Sunday 20 November 2011

Waging the charm offensive - Chan Chun Sing

Lessons on the art of engagement from a former army general
By Cai Haoxiang, The Sunday Times, 20 Nov 2011

Welcome to Friday Night Live with your friendly neighbourhood minister.

The date is Nov 4. Around you are about 50 people: students, young professionals and older adults in a brightly coloured, air-conditioned room at the Buona Vista Community Club.

This is the seventh Informal Policy Dialogue with Mr Chan Chun Sing. He might be the Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, and a rising star in politics, but the event is billed simply as one with the 'Buona Vista grassroots adviser', a reference to his role heading the network of People's Association grassroots organisations in the constituency.

The topic is the media's rights and responsibilities, and Mr Chan hopes the discussion will 'tickle your brain' and 'clarify your thoughts'.

Old hat, you say. Another night of lecturing from someone who is also the Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts, on how Singapore is a small country; how it cannot afford divisions stirred up by irresponsible voices, and oh, please do not forget the racial riots of the 1960s.

But stay on the page: Something unorthodox is going on. Ten minutes before the scheduled 8pm start, Mr Chan breezes in unannounced.

'Wah, so many people here already,' he says in his trademark colloquial Singlish turn of phrase.

He speaks to everyone in the room, greeting those he recognises and asking those he does not to introduce themselves.

'When are you going to O-R-D-ded?' Mr Chan, a major-general by rank, asks a full-time national serviceman with short cropped hair and big glasses, referring to the oft-anticipated date when one's two-year commitment to full-time national service ends.

'And why are you here?' he asks with mock suspicion, as everybody laughs. And so the ice breaks from the get-go.

Mr Chan proceeds to number off ('sorry ah, it is the army way') and divide the participants into discussion groups of eight each.

Each group has an hour to discuss what media is, where they would like to see Singapore's media in the future and what can be done to get there.

Then, it is show time.

Mr Chan asks for words from each group describing their ideal media, scribbling them down on a sketchboard: Transparent. Competitive. Independent.

Some elicit reactions from him. 'Pluralistic,' one person offers. 'Wah, cheem (deep in Hokkien)', he responds, to laughter.

'Free.' 'Free as in don't need money, or what?' Clarify what you mean. No slogans, he had said earlier.

After writing down about a dozen words, the next phase begins: deconstruction.

Independent? 'Is there such a thing?' he asks. 'Independent of who? Independent of what? Are bloggers independent?'

You want the media to be constructive? Mature? Can we really expect the media to argue one side of a controversial issue, and then go on to present every piece of evidence for the other side, he asks.

Can we have a show of hands on this, and Mr Chan says self-deprecatingly: 'Everybody put up your... well, my favourite word, keechiu'. (Hokkien for 'raise hands', a phrase used by Mr Chan in April at a People's Action Party event, for which he was ridiculed online.)

Laughter. Okay, let us move on. How about the word 'objective'?

The discussion moves on.

There are two models of control, those of the United States and China, and Singapore is closer to China, someone says.

Participants then note there are two extremes of looking at responsibility. One is where everybody has the right to do everything, and they take responsibility for their own actions.

The other extreme is where the Government keeps the prerogative to take preventive action if it thinks something bad will happen.

The Singapore Government does not want to control everything, Mr Chan notes. But if it is elected by people who entrust some responsibility to it, it has to decide how much to be responsible for.

But he admits: 'I don't think there is a consensus. At the end of the day, there is only so much the Government can do. The rest is in your hands.'

He adds: 'I am not prudish. All media will have their own perspective. We try to expand the circle of what we know, so that we know what we don't know, and minimise the blind spot of what we don't know that we don't know.

'I am making no judgment, not here to push any agenda, I am here to clarify what you believe, and how it will affect what you do.'

Soon, the public announcement system warns all in the building that it is closing time, and lights will be turned off. It is past 10pm, and people are welcome to leave if they have to.

But he has captivated his audience, which includes bloggers and some netizens who are frequent critics of government policy. He leaves the room and goes downstairs, where he continues chatting with some until 11.30pm.

Mr Chan's open-ended style of discussing thorny issues is a refreshing change for the PAP Government. He was effective because he did not try to impose the Government's position on anyone, yet got them to probe their own views.

As Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner argued in a recent lecture here, people in the digital age of widespread information do not just trust any one source of authority any more, but prefer leaders who are more transparent and authentic.

When no one trusts an authoritarian voice any more, leaders cannot be authoritative. Mr Chan made no pretence to authority, and tried to be authentic - he was informal, sincere and aimed to challenge minds through Socratic dialogue.

But being authentic does not end with the discussion. It means staying true to what you say in what you do.

Participants who have been impressed by the minister's openness to alternative viewpoints will judge the authenticity of the minister and the Government by how they go about incorporating those views into policy.

If it is all engagement and no action, it will just remain another classroom exercise.

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