Changing rules of engagement with a questioning electorate

By Ghui

I have always hated the term “generation gap”. It is a term generally used to say, “it cannot be helped that we do not understand each other”, when it is usually little more than an excuse for a lack of effort.

Instead of putting energy into narrowing the divide, blame is being placed on an artificial construct – a case of favouring a diagnosis for the problem as opposed to going to the root of the issue. This is what I believe the incumbent government is going through with its current generation of citizens, who are more discerning in the information they receive and who they trust.

We are 49 years old, and the government is nowhere wiser in understanding what its citizens want of it.

The socially active (or politically aware) Singapore citizen we see today has grown up in the world of emails, Facebook and instantaneous information at the touch of a button. The concept of hard cover encyclopaedias is alien to them. If they have a question, they turn straight to the screen and are hit simultaneously with a multitude of facts and figures.

They are unaccustomed with having to wait and indeed, why should they when so much data is available virtually and immediately?

This group of citizens will also be more apt to questions and suspicions. There is after all so much information out there on the web that they have to constantly assess and evaluate. They will not believe everything told to them wholesale. They are used to being hit with data overload en mass and are well equipped to process, dissect and come to their own conclusions.

Compare this fast paced online world with the seemingly unwieldy single party dominated bureaucracy that appears to be developing, and we see why the government is but a system that is so entrenched, it cannot react to changing demographics in a world that now expects instant answers.

The answers that state run or state affiliated agencies give are increasingly unable to provide younger Singaporeans with the comprehensive answers that they require and are ready to absorb. This coupled with the relative size of this expanding group of questioning citizens, hungry for answers in an increasingly connected world, is a recipe for possible disaster at the ballot box.

The government is certainly aware that there is a problem and they have gone to great lengths to try and win back its voters. The question is, are these actions effective?

The GST reforms, numerous speeches on an “inclusive society” and the formation of an “Honour Society” are all hallmarks of efforts to engage with Singaporeans, but are they barking up the wrong tree?

What the government needs is an infrastructure and mind-set that allows for them to give direct, open and to the point answers at a swifter pace. What it doesn’t need is more perceived catchphrases, gimmicks and opacity such as Honour Singapore, which no one really understands.

Another example would be the Roy Ngerng saga. From any angle you look at it, it was clear that the Prime Minister has truly missed a golden opportunity to connect meaningfully and sufficiently with his citizens. Instead of coming out and giving his version of events, he hired lawyers and issued legal letters. This serves to isolate the PM even more from the people he seeks to rule. The lawyers and letters are but layers that make him even more alienated from the general populace.

A lack of clarity would trigger the questioning Singaporean to seek immediate answers on the Internet. If the government is so concerned with misleading online content, it should seek to issue faster and clearer answers, be ready to explain and clarify right from the start, instead of waiting for mistrust to set in.

I have no doubt that the government is putting in effort but to ensure that the effort pays off, they must learn to work smart. They have to recognise and accept that the rules of engagement have changed.

Dumbing down complex issues on the pretext that “it is hard for the average citizen to understand”, or remaining opaque because “the people should trust the government to do its job” are no longer options. Being non-patronising, open and direct will help win the hearts and minds of the people.

Singapore is neither a dictatorship or a monarchy. The government has to put in some effective work into engaging an ever-more questioning citizenry. It is not for the public to try and understand the government. It is for the government to prove to the public why it deserves to rule.

Unless that mindset changes – and no recent examples have demonstrated such attitude or aptitude – the government will still be stuck thinking that it is talking to the generations of yesteryears.

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