Singapore’s community activism blossoming

TODAY | May 7, 2012

A year of greater engagement Alicia Wong Jiahui and Teo Xuanwei

MAY 7 — Just last week, a statutory board in Singapore — the National Parks Board — piloted a project, together with three animal welfare groups, to catch stray dogs with the aim of re-homing them eventually. It was a sign that these groups’ and other dog lovers’ long campaign for a more humane approach than the usual practice of culling strays could be bearing fruit. More importantly, this served as evidence to some quarters that the Singapore government has become more amenable, in general, to coming up with solutions with an ear to ground-up feedback. Barely two months earlier, however, a civil society meeting with government officials over plans for a new road in Bukit Brown drew criticism from several nature and heritage groups, because they were not given time to propose alternatives. It led some to question if the government had indeed become more flexible. Minister of State (National Development and Manpower) Tan Chuan-Jin, who chaired the meeting, responded to the criticism by saying the meeting was never intended to be a consultation exercise, but simply to share background information and policymakers’ considerations as well as the road plans. Responses varied in the aftermath: Some said officials had done enough to engage interest groups, while others asserted that a decision had already been made before the consultations, and hence there was no genuine engagement. Exactly one year on from what has been recognised as a watershed general election (GE), which many including government backbenchers expected would herald a more consultative style of governance, how much has changed in the way the republic’s leaders engage with civil society? MORE OUTREACH TO ACTIVIST GROUPS For one, government bodies appear to be showing a greater willingness to not only listen to but, indeed, to canvass the views of civil society groups. Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) executive director Corinna Lim cites how the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) recently initiated, for the first time, a meeting with women’s groups and told them to “give us your most candid and frank feedback”. The meeting was attended by MCYS Acting Minister Chan Chun Sing, Minister of State Halimah Yacob and Permanent Secretary Chan Heng Kee, she said. AWARE has also been working with the police on its sexual assault befriender service, added Lim. “There’s like a new energy; there seems to be a lot going on,” she said. “I keep telling people that there has not been a better time to be in civil society because things are really moving a lot faster.” Founder and president of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) Bridget Lew said the Manpower Ministry has also started to hold consultations with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other stakeholders on migrant issues. “The government actively engaged us, invited us to their office, departments, ministry for talks,” she said. Animal Concerns Research & Education Society (ACRES) executive director Louis Ng noted that there has been “quite a big shift” in the past year, “to get feedback before policies are made, rather than after”. Some, like the Cat Welfare Society (CWS), feel they have been given the chance to move up to become collaborators. Said its president Veron Lau: “It is in the past year that we felt we were more closely recognised as a partner, and more than a handful of agencies have become proactive in seeking to collaborate with us.” The engagement efforts have not stopped at civil activists. The online community and new media — which President Tony Tan Keng Yam had highlighted in his address in Parliament last October was a “tremendous tool to empower individuals, link us up with one another and mobilise people for social causes” — also has been reached out to. Andrew Loh, blogger and founder of, said there has been more “willingness to engage in face-to-face meetings”. He said Tan Chuan-Jin had met him and other bloggers informally. It was markedly different from in the past, he said, when the government “tried to discredit us, bloggers and citizen journalists”, as being merely irresponsible or irrational fringe voices. HAS CHANGE BEEN SUBSTANTIVE? While some hail the fact that there has been greater reaching out and, in some cases, willingness to consider alternative solutions, others have more demanding expectations that they feel have not yet been met. Dr Terence Chong, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said the past year has seen “one or two successful collaborations and a few unsuccessful ones” between the government and civil society, and “this is in keeping with the trend over the years”. “To say that there has been a change in the way the government engages in civil society is to imply a profound shift in governance where the former has become willing to bargain and concede to civil society on a fairly regular basis. I do not think this has happened,” he said. Alex Au, blogger of and treasurer of Transient Workers Count Too, also is of the view that engagement efforts have been “skin-deep” to an extent and that the government has not budged on its “fundamental, ideological positions”. Expectations of what “engagement” should entail, and what it should result in, will continue to be negotiated for some time between government and society — and indeed between segments of society itself. But the factual record attests to several concrete changes to policy that were made with input from the ground, in this short span of a year. For one, there is the extensive ongoing public consultation exercise over the development of the Rail Corridor — the 26km stretch of former KTM track land between Tanjong Pagar and Woodlands returned by Malaysia to Singapore last year. Suggestions raised during the inaugural forum on animal welfare in June last year also helped formulate long-term solutions for animal welfare, which were announced at a second forum in February. These included the setting up of a national adoption centre, a national microchip database and reviewing the rule that currently allows only small-breed dogs in Housing and Development Board flats. Then, there is the repeal of section 157(d) of the Evidence Act so that a rape victim’s sexual history cannot be used to discredit her in court. This issue was raised by AWARE and Still, it would be misleading to attribute all changes in policy to the direct result of increased engagement with civil society groups after the 2011 GE. In some cases, campaigning by NGOs served more to bolster an issue already under scrutiny because of regional or global factors. For instance, the mandatory weekly day off for domestic helpers whose work permits are issued or renewed from January next year, became a reality in no small part due to decade-long lobbying. But it was also the case that Singapore found itself among a minority of countries which employ many maids but did not mandate rest days. Government politicians behind the cause also played a part. HOME’s Lew credited Halimah for pushing for the new rest-day rule. AWARE’s Lim said Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam was “responsive and efficient” on the repeal of section 157(d) of the Evidence Act. Shanmugam has also been supportive of animal welfare groups’ efforts — for instance, his own Chong Pang ward is involved in pilot initiatives to help manage the stray cat population. Civil society groups also noted that the increased engagement was built upon years of cultivating a relationship with the Government. SLIPPERY SLIDE INTO POPULISM While the government has pledged to make public consultation a cornerstone of its policymaking, what are the dilemmas and potential pitfalls at play in this approach? Already, the more open attitude towards dialogue has heightened the desire and demands to be heard, rather than assuaging public discontent over what is perceived as an overly prescriptive style of governance, say members of Parliament (MPs). The demands to be listened to have always been there, MP Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang Group Representation Constituency) noted, but have become “more pronounced” after the elections. “I suppose there is a perception that the government is on the back foot, that with declining support the PAP (People’s Action Party) will be under more pressure to give in, for example … or (a perception that) the Government is more willing to be populist to secure more support.” MP Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) agrees the results of the polls last year have “empowered people” into seeing that “mine is a voice, a vote, and I can make a difference”. Former Nominated MP Viswa Sadasivan said: “I’m seeing, not an abating of that desire to hit at the government, (but) it getting stronger over the months.” This has had the effect of putting the government constantly on a “firefighting mode”, he added. The critical question is whether all this leads to a sense of entitlement among citizens that the government must act, all the time, in accordance with feedback. Might expectations be raised beyond what is reasonable, such that it leads to a gridlock in decision-making — or in the extreme, see every decision put to a referendum? Would this lead down the slippery road of populism? Dr Chong noted: “There is a difference between making a gesture of reaching out to hear different views and actually acting on all of them. The former does not automatically lead to the latter.” This mismatch in expectations was previously highlighted by Tan Chuan-Jin as one of his takeaways from the Bukit Brown saga. He reflected then that “there should be better appreciation of the expectations on all sides so that we can develop a dialogue that is constructive and which moves the issue forward”. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean also touched on this point in recent days, saying: “Having consultations can raise high expectations that all views and proposals will be accepted. But this is not always possible as the views and proposals can be contradictory, and it can be tough to choose between them.” The bottom line, he noted, is that “the fact that a proposal was not adopted does not mean that it was not listened to or taken into account”. Au argues that, because there has not been “substantive change” in the government’s approach in his view, “frustrations are rising”, leading to the increased tendency to be vocal about it online and offline. GRIDLOCK? NOT NECESSARILY Those who disagree with always going with the ground’s demands point to a feared scenario which this government, ever-mindful that the republic’s survival hinges on the ability to change course swiftly in turbulent times, has frequently cautioned against: policy gridlock. Nominated Member of Parliament and law don Eugene K.B. Tan said Singaporeans should “move away from viewing consultation through rose-tinted lenses”. “For every Singaporean who wants the government to consult, there are a few more Singaporeans who would rather the government just get down to the job of running the country,” he said. “Much depends on the confidence of the government of the day and whether it has the backbone to do what is right for the country.” But Professor Ang Peng Hwa, acting head of the Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information’s journalism and publishing division, feels that if engagement means a longer time to make decisions, it is not altogether bad. The government now invites public comments on policy issues and incorporates the feedback into policy, such as in the case of the Data Protection Bill, he said. “I don’t see paralysis; I see a slowing down, but I think people prefer that.” Added former NMP Siew Kum Hong: “Populism, indecision and paralysis of action are outcomes attributable directly to the shortcomings of individuals themselves, and how they engage with people did not create those shortcomings.” MP Alex Yam (Chua Chu Kang GRC) sees the engagement process going even further. Immediately after the GE, the government studied the ground reaction, and then people with different interests got more confident in sharing their views and comments. Now, he said, while the conversation between the government and society has become more mature, everyone is still feeling their way around. The next phase of the engagement process, Yam believes, will see the Government becoming even more comfortable in sharing information on policies with stakeholders before they are introduced. And, eventually, there could be more new policies that are a direct result of consultation from the ground-up, he added. ‘FRIENDING’ NETIZENS: TWO VIEWS A gamut of politicians have since increasingly focused more of their attention on the online community, explaining policies, engaging with netizens, sharing their thoughts on issues — or sometimes, just trying to connect on a more personal level. For example, when he launched his Facebook page last month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a welcome note that, besides using the social networking site to share what he is doing and thinking about, he wanted netizens to “help shape ideas and understanding of what we can do together to improve our lives”. In one status update, he said he had sent some of the feedback received on his Facebook page to various ministries to consider, adding that he took netizens’ views “very seriously”. Baey also has monthly townhall sessions on his Facebook page for residents to “bring up any issue they want”. But political observers think an increased online presence could work both for and against politicians. Sadasivan’s view is that the government has focused too much on online engagement. In addition to “symbolically alienating” a spectrum of society that is uncomfortable discussing emotionally-charged issues online, the outcome of such engagement also cannot be predicted “no matter how sincere the effort is”, because new media is not curated. He pointed to how something as “innocuous” as PM Lee’s posting about what he had for dinner has been turned into an issue. “I don’t think it’s helping the PM’s image to be involved in discussions of that nature,” Sadasivan said. Social media, albeit an important platform, is “not the ideal platform for the discussion of substantive issues in a substantive way”. Other observers, however, say there is a growing desire among Singaporeans to “connect” with politicians. While citizens want politicians to maintain the “authoritative” aura, they do not want them to be “distant”, said Ang, adding that it is “part of the role” of a politician to connect with people. He lauded PM Lee’s Facebook page, which combines regular updates about his daily activities with links to serious matters, as “literally quite engaging”. That PM Lee has launched his Facebook page also speaks of the “confidence” the government is gaining to engage the online sphere, he added. NMP Eugene Tan said: “We’re moving away from an era of technocrat-politicians, to one where our MPs have to be more a politician than a technocrat. We now expect our political leaders to emote, to engage, to be ‘friends’.” “Political leaders are now more ‘personable’ because of their presence in social media,” said Dr Brian Lee, head of communication programmes at UniSIM’s School of Business. “This in fact helps the political leaders effectively survey the emotional landscape on the ground, and hence be able to better understand what the people really want and need.” VOCAL MINORITY, SILENT MAJORITY? Andrew Loh is all for the authorities taking their online engagement, including of socio-political websites, a step further: “What should be continued are the offline engagements which have taken place, in face-to-face, real-life meetings.” One school of thought, however, is that voices in the online sphere are dominated by a “vocal minority”, which is not necessarily representative of the general sentiments of a “silent majority”. An obvious challenge for politicians, thus, is whether these views become perceived by an individual as the community’s stand, thereby shaping the agenda — a point not lost on DPM Teo, who asked during last month’s National Community Engagement Programme dialogue how we could get more of the “silent majority” to speak up. But Siew argued that “it is not apparent to me whether the vocal elements are truly a small minority”. He questioned: “If the silent majority is staying silent, is that because they agree with what is being said online?” Siew noted that certain online forums “attract a pretty mainstream audience, and you still see a lot of critical voices and a lot of quietly cynical voices there”. He said: “So that does tell me that critical voices are very much part of the mainstream.” Citing online engagement as “just the most direct and effective way” of listening to people in modern democracies, Siew said it is “then up to politicians to decide how and what to do once they have heard the people”. But while Dr Lee’s view is that the “vocal minority usually are the opinion leaders” who get others thinking about issues, Asst Prof Tan still believes that social media is dominated by this minority, and that they may “lull politicians into a false sense of engagement”. He stressed the need for face-to-face engagement, saying an “overemphasis on walking and talking the virtual ground is grossly inadequate in knowing what the silent majority is thinking”. SHARE MORE INFORMATION, GROW A THICKER SKIN All said, while the engagement process may still be undergoing refining, civil society groups and observers unanimously agree work should go on – starting with more open sharing of information by the Government. Economic Society of Singapore vice-president Yeoh Lam Keong said greater openness about the policymaking process, be it over wage restructuring, immigration, population policy or even monetary policy, could allow experts in the private and professional sectors, as well as civil society, to chip in with suggestions for solutions that are better for the republic and Singaporeans. “This is important as policymaking on key issues – whether economic or social – is becoming so complex that the government badly needs the expert and stakeholder contributions,” he said. “A Freedom of Information Act would greatly facilitate this process institutionally.” There also needs to be a more relaxed view of the tenor of debates, analysts feel; those who do not always keep a polite tone or who raise contrarian views must not be seen as having flouted the rules of engagement. “Once government has decided to go full-throttle into engagement, they have to develop a thicker skin,” said Sadasivan, who observed that this “thickening of the skin” has not kept pace with the rise in engagement. Indeed, whenever challenges are mounted against government positions or policies, an “anti-government” glow is often cast on the source of disagreement. Could debate here one day mature to a stage where a non-partisan ground — one that is able to critique and offer alternative policy suggestions without being drawn into party politics – emerges? Asst Prof Tan said that, while this non-partisan ground is emerging, “it’s too early to tell if it’s sustainable and whether it will sway Singaporeans to avoid looking at policies and outcomes in binary terms”. Siew, however, says there have been non-partisan speakers “for a long time”, such as former Permanent Secretary Ngiam Tong Dow. “The space for them has been small for the longest time and is growing slowly. The bigger challenge is to get establishment personalities like professors Lim Chong Yah and Phua Kai Hong to participate in public more often and more consistently,” Siew said. Prof Lim, who was formerly chief of the National Wages Council, recently called for a “shock therapy” involving huge raises for low-income earners and salary freezes at the top to close the widening income gap in Singapore, and ease its dependence on foreign workers. His suggestion drew robust responses from ministers, including labour chief Lim Swee Say. Soon after, Prof Phua, who is from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, warned that ElderShield, the Republic’s financing scheme for the intermediate- and long-term care sector, will not be enough for Singaporeans to meet basic costs for such services. Ultimately, for engagement to bear fruit, all stakeholders in civil society must play their part in coming up with viable solutions to policy issues, rather than just pointing out the shortfalls. Said CWS’s Lau: “We really should be getting down to talking about the brass tacks of what is possible to achieve now, and what we must make possible in the not-so-distant future.” Source: Malaysianinsider

Channel News Asia | Dec 29, 2011

Singapore’s community activism blossoming Qiuyi Tan

SINGAPORE: More Singaporeans this year have spoken up and acted on a slew of social causes from heritage conservation and environmental protection to animal welfare. In June, Singapore saw its first-ever public forum on animal welfare policies. Observers said this is not unusual for a developed country with an educated population. Assistant Professor Reuben Wong, from the National University of Singapore’s Political Science Department, said: “Singaporeans find it remarkable because we’ve been used to a certain kind of politics which I’d describe as abnormal, where the citizenry has been depoliticised, where there is one overwhelming party or sometimes just one party in Parliament.” At the National Day Rally in August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had urged Singaporeans to come forward to play a larger and positive role on issues affecting the country. Leading the way in this effort are civil society groups such as the Cat Welfare Society. The society has seen public support increase steadily over the years. But what made 2011 a milestone for the group was its engagement with the government. It has successfully lobbied authorities to start sterilising stray cats this year — a shift from the old policy of culling them. Its vice-president Veron Lau said the Stray Cat Sterilisation Programme, which was terminated in 2005, is now back and piloting in a number of housing estates like Ang Mo Kio and Tampines. Under the programme, the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA) works with town councils to microchip and sterilise stray cats, and pays for half the cost. “I see the change from the government officers in the way they want to work together with us,” Ms Lau said. “It’s because they have seen the results that are brought about when volunteers and residents in the community step forward to resolve issues, rather than just leaving it to the government officials to resolve them.” Separately, architect Tham Wai Hon got his friends and colleagues together to lobby the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to preserve the full tract of KTM railway land recently returned to Singapore. They did that by proposing creative development ideas. Mr Tham said: “What’s so amazing was that, usually in Singapore, things are planned 10, 20 years in advance, but this time, things happened so suddenly, no one was ready except our group. And so in that way it lent us a bigger voice, and the URA was really keen to get any ideas for what they could do about the space.” Mr Tham’s group — Friends of the Rail Corridor — is now part of an official dialogue process with the Rail Corridor Consultation Group on the Rail Corridor. There are concerns lengthy consultations will slow down Singapore’s efficiency and strong government. But activists and observers said the dialogue process as well as active citizens and a strong civil society are vital to a mature and resilient society. NUS’ Assistant Professor Wong said: “Some of the younger ministers and younger Members of Parliament (MPs) understand more intuitively, but the rest of the cabinet and government might have to be convinced of the merits of a more consultative approach.” While some observers said activist groups are getting more organised and connected, others believe there will always be new issues that will get Singaporeans talking and moving. But one thing all can agree with, though, is that Singapore’s budding community activism looks set to grow in the years ahead. Source: Channel News Asia

SALT | Nov 24, 2011

Would non-profits profit from social media?

The natural attraction between non-profit organisations and social media tools has triggered a myriad of associations. Can these relationships last? Anita Devasahayam The proliferation of non-profit organisations (NPOs) in recent years hints that a discerning and civic-minded society is on the rise. Parallel to the rise of NPOs is the rise in use of social media among NPOs to drive membership, attract funds, and recruit volunteers to charitable causes. According to market analytics of social media sites, roughly 55 percent or 2.6 million Singaporeans are on Facebook (reported on Socialbakers’ website in October 2011) and slightly over 930,000 Singaporeans use Twitter (reported by market analytics firm Sysomos in April 2010). The lively interaction of candidates, campaigners and voters on cyberspace during the 2011 General Elections is testimony of a growing cadre of a socially-engaged community in Singapore. The Singapore Cancer Society (SCS) and Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) are among the many Singaporean NPOs that leverage Facebook to extend their reach. SCS launched its Facebook page in 2009 in conjunction with its Race Against Cancer charity run. “Our target was the tech-savvy generation or we would miss out on a significant slice of the Facebook population here,” said its director of community partnerships, Jennifer Lim. She added that SCS’s Facebook page saw enriched dialogue between the Society and its followers, prompting the organisation to create an online registration page for future races. SCS had 1,432 Facebook members and more than 7,500 individual participated in SCS’s flagship Race Against Cancer event. (At presstime, SCS deactivated its Facebook page to start anew). ACRES too had seen a spike in activity when it hopped on the Facebook bandwagon in August 2008. The page helped ACRES grow its pool of volunteers for various activities to 20,000. However, ACRES director of education, Amy Corrigan revealed that the charity counted 100 faithful of the 8,571 (and growing) “likes” on its Facebook page. Both NPOs agreed that the number of “likes” does not indicate sustained public engagement. Instead engagement is driven by dynamic and interesting content; and support plateaus and conversation is limited to a certain few. “It is harder now to keep the page focused with people talking about all and sundry. We need to respond in double quick time, keep trolls out and delete irrelevant comments, and to do all of the above at the same time,” said Corrigan. Lim concurred, adding that time and commitment to keep SCS’s Facebook page “alive” is challenging, especially given that many NPOs do not have full-time employees on the job. Help on its way While observers applaud SCS’s and ACRES’s courage to embrace social media, other NPOs are less lucky. A report from Today Online found NPOs lacked the expertise, finances and manpower muscle to pursue social media. A straw poll across the Internet revealed several NPOs with dated websites and zero social media presence. Earlier this year, the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) stepped up to address this gap, awarding a S$125,000 grant to global public relations consultancy Text 100 to help NPOs registered on its online donation portal, SG Gives. Charities will be tutored and trained to use social media effectively under the “Digitalising Volunteerism and Philanthropy” (diVP) programme. David Lian, Text100’s social media practice lead for Asia-Pacific, noted that charities had succeeded in reaching out to volunteers and donors via Facebook but cautioned NPOs against trying to implement a “one size fits all” strategy. “You need to think about the organisation’s goals, target audience, resources and culture. Once aligned with the organisation, the potential in using social media as a communications platform is amazing. You can raise funds, recruit members, organise volunteer communities and inform the public of activities via social media. But most importantly, it is a tool to increase the reach of your message,” he added. Content & conversations Charities such as the American Red Cross and Charity: water have managed to widen their reach beyond Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers with edgy content, sexy tweets and viral videos. Their Facebook pages are packed with relevant and current stories, updates and events to keep their audience engaged. “Focus on getting content right. When people visit your online property – whether it’s your website, Facebook page or Twitter feed – they are looking for information, or an update of your activities, or an opportunity to interact. Every organisation needs to understand what their audiences are looking for when engaging with them online and ensure they create relevant content. The best content will drive people to action, and, with planning, towards the goals of the organisation,” said Lian. Both SCS’ Lim and ACRES’ Corrigan noted that in particular, photos of people, animals and issues that struck an emotional chord drew the most attention from its following. “We were able to as a result meet our loyal supporters to get their help on how to move forward,” said Corrigan. Lim added that SCS took it a step further by creating and posting a Web page on SG Gives’ portal to garner support for its fundraising activities. Social media tools do extend the NPOs reach but continuous engagement can only be driven through compelling content and conversation. Veron Lau, vice-president of Cat Welfare Society, who spoke during the launch of the Text 100 diVP programme at NVPC, stated that to have a compelling online presence, you need to create a human voice and presence; to tell stories, not just a broadcast tool for events and information. “We must create talking points to engage followers; create official and unofficial events; connect people who you think should be talking to each other; handle online flamings and disputes like a human being. Be brave,” she added. Tips to extend charities’ reach So how can charities extend their reach and spread their message? Here are five tips from Text 100’s Lian: Tip #1: Understand your objectives and purpose – why do want to use to social media? Is it to raise funds, recruit volunteers or build a community? Tip #2: Create and measure your social media activities around your objectives. Success in using social media is not about the number of likes or fans on your page, but rather results. Tip #3: Get your content strategy right by sharing relevant content on a regular and timely basis. Tip #4: Get involved with the NPO community. Social media is not just about engaging your target or extended audience. You need to interact with like-minded charities to move to the next level. Tip #5: Focus on building long-term relationships. The beauty of social media is that it allows your organisation to build long-term, high-touch, personal relationships with your community. A community that shares your belief will be ready to support your mission. Source: SALT

The Straits Times | Oct 1, 2011

Net gain for charities as more log on
Small organisations learn to harness online donations Janice Tai

CHARITIES are increasingly harnessing the power of the Internet to drum up donations. Spurred on by the success of major fund-raising websites such as SG Gives, smaller organisations are starting to encourage supporters to contribute online. The Cat Welfare Society raised $llO,OOO this year, half of it from Internet donors. This is double the amount it raised three years ago, when it had yet to jump on the social media bandwagon. “In recent years, increasingly more people were going online, so we knew we had to be where the people were,” said its vice-president Veron Lau. Club Rainbow, which helps log on youngsters suffering from chronic illnesses, has just started allowing visitors to its website to give using the online payment service PayPal. “A lot of our donors like using credit cards to donate,” said director Dickson Lim. “We started on PayPal to offer an added convenience to these donors.” This form of contribution is also more convenient for the companies which adopt Club Rainbow as their charity. “For many large events, like marathons, going online to process payment is more cost-effective, given the large numbers of people they cater to,” said Mr Lirn. “Increasingly, we are seeing more charities going online to set up their own donation portals or to recruit volunteers.” Public relations consultancy Text 100 has started a programme to help charities raise money using the Web, with the help of a $125,000 grant from the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC). Launched on Thursday, the scheme provides advice, expertise and coaching. Called Digitalising Volunteerism And Philanthropy, it aims to help charities increase the amount they raise by up to a fifth, develop the expertise to recruit volunteers and promote their causes online. “We think that social media is a very cost-effective tool for charities to communicate with their stakeholders, since the cost of mainstream media advertising is prohibitive to most,” said NVPC chief executive Laurence Lien. So how exactly does the Internet make life easier for donors? Ms Eveline How, a manager in her 30s, has been giving nearly $500 a month on the Web to various animal welfare groups and hospices. “I like to do it online because it is very convenient,” she said. “Once you do the initial set-up, recurring monthly payments are done automatically.” Ms How was hesitant at first because she was concerned that the money would fall into the wrong hands. But after five years of donating online, she has found that payments are largely secure. Singapore Management University social media expert Michael Netzley thinks it will be a while before an online donation culture truly takes off here. “The adoption of online giving tends to be quicker in other markets like North America and the UK. In Singapore, where the culture is more conservative, trust needs to be earned first. This takes some time,” he said.

TODAY | July 25, 2011

The lines are starting to blur Eugene K B Tan

Earlier this month, there were two contrasting stories about how Singaporeans and ministries and government agencies were engaging each other on matters that they are concerned with. First, the Ministry of National Development (MND) announced on July 11 that it would form an inter-agency task force to review pet ownership and stray animal management policies. The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority will collaborate with the Cat Welfare Society and three town councils in piloting the Stray Cat Sterilisation Programme as an alternative means of managing stray cats. The MND explained that the review of pet ownership and stray animal management policies occurs against the backdrop of “growing public awareness and concern for animals”. Different stakeholders will be engaged to address their problems and concerns. The review is ultimate objective is “to create a conducive shared living environment for everyone”. This presumably includes animals as well as residents regardless of whether they were animal lovers or not. This tentative shift of a long-standing policy followed an extended period of engagement by animal welfare groups on the issue. The MND’s approach is an attempt at what has been termed “service co-creation”. In essence, it is about a Government and civil society partnership, with collaboration and cooperation being the hallmarks in the delivery of public services or in the formulation of policies at the municipal and national level. It is very much about tapping the social capital, local knowledge and domain expertise within a community to benefit the community, while enhancing the stock of social capital in the process. Co-creation also acknowledges the limitations of the Government in delivering public services, and that money alone is inadequate in the effective and efficacious delivery of public services with a human touch. Grassroots expertise can be a force multiplier in service delivery. Service co-creation can also lower the “transaction costs” of delivering public services because it seeks to tap local knowledge and work with the local community which has a vested interest in the outcomes. CITIZENS WANT IN Driving this trend is the desire of citizens to be involved and not be a mere digit in policy-making and policy implementation. As a society matures, post-material considerations become more important. People increasingly seek self-fulfillment, self-actualisation and to be consulted on issues that concern them or affect their communities. This sense of involvement and engagement is an important manifestation of active citizenry. In Singapore’s context, service co-creation is not a wholly new idea – the “many helping hands” approach to social service is a good example. Yet beyond the social services sector, the question has been: How keen is the public service to reach out and collaborate in a substantive manner? If “collaboration” is more form than substance, this may put the brakes on service co-creation because community partners are likely to shy away from lip service. The May General Election might just have been the catalyst for action. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, in a speech to public officers a week after the GE, noted that it was “neither effective nor sustainable” for the public service to try to solve problems on its own. The public service needed to “create an environment where public officers can work hand-in-glove with the people they serve to address the issues and create greater public value”. DPM Teo added that an engaged citizenry “will provide the foundation for a more resilient and cohesive society”. We can certainly expect more service co-creation; it may well be the next big thing in active citizenry. This year’s HeritageFest and the SportsVision 2030 are examples of the larger effort of consultation, collaboration and engagement. But the modalities of collaboration will have to be worked out, as there cannot be a one size fits all approach. Both Government and civil society must approach service co-creation with open minds, and realise it may not be suitable in all instances. There must be realistic expectations about what service co-creation can do – and what it cannot do. REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS In this regard, the Land Transport Authority’s (LTA) engagement of a group of Maplewoods condominium residents who had been seeking to relocate a MRT launch shaft away from their property is insightful. The residents proposed that the launch shaft – needed to lower and launch tunnel boring machines for construction of the underground Downtown Line 2 – be located instead at Sixth Avenue, a few blocks away. Regretfully, that proposal smacked of a “not in my backyard” mindset. The relocation proposal would require the acquisition and demolition of 10 shophouse units at Sixth Avenue, or for the occupants to move elsewhere while construction takes place with the shophouses to be rebuilt later. Such a move apparently would delay the project by 38 months and add S$500 million to the projected total cost of S$12 billion. The LTA also responded in a 10-page letter detailing measures to minimise the adverse impact of the construction of the King Albert Park MRT Station. In the meantime, the LTA halted drilling work for a month as it consulted and engaged residents on their concerns. In service co-creation, a key question that will have to be addressed is whether the relationship is one of equal partners. Certainly, each partner will bring its strengths to the table and it may not be helpful to talk in terms of who is in charge. But the reality is that the Government will ultimately be held responsible, especially if things turn out badly. So, cautiousness on the part of the public service is not surprising. Yet, service co-creation is important for the public service and for Singapore. The public service does not have the monopoly on wisdom, and the public policies ultimately must serve the people and engender buy-in. At the same time, service co-creation requires more than just volunteerism on the part of the community. It is about being involved, responsible and steadfast to the commitment undertaken. Volunteerism may lack the degree of accountability needed for a sustained delivery of high-quality public services. When co-creation has taken root, we can look at such services as community generated, delivered and consumed. The distinction between what is public and what is people sector will be blurred.

Straits Times | Dec 13, 2009

Rise of Singapore’s citizen patrol Criminals on the prowl, beware.

More public-spirited people are pounding the pavements in organised groups to keep a look-out for loan sharks, burglars and even cat-killers. Equipped with bicycles, torchlights and some police training, these ‘eyes and ears’ of the men in blue are helping to boost neighbourhood safety. Just last week, it was announced that Serangoon Gardens would be getting its own citizens’ patrol this week. The patrol — comprising both residents and foreign workers living in the estate’s newly opened dormitory — is aimed at boosting security levels in the area. The police say citizen patrolling is gaining in popularity. It is mostly conducted under the banner of Citizens on Patrol (COP), a programme that is part of the long-running Neighbourhood Watch Zone (NWZ) scheme. When the latter was launched in 1997, there were only 65 volunteers in 26 residential zones. Now there are more than 5,000 volunteers in 628 zones. Their efforts, which include late- night patrols and door-to-door visits , have paid off. Police statistics show that four in 10 arrests involving major offences such as outrage of modesty, robbery and housebreaking are public-assisted. Said a police spokesman: “The police cannot be everywhere at any one time and the community plays an important role in helping us fight crime and terrorism.” There are many success stories. In January, a COP group from Nee Soon South spotted a loan shark runner making his getaway after splashing paint on a home. The suspect was arrested a few days later, after volunteers noted the registration number of his motorcycle. Their vigilance also led to the arrest of two other members of a loan shark gang the following month. Such civic-minded volunteers come from all walks of life. There are the ordinary citizens moved to action in the face of persistent crime in their neighbourhoods. Many are active grassroots members who see the patrols as a good way to reach out to the residents in their wards. Yet others say they are just doing their part to protect their own loved ones. “We’re trying to achieve neighbourhood safety,” said Punggol Gardens Residents’ Committee (RC) member Ravan Nannapaneni, 32. “But at the end of the day, I feel safer, and my family feels safer,” said the product engineer. Recruiting newcomers has not been a problem. Clinic assistant Christina Kwek, 45, chairman of the Toa Payoh East Zone 1 RC, said: “Even children have come up to us and said they want to join. “But we had to say no, because it can be a bit dangerous.” When giving training to the citizen patrollers, the police emphasise that they are not to take the law into their own hands. When witnessing a crime, for example, they should alert the police and not confront the suspects on their own. But some situations may require quick action. Teh Beng Chye, 46, a Toa Payoh grassroots member, recounted how he single-handedly apprehended a suspect who had robbed an elderly man earlier this year. But Teh, who is self-employed, did so only after he had made sure the culprit was not carrying a weapon. “During our NWZ meetings, the police trained us how to react,” he said. “I saw that the robber did not have a weapon, so I gave chase and caught him at the next block.” Apart from the COP programme, some people have organised impromptu patrols — often to deter a specific crime or for a cause. Animal activists, for instance, have often stepped forward to trace animal abusers. Veron Lau, 38, a Cat Welfare Society committee member, volunteered for two patrols this year to help catch cat abusers in Choa Chu Kang and Toa Payoh. “The suspects, who are often residents of those neighbourhoods, become less likely to continue their actions knowing that people are on the alert,” she explained. But not everyone, it seems, is thankful that there are such patrols, and voluntary crime-busters have come across some unappreciative residents. Jacqueline Song, chairman of Punggol Gardens RC, said she was once verbally abused by the parents of some teenagers caught setting fire to a public roof-top garden. “It’s a thankless job sometimes,” said the business development manager. “But we pride ourselves on our personal touch. Some residents may not be comfortable talking to the police. We are familiar faces.” Source: Malaysianinsider