Friday, 16 November 2012

Govt changing way it engages diverse society

It is moving towards persuading people and accommodating views
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2012

GOVERNMENT communication may once have been about telling people things. Now, it is increasingly about persuading people to the Government's point of view and accommodating differences, the chief of government communications Janadas Devan said yesterday.

In one of his first public speeches on the issue, Mr Devan observed that Singapore society is now more stratified than before, and the problems it faces, more complex.

The Government thus needs a more fine-grained and flexible communications strategy, he said at a conference on democracy and social media.

Income inequality, declining social mobility and immigration have led to society becoming more diverse.

Yet, Singapore's way of analysing and categorising the population still harks back to "a bygone era", he said. It still slots people into four racial groups of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others, and three income groups of rich, middle-class and poor.

The first challenge is thus to better "understand who we are" and that means "defining our complexities", he said.

The new media landscape is also fractured, with people tuning in only to the channels of their choice. The Government has to "multiply our capabilities" and "be able to respond faster across different platforms".

Finally, the Government has to accept that it is unlikely to achieve consensus on all matters apart from the fundamentals.
"There is no singular public opinion. There are public opinions, plural... We have to accommodate the many, as well as to remain one," he said.

Mr Devan also said that, in his view, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong "has a far more difficult job to do than the first prime minister (Lee Kuan Yew)".

Back then, the Cabinet faced "dire existential situations" which imposed stark choices on people. These days, choices are not so stark, he said. Distinctions between policy options are more fine-grained and the consequences would be seen only far into the future. He cited the example of health care, where the result of choosing between Singapore's present framework and a universal health-care system would not be evident for decades.

Said Mr Devan: "The Government communications strategy will have to be commensurately fine-grained, flexible and open ended. We can't pretend to know everything when in fact we don't.

"We can't pretend to be sure of ourselves when in fact many of our decisions are provisional in nature, the best we can do now, with the current facts at our disposal."

Mr Devan was the keynote speaker at the two-day Conference for eDemocracy and Social Media, jointly organised by the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre and the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

New media expert Cherian George later asked Mr Devan if a Freedom of Information Act would be enacted eventually.

Mr Devan said he was not sure but he felt the Government's current policy, where it deems most data confidential unless it decides otherwise, should shift to one "where you assume most of the information should be publicly available, unless you feel it should be confidential".

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