“Despite these challenges, Mr Tan acknowledged that the Government could do better in its outreach efforts and said it was trying out different platforms and formats as different people relate to information in different ways” (Government Trying Out Various Platforms To Reach Out: Chuan-Jin, Miss Joy Fang).
That the government is trying out different means to “simplify information and provide as much information as possible to the people” (TODAY, Oct. 11) is encouraging, though whether Singaporeans have adequate access to information is in question. This is not necessarily about the supply or presentation of information – because the government could point to quantitative data on Statistics Singapore, its fact-checking site Factually, as well as parliamentary speeches made by ministers – but about the utility of such information.
Earlier this year Member of Parliament (MP) Png Eng Huat asked for specific figures about the employment obligations of foreign students, yet the Ministry of Education (MOE) did not reveal the number of defaulters. Along the same tangent MP Zainal Sapari did not get the exact percentages concerning the pay grades of school leaders and principals from the MOE too. For charities and non-profits to better track the efficacy of their endeavours, there have been calls for more data to plug the gaps of the Household Expenditure Survey and ComCare reports. Researchers from the Lien Centre for Social Innovation and the Singapore Management University School of Social Sciences reflected that the Average Household Expenditure on Basic Needs measure “is not easily available in the public domain”.
In this vein, there are calls for a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in Singapore. At the federal level in the United States the FOIA allows for the disclosure of information and documents held by the government, to keep citizens in the know. MP Pritam Singh spoke about the benefits of a FOIA in 2011, that “no politician should be beyond reproach and a commitment to open government files for historical scrutiny are important features for a politically mature society”. Actionable information can then be used in public discourse.
Notwithstanding the proposal for a FOIA, communication of existing information can be strengthened. Everyone has opinions on the mainstream issues of transportation, education, culture and heritage for instance, but there is less clarity over complex policies. Finance and economics, housing and retirement, insurance and healthcare confound many. Poor communication makes it easier for misinformation and disinformation to spread, because as readers try to make sense of the issues, they turn to the most intuitive explanations.
The Our Singapore Conversation process started with much promise and ended with much fanfare, and it is therefore a shame that not much has transpired thereafter. With Minister Tan Chuan-Jin’s acknowledgement that the government “could do better in its outreach efforts”, and that “it was trying out different platforms and formats as different people relate to information in different ways”, more can be expected of information and communication.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.