That two of the best explanations justifying the S$20 million Singapore spent for hosting the historic summit between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was published on Facebook (offering six reasons, from geopolitics to fiscal perspectives) and Twitter (on most of the expenditure staying within Singapore) – both non-government sources – speaks to the extent to which the government can improve how it talks about expenses for such events. And in the process too, encourage more productive discourse within Singapore on these events.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on the other hand, was vague about the tangible benefits of the Singapore Summit to the country. Even putting aside his vague elaboration that “[if] you calculate the price of everything in this world, you will miss out on the real important things”, Mr. Lee never did establish – precisely and specifically – how Singapore’s contribution would be in its “profound interest” beyond “publicity” per se. It is therefore hardly surprising that many have also expressed scepticism with their own cost-benefit analyses, and that claims of the country reaping a 38-fold return or gained more than S$700 million in advertising exposure read more like generous exaggerations.
It is tempting in this vein to fault Singaporeans for their perceived ignorance or for not being attuned to the nuances of geopolitics or the potential significance of the tête-à-tête between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump, yet the government does bear some responsibility to account for not only how the costs are apportioned, but also what the benefits are. To assume that the populace ought to “get it”, in other words, is neither fair nor realistic. It brings to mind a recent conversation I had with a friend about the “Singapore Day” event organised for overseas Singaporeans since 2007 by the Overseas Singaporean Unit. Expenditures for this annual celebration have ranged from S$2 to 6 million.
These multi-million dollar price tags can be justified by the participation of thousands of overseas Singaporeans who crave a slice of home, and for whom the local hawker fare as well as acts or musical performances may be especially nostalgic. At the same time, however, these concerns over the brain drain or the intent to maintain emotional connections with those based abroad do not necessarily resonate with those at home, who may not enjoy the same privileges of mobility. Again, the tangential or underlying premise is that the government should be more deliberate with how it substantiates its expenses, and in the process to be open to disagreements or dissenting views from the ground.
Shedding this government-knows-best starts with better communication, which is even more pertinent against the backdrop of a new series of discussions to chart Singapore’s future and the exhortation by ST’s editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang for ministers to speak plainly to the people. Casting plans and policy or political perspectives in an accessible manner is not just limited to the delivery of speeches in plain language. It also means communicating and expounding upon – without compromising security concerns – key policy features, with the aim of shaping Singaporeans to be better informed and to be willing to take well-reasoned positions on different issues, even if these positions diverge. The Trump-Kim meeting may have been a win for Singapore around the world, but it feels like a missed opportunity back home.