage this inevitable trend, some fairing better than others. Should ours aim to be any different?

Indeed, our public service is more than adequately prepared to take up this challenge, fundamentally because a crisis does not happen every day such that this flow of information becomes unmanageable, and also because there is technology available to assist. Some might recall a master contract awarded for social media monitoring services, by what was then the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts. Was this service used effectively during the haze?

Our agencies have also proven to have responded commendably in crisis. During the haze, the National Environment Agency was able respond to quell online rumours about falsified PSI figures. On a regular basis, the Singapore Police Force has also been known to respond to tweets from citizens seeking information about criminal activity.

It is an inevitable fact that citizens are going online to get information. Indeed, it was Mr Lawrence Wong, MCI’s Senior Minister of State, who said in March 2013: “In the letter columns of our newspapers and in various online platforms, we now see more Singaporeans debating with one another advocating their respective positions sometimes before the government agency has time to reply to a letter you see a reply from another Singaporean. These are positive trends – they demonstrate our peoples’ desire to play a part in shaping the future of Singapore through robust dialogue and conversations, not only with the Government, but also with each other.”

Any government that hopes to plug into a more efficient way of communicating with its people will embrace the online world with all its dynamism and intricacies, not deny it.

Our leadership should not be adverse to this approach. In June 2012, MCI appointed Janadas Devan as its chief communication officer, whose stated role was to “lead the Information Service in enhancing its public communication network across the public sector”. Surely this appointment would have factored in the modern needs of the public service to engage online communities. I’m sure citizens would be eager to hear Mr Janadas’ strategic plan for doing so.

It is hence ludicrous for Mr Cheng to chastise Singaporeans who “turn to the Internet for conspiracy theories and advice instead of listening to and trusting the Government”. Trust is not to be asked for, but demonstrated through building a relationship based on mutual respect. If the government has not bothered to do so all this while, than it cannot blame citizens for having more faith in their own online communities.

Again, I cite Mr Wong: “But communication online is not the same as the traditional broadcast medium.  Social media is not a one way broadcast; it is not a monologue. Rather it is about dialogue; it is about participation; it is about engaging in an ongoing and meaningful conversation with stakeholders… It is one thing to have the platform where you clarify facts, but I think it is more important to engage online, to be present to engage, so that any distortions, half-truths and untruths can be corrected quickly, and we can all agree on a certain set of facts to debate from.”

When Minister Yaacob first thought of denigrating online media for spreading “false allegations”, perhaps he has forgotten to take a leaf from his own Senior Minister of State.

A shortened version of the above was sent to the Straits Times.