Engaging the Public – Gayle Goh's Reply

Editor’s Note: Gayle Goh from NEA wrote a 1,000-word reply letter to Engaging the Public - Overrated or Necessary which we are publishing in full here.

Five and a half years ago I published an article on my personal blog. The article took issue with remarks made by then-2PS (MFA) Mr. Bilahari Kausikan. He had been delivering a talk at my junior college. I had some strongly worded complaints about his strongly worded comments. I also had a lot to say about the management of political discourse in Singapore. The blog portals picked it up, and shortly after, the Straits Times.

The content of my opinions isn’t the issue here; some opinions I kept, others refined, a few I’m embarrassed to remember. Now that the dust has settled, what sticks out at me is not the fact that I wrote about a senior civil servant. It is the fact that he wrote back.

Nor was he the only one. Over the next six months or so, I met with several politicians and civil servants. None of them told me (outright, anyway!) to sit down and shut up. I treasure those encounters. They were, I think, one of the few steadying consolations as I was then torn between the sound and the fury from the ‘norm camp’ – people who were furious with me for causing trouble, and issued dire warnings – and the ‘subaltern camp’ – a growing network of activists, opposition politicians and unhappy citizens, some of whom made incorrect assumptions about me and what I supposedly represented.

Those who met with me did not have to. They could have ignored the noise I made; dismissed it all as the bleeding-heart angst of the young and uninformed. It would have been easy – arguably sensible. Any small ripples I had caused would disappear in a year or so. Instead they planted seeds.

I was seventeen years old, and I had been engaged. Today I am a young civil servant.

There must be a reason why organisations, be it corporations, governments or other institutions, spend time, money and effort on public engagement. My personal experience is one example of how it works. When I joined the civil service, some muttered accusations that They had co-opted me; nullified my contrary opinions with an invitation to join the ‘norm camp’. I think those people are being a bit fanciful. I wasn’t worth nullifying. But I was perhaps – if only because of my stubborn insistence on having ideas about things – worth engaging.

Engagement is never singular. The root of the word is the French gage: a pledge. In Middle English, to engage meant to pawn or pledge something, and later on, to pledge oneself to do something. You put a bit of yourself on the line when you are engaged to someone; engage yourself in an activity; and engage another party under set terms. The government should not expect to remain unchanged in the process of engagement. If it does, then it’s doing something wrong. Institutions engage the public because they have something at stake, something to gain – and a lot to lose if they don’t.

  • Relevance: Institutions can’t afford to be out of touch. On the open market, companies scramble to consult the public and research the market. They vie over public attention and participation. Their lifeblood is in knowing what the people what. Now, governance here is more of a closed market. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have competition. Groups, ideas, parties, figureheads are struggling over the reins. A lot of good ideas are out there – a lot of bad ones too. If the government doesn’t stay attuned, its mandate weakens, and counter-waves to its policies gain strength.
  • Cohesion: In order to get things moving, there needs to be a measure of consensus. People need to identify common goals and principles, despite their incredible and valuable diversity. We might take a few cues in public engagement from recent gestures in political engagement. ‘Rivals in politics, mates on football field’, read the Straits Times headline on 5th November 2011. Underneath was a photo of six sweaty, healthy-looking Parliamentarians with huge grins on their faces. Five of them were from the People’s Action Party. Third from left was Mr. Pritam Singh from the Workers’ Party. These images matter. So does transposing them, even imperfectly, into action.
  • Branding: Our government has traditionally had a strong image for discipline, incorruptibility, efficiency and smart policies. But all brands falter over time. When I was a kid, all the computer labs were outfitted with Windows 95. That was everybody’s first OS. Call me swaku, but I was only really introduced to Mac users in JC. They were the richer, trendier teens who tapped away at their portable Macs in the canteen and were usually surrounded by a throng of tech admirers. Microsoft cornered the market; Apple, that forbidden fruit, found its way in by courting desire.Today, the public service is shifting its focus onto citizen-centricity. We are faced with vocal consumers who are not their parents and grandparents. They may be tired of using Windows all the time. They may not appreciate what a great accomplishment it was to get here, when what they really (and naturally) want to know is where we’re going next. They may be restless for reinvention, inspiration, desire. For these groups, we have to capture their imaginations all over again.
  • Organic Governance: Sometimes institutions need to think outside the tank. Knowledge is capital, and it doesn’t multiply if you hoard it. Good ideas can come from unexpected sources: fresh eyes and genuine enthusiasm count for a lot. Neither should we assume that only we know best. Ross Douthat in the New York Times (5 November 2011) writes about America’s ‘feckless meritocracy’: "the USA’s best and brightest hurtling forward into ‘recklessness and ruin’, convinced that they had all the answers at their disposal. Its boldest experiments with capitalism and warfare were shooting stars of Pax Americana that created many problems of today. Douthat argues, and I am inclined to agree, that what we need are ‘intelligent leaders with a sense of their own limits, experienced people whose lives have taught them caution […] the best and brightest, but we need them to have somehow learned humility along the way."We can exercise humility by incorporating what the public has to offer. In recent years, Singaporean activists have approached government agencies with research and solutions in areas like food distribution and green living. I think of this as cooperative governance – an extension of the public owning its lived environment. The Neighbourhood Police Watch and the Yellow Ribbon Project are examples of the government galvanising the community. Moving forward, we should welcome a community that galvanises us.

Why engage? The above factors may combine to help sustain excellent living outcomes for our nation. But why bother in the first place? I like to come back to the idea of the pledge, the gage. As civil servants we are pledged to serve our nation and our people. I do not see how we can achieve this without promising to include them, to care for and listen to them; to acknowledge them as perennial stakeholders.

After all, the government and the public are all entangled. We call ourselves the public sector for a reason.

Moving forward in public engagement is a strategic extension to the core of what we already are.

Gayle Goh, NEA


    Jan 5, 2012
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