SINGAPORE: At the end of a long interview on Tuesday evening (Dec 1), REACH chairman Tan Kiat How nearly sprinted out the door to get home to his family.
He was rushing home to bathe four-month-old Isaac, in a narrow window of time which he tries to set aside for his newborn, before heading out again for house visits in his constituency.
Singapore’s future, how he wanted to make it a better place for his son, and the hopes, dreams and anxieties of young people here came up more than once as he spoke about how REACH hopes to engage Singaporeans in the future.
It was Mr Tan’s idea to have more students on the new REACH supervisory panel, the youngest of whom is 17.
Of the 39 members on the panel, which will sit for a two-year term, 15 are representatives of tertiary institutions, up from five in the last committee.
Ten members come from the polytechnics, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore Institute of Technology and ITE colleges. Five are from the autonomous universities, which were represented in the last panel.
“I wanted to signal inclusiveness, inclusivity. There’s no reason why only representatives from the universities are on the REACH panel. Having engaged with young people from ITEs and polytechnics. I do think they have a very strong perspective, very good perspective on issues,” Mr Tan, who is also Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office and for National Development, said.
He shared how he met many students when he attended their graduation ceremonies and dialogue sessions as CEO of the Infocomm and Media Development Authority (IMDA), when he worked closely with the media industry and schools with media training programmes.
“There are some young people who may express themselves in different ways. They don’t write essays, but they can express themselves in art, doing video clips, films, or just talking about things in a more casual session, like going to a cafe, talking about things … (it) doesn’t mean your voice matters less,” he said.
The youth members have already given some fresh ideas to revamp engagement with young people and given them ideas about what topics people their age have at the “top of their minds”, he said.
While they’re concerned about job opportunities in the midst of the pandemic, young people are also very concerned about climate change and sustainability, as well as mental well-being.
The East Coast GRC member of parliament (MP) shared how he himself had to adjust to a different rhythm as he became an MP, an officeholder and a father at the same time about four months ago.
“It’s very hard to juggle time between work, constituency, family … it’s very tough – I’m still adjusting, still learning. I think that’s one of the biggest changes was actually also finding time for myself and my wife,” he said. “And this is one of the topics that came up very often the young people – mental health.”
REACHING MIDDLE AGE
This focus on engaging young people comes at a time when REACH is nearing middle age.
At its 35-year mark, REACH has evolved since its days as the Feedback Unit, which was started in 1985 when there were far fewer ways for the man on the street to get his voice heard.
Then in 2006, the Feedback Unit was restructured and renamed REACH – becoming the lead agency for engaging and connecting with citizens, and adding more online feedback channels on top of traditional ones.
Now in 2020, it’s getting its eighth chairman and renewing its mission. Today, with a plethora of communication options available to anyone with a laptop and a smartphone, the situation seems to have turned on its head – is there too much noise out there? Is there a need for REACH?
According to Mr Tan, there’s much more to REACH than just collecting feedback: It reaches out to segments of society that may have been overlooked, and it experiments with new ways of engaging citizens, while building trust and relationships with different segments of society over time.
“We want to reach out to every segment of society in the modality which they are comfortable with and create a safe space to have that conversation, because we want to hear from them.
“And not just superficial feedback, but understanding what drives them, what their anxieties or concerns are, what their hopes and aspirations are, what Singapore they want to build,” he said.
DOES FEEDBACK “SINK INTO THE DEEP SEA”?
But do these conversations have a practical impact on public policies? Mr Tan admits that some Singaporeans feel that they give feedback, but it then “sinks into the deep sea”, never to surface. It’s a misperception, he said.
“We take every feedback, every suggestion very seriously and the team pores over it, analyses it, collates it and sends it to the ministries. We try to get back as well … We keep trying to do more to close the feedback loop.”
When he was at the receiving end of feedback at IMDA, he was glad for it, he said, especially when it came from groups that the tech and media agency would not usually reach out to. This came in useful when the agency tried to digitalise hawker centres.
“When we first started the programme, there was a lot of apprehension by hawkers and stallholders. But REACH went out to them through listening points or engaging them with the IMDA team, and we had very useful feedback,” he recounted.
The agency also tries to make sure that they hear the voices of those who are “hard to reach”, such as those living in rental flats, and prison inmates.
“It’s not just going through surveys, because often times it’s about building a relationship with the person,” he said.
REACH said it spoke to more than 120 inmates at the Lloyd Leas Community Supervision Centre earlier this year – an idea from the younger members of the team to reach deeper into the community.
In one-on-one conversations with REACH officers, they shared their aspirations of being able to find a job, having the courage to turn away from their old friends and really start anew, being forgiven by their families, as well as their cost-of-living concerns.
REACH continues to try out new ways of reaching people, even during the “circuit breaker” when they could not organise physical events.
That was when WhatsApp chat groups were created to find out how people were coping during the coronavirus outbreak. The response was “overwhelming”, he said.
REACH said it has been able to engage more Singaporeans using digital platforms this year, and has more than 1,200 members in its WhatsApp group chats.
While fewer participants have attended its dialogues due to COVID-19 safety measures, it set up e-Listening points for citizens to give feedback online. About 49,000 people were reached compared to 35,815 in 2019 and 21,300 in 2018.
Over the years, REACH has also helped to change the government’s mindset about engagement, Mr Tan said. Each ministry now has a communications and engagement unit.
“It wasn’t a natural state or the natural inclination of most policymakers 35 years ago,” he said, but he added that there were still gaps to fill.
“Ultimately, the way I see REACH’s role is not just getting feedback, but creating platforms and building that trust, that relationship on those platforms that people can feel comfortable sharing their views with one another,” he said.
“Moving forward, we do want create more spaces where citizens can come in and speak about things.”