I read with interest the commentary, “Policies Are Rational But Politics Is Emotional” (October 15, 2011) by Miss Andrea Ong, which explored potential strategies that the People’s Action Party (PAP) could undertake to expand outreach efforts, and correspondingly strengthen its “emotional connection” with constituents. Two key drivers have rendered the traditional, pedantic reliance upon grassroots activities per se no longer viable: first, the spontaneous growth of sentiments and commentaries online have empowered individuals to be more involved in political, socio-economic discussions; second, increased dialogue on issues – especially the more controversial ones – have imbued Singaporeans with the belief that the government is not always right.
Frustrations Over Perceived Apathy
In the past, politicians have relied heavily on various on-the-ground grassroots and community activities to regularly connect with their voters; at the same time, these platforms allow residents to air municipal concerns, and interact with their representatives on a more emotional level. These avenues include festive celebrations, pre-arranged block visits, house visits or floor parties, mass dinners, karaoke sessions et cetera; activities that are aimed at a general audience for social cohesion and bonding.
These methodologies remain relevant, and should be sustained to provide a fundamental level of engagement between members of Parliament (MP) and citizens; however, taking into account the growing awareness of the electorate, MPs must be prepared to communicate and share perspectives on national policy concerns. Current town-hall meetings and policy dialogues may be constructive for basic discourse to take root, but participants are often frustrated with the lack of focus, and absence of substantive debate on more contentious subjects. More informed members would also be disappointed with perceived apathy and lethargy on the part of the organisers, if the sessions are not followed-up appropriately, and ideas are left to float without resolve.
Moving Beyond The Convenient Status Quo
The problem with the status quo is that our perception of “emotional connection” has not evolved progressively beyond the rhetorical dimension; that is, most of the initiatives seem to be all talk and no action. While it is true that not all feedback can be feasibly taken into consideration, many feel that their time and efforts are going to waste; if these worries are allowed to manifest, enthusiasm for other activities might wane.
Engagement must be structured properly, for tangible involvement is not necessarily limited to volunteering at grassroots or community events per se. Meaningful interactions and insights can be gathered through well-intentioned focus group discussions, or online workgroups designed to tackle recommendations surrounding specific challenges. It will be an uphill task for the PAP to regain its street credibility and to diversify its antiquated means of communication, but the results will be well-worth the effort.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.