Thursday 12 February 2015

Officials use Singlish, dialects to reach out

Sim Ann: Crucial to use what is most effective for rapport, personal touch
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 11 Feb 2015

FOR years, officials were reluctant to use Chinese dialects or Singlish to explain government policies.

But in recent months, the Government has started to adopt both to communicate more effectively with certain residents, such as the elderly and the young.

The use of vernacular and patois are just one in an expanding arsenal of strategies being adopted to raise awareness of policies and ensure they are understood by different target groups of people.

Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann told The Straits Times yesterday that it was crucial to use what is most effective to build rapport and give a personal touch.

Hence, Chinese dialects were used to explain the Pioneer Generation Package to older citizens, while colloquialisms such as "gahmen" (government) and "cheem" (Hokkien for profound) were used on the Government's official Twitter account @govsingapore.

But Ms Sim said this does not signal a shift in the Government's stance on vernacular tongues.

"The public is very discerning," she said. "For less formal occasions, many members of the public understand that we should go with the flow and use the language or style appropriate to that setting."

What is important is to "get people talking". She added: "Perfection isn't the goal, but getting the message across is."

The Pioneer Generation Package of life-long subsidies and Medisave top-ups for 450,000 Singaporeans born in 1949 or earlier is a recent example of a multi-platform approach in government communications. Besides door- to-door visits, messages were also delivered at getai performances.

On the use of dialect, Ms Sim said: "For something as important as health-care affordability, we want to make sure that every member of the pioneer generation understands the best use of the benefits." At roadshows, the elderly can also take home merchandise such as specially-commissioned trolley bags, plastic food containers and umbrellas.

Meanwhile, to build awareness among younger family members caring for the elderly, a six-minute YouTube video titled 11 Types Of Singaporean Ah Ma was commissioned. The clip by film-makers Night Owl Cinematics has been viewed more than 900,000 times.

All these on top of staples such as print and TV advertisements and dialogues.

Of the multi-pronged strategy, Ms Sim said: "We're putting new ideas to the test, but at the same time refreshing some of the older approaches that fundamentally have worked well."

In experimenting with new ideas, she gives her team creative liberties. For example, the colloquial tweets about the Central Provident Fund "were not put through a laborious process of multiple clearances".

Although they drew some flak, she said: "I'm cool with the fact that some people don't like it. If we're too hung up on being perfect, the entire communications process might snarl up."

Social media, with its wide reach and purported cloak of anonymity, presents a new set of challenges, she adds.

"We have to accept that we are one voice among many. We don't try to out-shout people because when there's a shouting match, no one listens."

Thus, a measured approach is key in managing criticisms: "If it's a question, it should be replied to. If it's a baseless accusation, it should be rebutted... So long as it's not degrading or a disturbance, there's no reason not to live with it."

The Government's efforts in communications appear to have paid off. The Ministry of Communications and Information said a survey it conducted last year shows eight in 10 residents are aware of key policies in such areas as transport, health care, housing, manpower and education.

On the remaining two, Ms Sim said: "We will never give up on reaching everyone... If we get our strategy right, it is my hope that the two in 10 will hear from their friends or neighbours, even if they did not encounter the content directly."

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