Don't Tell anyone but we're having a conversation

National Conversation

There has been a lot buzz around the recently aired PM’s conversation on CNA (link), but so far no one seems to have picked up on and reviewed the web chat that MOS Lawrence Wong had following the Prime Minister’s public relations exercise. Until now that is.

Minister Wong, who happens to be on the National Conversation committee, was publicized to be participating in a web chat with Singaporeans. The online conversation was billed as a continuation of the studio conversation that the Prime Minister had (which incidentally was prerecorded) and took place right after PM Lee’s program was aired. 

The impression given by CNA was that Minister Wong would be taking questions from the chat room during the live chat session and answering the audience in real time. The expectation was that viewers would be treated to a scenario where the minister takes on tough questions posed by a concerned public and does his best to engage and show leadership in the answers he would provide. 

Unfortunately that was not how the entire session transpired. The show started with a CNA reporter, Ken Teh, acting as a moderator of sorts for the minister. Ken Teh was the one who went back and forth between the computer screen and apprising the minister of the questions that were being posed by members of the chat room. 

Within five minutes into the streaming web chat it became very apparent that Mr. Wong himself was not going to even look at the computer screen and actually see the questions being posed to him. Throughout the entire one hour session, Ken Teh filtered all the questions before posing them to the minister.

Midway through the chat session the audience was suddenly informed that Minister Wong was also going to be taking call in questions from callers. There was one little problem about that though…CNA did not publicize the hotline number that people could use to call in. What was even more laughable about the call in segment was the first caller that CNA put on the air; it was Dr Jia Jia’s father; who coincidentally was amongst the group of members of the public that were invited to meet with the Prime Minister at the Istana during the much publicized tea session a few weeks ago. 

By this point it was pretty obvious that Mr. Wong was only going to be answering softball questions propounded by people who were designated as friendly, or at least un-antagonistic, towards the government. The entire dialog felt like a farce, with the government just going through the motions of a public relations exercise in order to soften its image and attempt to win back some support for its policies. 

After seeing all this unfold within the span of fifteen minutes, I decided that this web chat session was a waste of time. I literally felt like I was listening to a robot dispense a monotone response whenever Mr. Wong tried his best to answer the questions posed to him by the moderating Ken Teh. The most damning part of the session was Mr Wong’s response to a call, Jun Feng, on gay equality in Singapore. When faced with the issue of how some of our own people are dehumanized and treated like they are not a part of society, Mr. Wong did not even seem to know the issues the LGBT community faced nor could he bring himself to use the words gay or lesbian (link). That segment of the chat session was the most telling about the entire exercise in futility. 

The rest of the session limped on until it was mercifully ended at the end of the hour. I am pretty sure that Mr. Wong was not the only who felt relieved when he was told that the time for the session had run out. If this dialog session was a sign of things to come regarding the National Conversation, then my suggestion to the government is to either change the format of these chat sessions or simply abandon the futile public relations exercise. The growing cynicism of the electorate is not going to be won over by a few token gestures at engagement. Especially when it appears that the people trying to do the engagement do not seem to understand the meaning of the word engagement. Our ministers could learn a thing or two on running these chat sessions by watching footage of how US president Barack Obama does them (link). 

The National Conversation represents a mammoth opportunity for the government to do two things: 1. Show the people that it genuinely wants to engage the electorate. 2. Win back the ever increasing number of people who have become disillusioned with the government’s leadership. 

Hopefully the government is paying attention to the P.R. feedback on how these sessions are going over with audiences and will make adjustments to its engagement strategy. Otherwise the National Conversation will just continue to be nothing more than a constructive charade in practice.

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