Understanding Their Concerns, One On One

4 Aug

SINGAPORE – It’s not often a Singapore citizen writes a critical post on his blog about national policy or emails a Government leader with his views, and winds up invited to a private face-to-face chat with said minister.

But at least three individuals in the past two months have found themselves offered that unique opportunity to meet Mr K Shanmugam one-on-one.

Blogger and train officer Alan Tang, 48, who uses the moniker Gintai, had in April written a post questioning housing prices and postulating that Permanent Residents seemed to have more benefits than Singaporeans.

The post was widely circulated and found its way to Mr Shanmugam’s Facebook page and his email inbox. Two months later, in June, Mr Tang was exchanging views with the Minister for Law and Foreign Affairs, in an hour-long session at the latter’s office.

“I read (the post) … I assessed him to be sincere and genuine, so I wanted to meet up with him,” Mr Shanmugam told TODAY earlier this week, in an interview this paper had requested.

“I went into it thinking that it was an off-the-record discussion, and then he wanted to blog about it,” he said, on being surprised by Mr Tang’s detailed post about their discussion afterwards. “It’s a new experience – now I know,” he added good-naturedly.

Mr Shanmugam said he “enjoyed the conversation”. “What he said left me with some things to think about, and I think I also left him with many things to think about.”

‘THE KIND OF PERSON WE NEED TO UNDERSTAND’

Just the day before this interview, on Monday, Mr Shanmugam had spent one-and-a-half hours with an unhappy Nee Soon resident, who had been sending “many critical emails” expressed in “somewhat intemperate language” to him and other government agencies.

Noted Mr Shanmugam: “He is a beneficiary of our system because he runs his own business, he is not quite middle-aged … He’s well-spoken, he writes well. So this is the kind of person we need to talk to and understand, if he would talk to me.”

The minister emailed the resident, and they met and spoke about a range of issues such as housing and foreign workers. Mr Shanmugam said the man, who was angry because he felt the Government was not listening to feedback, “went away knowing that I was serious about talking to him”.

He added: “I told him it’s not going to be easy, but I will try to see him and, in the meanwhile, read the papers he promised to send.”

Mr Shanmugam has met other individuals privately as well and, two days ago, on Thursday, he was due to meet – for the second time – a Singaporean undergraduate studying in Boston. (The meeting was cancelled, as the student could not make it.) The student, who had contacted the minister via email, had a keen interest in foreign policy and commented on Singapore’s policies.

‘I CAN’T MEET EVERYONE’

Dialogues between ministers and the public are regular affairs, be it through events such as the Pre U Seminar or during community visits. For Mr Shanmugam, a busy minister managing two portfolios on top of the affairs of his Chong Pang ward, the obvious question is: Why set aside time to meet with individuals?

Such one-on-one sessions are “not usual”, Mr Shanmugam clarified. “It depends on who I come across, how much time I have, and specific issues.”

“It’s not possible for me to meet with everyone who wants to see me, then I can’t do any work,” he added, though he did not rule out such further private chats. “I’ve been engaging a variety of people and, where useful, I will engage others, provided of course they want to talk to me.”

More often, Mr Shanmugam turns to group discussions, where he meets 30 to 40 people. Sometimes it is only five or six young lawyers, other times, up to 200 students in a junior college.

VIEWS FROM A CROSS-SECTION

Speaking to a broad variety of groups on diverse issues – including those not directly under his purview as minister – gives him “a good feel for the cross-section on how people feel on different issues,” he explained. “Actions by the Government impact on people in a number of ways, and we need to understand exactly how is it impacting across a cross-section.”

He has met with groups such as the Association of Muslim Professionals, Singapore Soka Association, self-help groups, as well as senior citizens and students. His work in animal welfare is also well-known; as he put it, “a lot of people link me closely with some of the NGOs involved in animal welfare”.

He also has a “close interest” in pre-school education, which he believes every child should have access to. In 2005, the Chong Pang PAP Community Foundation kindergarten piloted a programme to promote innovative thinking and problem-solving skills; Mr Shanmugam raised over a million dollars to help subsidise it in his constituency.

Even if the people he meets are not influential in, say, shaping public opinion, Mr Shanmugam states: “If it helps me, I will talk to them. It helps me when I can better understand what people in the different sectors think.”

“The reason I meet them is because it gives me a raw, unedited, unexpurgated viewpoint on issues,” he added.

SERIOUS ISSUES

Not everyone takes up an invitation to a personal chat, however.

In September last year, Mr Shanmugam wanted to meet with blogger Andrew Loh after coming across an article that pointed out the flaws of Section 157(d) of the Evidence Act. Mr Loh had sent the article, written by volunteer writer Lisa Li, to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Law Ministry, the Attorney-General’s Chambers and government feedback unit REACH.

The piece had identified issues “in the context of the kind of things women had to face if they wanted to make a complaint about rape or sexual assault. So this is a serious piece, the issues raised were serious and had to be dealt with,” recalled Mr Shanmugam.

Mr Loh, however, had explained that what was written was based on feedback from the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), and thus referred him to AWARE. Mr Shanmugam met with the non-government organisation. Months later, Mr Shanmugam presented a Bill to amend the Evidence Act, include deleting Section 157(d).

In an email to TODAY, Mr Loh said AWARE had conducted in-depth research on the issue, and so he felt it would be more productive for the minister to speak to the women’s group instead. But he did meet Mr Shanmugam eventually at an AWARE function, and the minister followed up with a phone conversation with Mr Loh.

“The minister was cordial and friendly,” said Mr Loh. The minister, he recounted, expressed interest in hearing views “from the ground” and wanted to hear views on other issues such as public housing and transport.

DOWN-TO-EARTH SINCERITY

Mr Henry Kwek, 35, a grassroots volunteer who helped arrange the meeting between Mr Shanmugam and Mr Tang, believes such discussions are important for the minister.

“On average, Minister strives to meet youths twice a month. He also attends numerous dialogues, outreach efforts and one-on-one meetings. I have been personally involved for more than 20 of them,” said Mr Kwek.

Other than ensuring that Mr Shanmugam gets “accurate ground sentiments”, the face-to-face sessions “also allow him to catch all the nuances and put the feedback in the proper context”, he noted.

On the feedback from those whom Mr Shanmugam has met, Mr Kwek said young people find him “sincere and patient” as well as “persuasive”. “Many times, the youths are surprised to find that their conclusions are not that different from prevailing policies.”

He noted: “Perhaps it is because they have expanded their viewpoints from that of an individual, to that of a society. Naturally, there are occasions when they end up with differing views. But they at least appreciate that policies are designed with the betterment of society in mind.”

As for blogger Mr Tang – whose first reaction on being invited to a private chat was that it was a prank call – that one-on-one meeting with Mr Shanmugam led to a follow-up group session with fellow train drivers last month.

“They raised several specific issues, and I said I will deal with them,” said Mr Shanmugam.

Mr Tang said they spoke about social issues, housing and cost of living over the two-hour meeting. “All of us agreed with my earlier assessments of him,” the blogger said. After the first meeting, he had been “very touched by the minister’s sincerity and down-to-earth approach”.

“We discussed everything – no holds barred. He was a super cool guy. No temper, soft-spoken and sharp-minded,” he said. “He patiently explained and asked me probing questions whenever I threw him a tough question.” The chat helped him “to appreciate the complex problems facing the Government”.

His colleagues were also “impressed with his handling of questions and explanation of issues”, said Mr Tang, adding that Mr Shanmugam had showed he was “willing to engage with us fully on our level”.

Today Online

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