Understanding their concerns, one on one – Engagements with K Shanmugam

From iTODAY: Understanding their concerns, one on one

Alicia Wong | 4 Aug, 2012

Bloggers, a student, an unhappy resident among those invited to private chats with the Law and Foreign Affairs Minister

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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”.


Read related article here.



About Gintai_昇泰

I'm a Chinese Singaporean living in the Eastern part of Singapore. I tweet on current affairs & inspirational quotes. I blog on issues or events if they interest me. I write for pleasure. I also write mainly for my family and friends.
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11 Responses to Understanding their concerns, one on one – Engagements with K Shanmugam

  1. WinkingDoll says:

    All well and good that the minister is willing to listen to unfiltered feedback from the ground. How about the other way around? Will the minister kindly provide unfiltered data (i.e. provided that the data does not place Singapore’s security at risk) to these individuals (and/or the public) instead of attempting to hoodwink with useless soundbites?

  2. Pawned says:

    Gintai, you have been made use of, at what cost? At the expense of your career? No company will keep a lose canon like you. Owned! Maybe the minister will find you a job after SMRT has sacked you.

    • Whether I’m sacked or not got nothing to do with you. No need your concern. What career are you talking about? For 17 yrs, I drive train and I’ll still drive train. Sack me? On what grounds? If it’s really a sack, just look for another job. It doesn’t mean the end of the world! I’ll announce it here to make you happy ok? I can drive taxi or bus, lorry etc. Maybe, I look after your condominium. I expect more such remarks from wise readers like you!

      • Pawned says:

        So you are happy being a driver all your life? You will be if you are not receptive to criticism or feedback. What a loser.

        • You come to my blog to take pot shots on me instead of giving intelligent criticism? Who do you think you are? If I’m a loser what thing are you? Go get a life elsewhere.

        • ape@kinjioleaf says:

          Is there anything wrong making a decent living as a train officer, bus driver or taxi driver? Don’t undermine people’s job just because their salary may be low. They serve the public.

  3. Edd says:

    I met a few Indian PRs.They re renting their flats or rooms and tinkering the idea of getting a Canadian PR where the education fr primary to their A level is free.Welfare for
    6 mths if jobless.At same time maintaining Spore PR and HDB flats and collect rental from Canada where they work and stay.You think our PAP government need this info. Dont insult Spoor Intelligence Agency. They know what is actually going on,but pretending not to know. Don’t we know that politicians are playing the carry the baby,visit sick people trick to gain popularity.

    I do hope the Ministers wont say they dont know that our electrical bills are high because our Tuas,Senoko and Pulau Seraya power stations are sold and Spooreans buy back from Malaysian,China and Japan companies

  4. PAP taking over the internet. Act 1.

  5. patriot says:

    Why understand one(person) on another person?

    As a ruler, he should understand the whole lot of his people, he has plenty of opportunities to talk to his neighbours, the staff in his ministry and all other Singaporeans.

    Why only talk and try to understand a few individuals? Me really dont understand.

    No langgar though with the less effective way he chooses to communicate with the masses. He probably has his own way.


    • patriot says:

      My apology.

      My Above Comment should have began with ‘ Why just tried to understand few individuals?’


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