By Joseph Teo
It’s the end of the year, and often it is a time of reflection, consolidation and preparation for the New Year. The Straits Times and other news outlets have been running reviews of the year, and the performance of the PAP government up to this point in the term.
It is also a time for family and loved ones. At a recent family event, I had the occasion to share a meal with a well-loved and respected senior family member. He happens to be a supporter of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), and, by his own description, from the more ‘hardline’ camp. Dinner conversation turned to one of our favourite topics – the future of Singapore, and how we can improve our government.
At the end of the somewhat enlightening conversation, I was struck by the irony of what had transpired. The entire conversation was a microcosm of how the PAP communicates its policies, and exemplified the lack of understanding amongst the PAP leadership about what ‘communication’ is, and thus how to go about “communicating policies better”.
Indeed, one of the themes expressed by PAP leaders and activists since the 2011 election is the need for the government to “communicate policies better”.
So I decided to write this article in the hope that some more enlightened PAP members can reach a deeper understanding of how to achieve better communication.
Listen… don’t talk
For much of the conversation, and certainly before I protested loudly, the family member who was a PAP supporter expressed his views on the difficulties of governing, and principles that the party might adhere to in order to take Singapore forward. On the occasions that I tried to respond, I was quickly cut off by counter-arguments or asides, which while important, detracted from the central point that I was trying to make. I had to appeal to another family member to be a moderator in order to be heard at all.
This very much parallels what the PAP has done in its communication – lots of press coverage on a policy, different Ministers saying the same thing on different days, on different occasions, so that the press gets to cover it over and over again in each news cycle. Today, improvements include the use of social media and more innovative channels.
However, the key point that is missed is that communication is less about talking, and more about listening. This means listening hard, even when you are hearing things which are unpleasant, or with which you disagree. It means giving time and space to the person with whom you are communicating, not shutting them up, and certainly not suing them at the drop of a hat.
On some occasions during my family conversation, my counterpart did show that he understood what I was saying. However, on other occasions, it was clear that my point was missed entirely. This happened most often when the response to my point started with “But….”
Understanding someone doesn’t mean that you agree with them. However, you must first understand what your counterpart is saying before you can disagree or agree.
It is not sufficient to understand, it is also necessary to demonstrate that you have understood. This builds confidence in the person with whom you are speaking, and they are more likely to maintain an open and trusting posture.
Demonstrating understanding has been a challenge for the PAP – despite the many consultation sessions and feedback channels, there remains a constant rumbling of “the government is not listening to us”.
So how do you go about demonstrating understanding? If you were a student, you would answer questions in a fashion that was acceptable to your examiners. If you were listening to a friend, you might share a common experience – “Yes, I understand what you are saying. When I was in the same situation in 1994…”
If you were engaged in a policy discourse, you could express the other person’s opinion in a respectful manner, and find examples to support their position, not yours. This is especially important if the other person is less articulate, or less able to do sufficient research to back their position.
You want to reach a point where your counterpart says, “Yes! That’s exactly what I wanted to say, but you say it better than me.” Only when this is achieved should you express an alternate point of view. You are more likely to be heard and understood.
Avoid personal attacks
Towards the end of the family conversation, I was subjected to personal attacks – disparaging remarks on my ability and competence.
Again, this has been a common PAP tactic – when dealing with difficult issues, when policy solutions are not clear cut and need a nuanced approach, when strong counter-arguments are presented. Unable to present a convincing case, the PAP tries to discredit the person who raised the issue or presented the counter argument, in order to bolster their case.
This might have worked in the past, when public trust in the PAP was higher. Today, all it does is provoke counter-accusations online. The entire policy discussion is discarded, and the conversation degenerates into an egg throwing contest. This cannot be good for Singapore.
If issues raised are misguided, if arguments are flawed, if facts are incorrect, by all means address them, no matter who said it. Inaccuracies and flawed arguments arise because of an underlying anxiety. Don’t ignore the facts, but also, don’t ignore the underlying anxiety. Address the matter by first demonstrating understanding of the underlying concerns, and then address the facts and the policy position.
The objective is not to win
At the end of the conversation, another family member not involved in the discussion chipped in and said, “So, who won?” – which of course, missed the entire point of having a discussion.
When having a policy discussion, the objective is not to ‘win’. It is not to demonstrate how smart you are, and how your policy is good for Singapore, or why you are better than the opposition. This misguided drive to “win” is one reason why the PAP is losing its credibility with the citizenry. It promotes the feeling that the country is run by elitist know-it-alls, who cannot understand the ordinary Singaporean.
The objective of a policy discussion is to ‘win over’. It is to demonstrate that you understand the day-to-day experiences and concerns of Singaporeans. It is to demonstrate that you share and sympathise with their concerns and that you are always on their side. It is to demonstrate that you will always do your best to address Singaporeans’ concerns. It is to demonstrate that you are listening, and that you understand.
In summary, the relationship between the government and the people is like any family relationship. It benefits from mutual respect, patience, and sound communication. Despite all its weaknesses, the PAP government has achieved a lot for Singapore in the last 50 years.
As we enter into our 50th year since independence, I would like to offer the PAP a chance to win me over, to demonstrate that it is the right party to lead the country for the next 50 years. You only need to make a small change. When you disagree with me, bite your tongue, make a note on a piece of paper, and listen really hard.