From AcidFlask to MrBrown: How the govt could do better…

Non-Smile Singapore
In lieu of recent events, I threw together a bunch of unhappy faces from flickr onto the Singapore map. Unlike the
four million smiles the Singapore govt expects, I think this non-wayang version is more in keeping with the times…

Turning from the Anglosphere to the Asiansphere, Mr Wang recently shared this disappointing story of the government and news media machinery in Singapore:

In his regular newspaper column for TODAY, Singapore humorist and well-known blogger Mr Brown wrote a funny article on the costs of living in Singapore. One working day later, the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts responded strongly and publicly accused him of “distorting the truth”.

Days later, Mr Brown, a family man with three young children, was suspended from his job as a columnist for TODAY.

That said, it’s important to mention a few things:
1. MrBrown told the truth.
In fact he made the heartlander issue of the rising cost of living evidently clearer, something which the government tried to downplay (e.g. referring to price increases as revisions).

2. MrBrown has a real job.
Writing the column for TODAY is just his side job, something which other popular bloggers are also invited to do.

3. Singapore’s media industry fears the government.
The lack of press freedom is something Singapore is known for. In fact, we’re ranked 140 under the Worldwide Press Freedom Index for 2005. Perhaps this is a reason why we’ve rarely seen good debate take place between the public and the government. While the govt claims that there is a lack of good opposition, the problem is that any sign of deviance is always prevented, if not eradicated. In effect, the government has failed to openly engage the public.

This entire fiasco has run contrary to the PAP Manifesto for 2006 which states:

Encourage every citizen to play a role

We will provide opportunities for citizens to get involved in community and national affairs, so as to strengthen our sense of community and social responsibility. To do this, we will:
• Involve the public more in developing policies
• Empower community bodies and broaden their roles, for example, to oversee social assistance schemes
• Engage grassroots, unions, employers and other groups to strengthen inter-racial ties
• Support youth and civic groups to tap into their idealism and develop their leadership and life skills
• Link up with Singaporeans overseas

Perhaps this manifesto is more for show (wayang), just like the “Four Million Smiles” campaign for delegates from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group coming to town in September. As a Singaporean, I find myself smiling less nowadays… I wonder why.

One thing I can wholly agree with is that Singapore is governed in the name of efficiency, as stated by our Prime Minister during his recent trip to New Zealand. In essence, he mentioned how exciting politics isn’t always best for the people. Granted, Singapore’s success is probably attributed to our single-party government, but I see the price of such efficiency as putting our democracy on the backseat with national economy riding shotgun.

Suggested Solutions
As Peishan mentioned, the last thing we should want is to have both bloggers and the government to discriminate against one another. As a tiny nation, it’s more important to work together in improving our way of life. As such, here are some ideas on getting out of this dilemma:

1. Better Public Relations with your own citizens, not just foreign investors
From the Acidflask incident to this more recent one, Singapore gets yet another internationally recognized blackeye in terms of press freedom. ColbaltPaladin gave an example of an improved statement which press secretary K. Bhavani (of MICA) could have kindly crafted in response to MrBrown’s article. Instead of being condescending, Bhavani could have simply laughed it off and explain what the govt was doing about it. In order to engage the public, govt officials will need to learn to be open-minded enough to accept criticism and invite solutions. While the government directly addresses their citizens, the world is watching from the sidelines.

2. Issue all govt officials The Cluetrain Manifesto.
As the authors put it, “A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.” Just to peak your interest, the 95 theses in the manifesto are as follows:
Theses 1 – 6: Markets are Conversations
Thesis 7: Hyperlinks Subvert Hierarchy
Theses 8-13: Connection between the new markets and companies
Theses 14 – 25: Organisations entering the marketplace
Theses 26-40: Marketing & Organisational Response
Theses 41-52: Intranets and the impact to organisation control and structure
Theses 53:71: Connection the internet marketplace with corporate Intranets
Theses 72: 95: New Market Expectations

3. Start a citizen feedback blog, instead of just having the Government Consultation Portal
Instead of expecting citizens to register themselves with the portal in order to get their views heard, tap onto the incredible blogosphere where officials could engage in conversation directly with citizens who blog. By starting a blog of their own, the govt can not only post updates on their progress (being transparent), but also address issues which might arise from the local blogosphere (e.g. tammy, mrbrown, anti-racial bloggers). In our blogosphere, a missing player is our government. So why not get started?

UPDATE: Damage to Singapore’s media credibility is already done. Reporters Without Borders has posted their report on Mr Brown’s newspaper column suspension.

UPDATE 2: Looks like MrBrown’s online readership has caught up with that of Today’s online newspaper. If anything, this has improved MrBrown’s credibility while reducing Today’s. As Straydog and IZreloaded mentioned, Today’s newspaper editor should also be suspended.

UPDATE 3: On the Citizen Feedback Blog idea, Wandie shared a wonderful example of how the British do it. TheyWorkForYou.com is a non-partisan, volunteer-run website which aims to make it easy for people to keep tabs on their elected and unelected representatives in Parliament.

11 thoughts on “From AcidFlask to MrBrown: How the govt could do better…

  1. Ya man, I totally agree with you.

    The Govt should really begin considering how to engage in the conversation. Otherwise, they’re simply leaving themselves out. 🙁

  2. Just can’t believe why we keep doing this to ourselves… Trying to be first world and all, and then giving ourselves “black eyes” in the global arena!

    I mean honestly, what harm can some satire on cost of living do to us as a country. Freaking taxi drivers yak about it all day. Why don’t we just ban taxis while we’re at it.

    i mean we’re already 140th on the press freedom list. Are we trying to gun for last!

    Give me a break man…

    GrEg

  3. Justin + GrEg: It’s a mystery why the govt can be so good at everything else except this. They just don’t know how to manage people. Being a small country, you’d think they’d have an easier time trusting their citizens, instead of being such a negatively-reinforcing parent.

  4. It astounds and infuriates me how the Singapore is either completely ignorant or willfully dismissive of both local and international opinion. Is there anyone in Singapore who does not complain about price increases? Forcing the already PAP-friendly, state-owned media to silence what few alternative voices available will only weaken the limited trust people have in them.
    Does the government care that this makes Singapore look bad internationally? Either MICA and Ms Bravani, president of the S’pore Institute of Public Relations, were incompetent or they are targeting mr b in an effort to create fear. The choices are that they were either stupid or reprehensible.
    I like the non-smiles. I was thinking of a bit more aggressive form of expression.

  5. Su: Oops, thanks for letting me know.

    Wandie: Excellent find! I’ve been reading some of the British MP blogs and it’s interesting how Singapore is light years behind even UK’s political system (which we subscribe to).

    myrick: Ouch! Four million fingers is a little too fierce for me 😛

  6. I think Singapore is going through a transitional phase at the moment – the Internet has opened avenues of communication the Government can’t regulate, while young Singaporeans are now more educated, seeing more of the world and wanting a greater voice in their governance.

    The Government is facing difficulties coping with this transition because they’re still in the mindset of old, acting like a negatively-reinforcing parent like you’ve mentioned. It’s brought us this far, but it’s time for change.

    A lot of the measures they’ve introduced are too superficial. Things like youth forums are often just events where youths read from speeches and rubberstamp the Government’s agenda. Without a fundamental change in mindset, they’re only sweeping the problem under the carpet and are going to have to deal with a growing groundswell of discontentment among the young.

    I do sincerely believe there are honest people working in Singaporean politics. If you see the hard work many of the MPs put in a meet-the-people sessions, you’ll realise these well-educated, well-to-do individuals need not sacrifice their time in such a way. However, it’s unfortunate that they think just because they’re more educated and more well-to-do, they know best for Singapore and often discount the opinions of the common citizen.

    Kevin, great blog by the way 😀

  7. Vantan: TheyRule does bring home the point that politics is capitalist-driven. Every government has a choice to focus on gaming this production system, or to use it as a means to better their society.

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