On The Bird Wire

Campaign: ‘Grateful’ Surprise

Co-founder of Hornbills Concepts and Communications, Luenne, recently completed a project with two other ladies (Khalijah and Eleanor), that involved surprising the former President of Singapore, Mr S.R. Nathan.  The project had two parts: a book and a video. The book was made up of a collection of anecdotes about him as a boss, as a friend and as someone who never forgot the kindness shown to him. The video was to capture the surprise on his face when he was presented the book.

A campaign can be planned and executed in lighting speed and on a tight budget. The idea was mooted in December 2015. It took two months to source funders and convince them that this was a project worthy enough (and crazy enough) to fund. After which, the team only had about two months to write the book and complete the filming and hunt down the talents to interview. The team met with a lot of suspicion: connectors and friends of Mr Nathan wondered about their “agenda” for doing this book. More importantly, who was behind this project? Was there a political motive for doing this?  They cannot believe that the members of the team were just a bunch of curious individuals—welcome to the hipster generation. People do things just because!

But in many ways, this project was also about capturing an “alternative” SG50 story. It was not about  Mr Nathan as a president, but as Mr Nathan person.

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Mr Nathan’s colleagues in MFA

Luenne worked with a few of his protégées before and realized that they also inherited his “no-nonsense” trait. They were from a generation who were willing and ready to do the “heavy lifting”, as one of them described it.

Indeed, this trait is somewhat lost to a many these days as we grow up with an army of domestic helpers at our beck and call.

Will, trust and passion, are important ingredients needed to complete a project as crazy as this. There were hairy and tense moments especially when the deadline loomed and when  ‘moving parts’ of the project have not been pinned down. But in the end, when the whole thing was over, there was this huge sense of accomplishment and relief!

I made new friends and learnt a lot about old ones in the process!

Below is the video. Enjoy!

On The Bird Wire

Reporting and Reputation: Don’t Be Too Quick To Judge

dreamstime_xs_47222230On January 3rd this year, the Straits Times ran a story on GIC’s (formerly known as the Government of Singapore’s Investment Corporation) efforts to “boost youth volunteerism via a $2m scheme offering students $3,000-$5,000 for 25 hours of community work”.

The Online Citizen (TOC) was quick to pick up on netizens’ responses to the scheme and published an article entitled “GIC’s pay-for-volunteering scheme gets criticised”. The article chose to bring attention to the massive online vitriol against the scheme, rather than the fact that volunteering was just one component of the Sparks & Smiles Scheme.

To any PR and Communications professional, this is a very interesting exercise in analysing the culture of reporting in Singapore and reputation management.

First, this episode reminds us of how small Singapore is in terms of its physical and news geography. There are only so many things that can be reported daily because of a certain level of self-censorship in the newsroom. Also, the readership of Straits Times and SPH’s papers has taken a hit as a result of digital news which has less self-censorship, but is nevertheless quite careful of what is being uploaded. More importantly, this culture of self-censorship is also fuelled by the lack of a certain degree of apathy by readers at large.

It is possible that the journalist attempted to highlight the volunteerism aspect of the scheme, thinking that it would draw attention to the article. Instead of giving her story a new perspective, it unfortunately drew much flak from the online community.

However, based on the reporting in the Straits Times’ forum section and the tabloid paper in the following days, one might speculate that the PR machinery of GIC would have pressed them for extra coverage to help them recover from the online tirade. This is any PR department’s “service recovery” dream: to get so much extra coverage for nothing.

Unfortunately though, they did not get the same ‘tender loving care’ from TOC. The comments below the TOC’s piece ran like a litany of grouses about GIC and this brings us to the second point about reputation management and GIC.

Reputation matters. It is the impression (rightly or wrongly) that people have about your organisation and it has implication on the way you do business and your relationship with the community. This entire episode is, in a way, a reflection of GIC’s reputation and how it resonates with some sections of society – some Singaporeans tend to associate GIC with politics and the state of affairs in Singapore.

As can be seen from the subsequent comments posted, many writers seem to take this opportunity to air their grievances about the current state of affairs in Singapore, what people are generally unhappy about and linking them back to GIC.

For GIC, perhaps this is a good time for them to consider embarking on a visibility campaign to make an effort to connect with the public so that they can better weather mistakes in the news room and other such debacles.

Luenne Choa is co-founder of Hornbills: Concepts and Communications. This commentary is based on her personal views.

On The Bird Wire

Raising environmental awareness amongst Muslims

BH featureOn 13 May 2011, Sofiah Jamil was featured in Singapore’s Malay Newspaper – Berita Harian – on her research and advocacy work on faith-based environmentalism.

In the article, Sofiah noted how countries in the Muslim World largely fall into at least one of three categories in relation to climate change.

  1. Victims of climate change: Countries such as Bangladesh and Indonesia face rising sea levels and flooding, while sub-saharan Africa face drought.
  2. Contributors of climate change: Oil-rich Gulf Arab states have one of the highest carbon emissions per capita in the world, while the rate of deforestation in Indonesia makes its total carbon emissions to be just behind the US and China.
  3. Solutions to address climate change: Despite the bleak scenario, there are still opportunities for countries in the Muslim world to play a more active role in addressing environmental challenges. Resource rich Muslim countries ought to better strategise how they can invest in technology and other solutions. More effort would be needed for forest rich countries like Indonesia to preserve and rehabilitate their forests which act as “carbon sinks”.

In addition, all Muslims can do their part by taking inspiration and guidance from their faith. Despite the wealth of Islamic knowledge on nature and the environment, little has been done by Muslims to operationalise these principles. In this regard, further community action is needed.

On The Bird Wire

Beyond Food for Fuel: The Little Red Dot in ASEAN-GCC Relations

“You have what we don’t have, and we have plenty of what you don’t have, so we need each other.”
– Dr Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN Secretary-General, 2009

Speaking after the first meeting between foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC),  Dr Pitsuwan was referring to the abundance of energy sources in the Arabian Gulf and the agricultural potential of Southeast Asia. Indeed, growing concerns over energy and food security have been a prominent topic in the discussions, which took place about a year after the global food crisis of 2007-2008. Given the fact that Gulf Arab countries imported 80% of their staple foods at a cost of $20 billion in 2008, they have shown an increasing interest in Southeast Asia’s fertile farmland. Conversely, Southeast Asian countries continue to demand more energy resources such as oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) to facilitate their economic development plans.

Singapore, however, doesn’t fit neatly into this arrangement. While it does import a substantial amount of its energy resources from the Gulf, Singapore unlike its neighbours, does not have any natural resources to export. There are  3 main ways in which Singapore plays a significant role for the Gulf, and through that have the potential to enhance GCC- ASEAN relations.

 1) Despite the dearth of natural resources, Singapore provides commendable developmental policies and strategies based on cultivating human development.

This includes sound policies on comprehensive social infrastructure to ensure not just primary but advanced health care, and high education and living standards – and these are all key indicators for Human development. Other notable achivements have been Singapore’s ability to overcome water scarcity, and avoiding the formation of slums in the process of urbanisation. Hence its not natural resources that Singapore has to share with the Gulf but rather its human resources and technical expertise that is has built up since independence. There have been notable developments in recent years between GCC countries and Singapore. These include:-

 2) Singapore as a gateway for promoting further understanding engagement with the wider East Asian region.

This is due to several factors. Firstly, Singapore is one of the Asian tigers and maintains cordial links with China.Secondly, through Singapore’s Role in ASEAN, GCC countries would be able to have a better understanding of regional East Asian dynamics and architecture – such as the growing importance of ASEAN +3 (ASEAN member states and their Northeast Asian counterparts China, Japan and South korea) in addressing a series of challenges – such as pandemic outbreaks, disaster management and transnational crime. Thirdly, Singapore initiated the Asia Middle East Dialogue (AMED) in 2004 to promote inter-regional exchange and collaboration. While initial AMED meetings focussed on conventional areas of cooperation such as trade and traditional security concerns, Singapore has raised in subsequent meetings the importance of addressing transboundary challenges such as climate change, religious, ethnic conflict and pandemic outbreaks – all of which Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries would be able to share their experiences and concerns.

 3) Singapore’s on-going challenges – both at the regional and national level – also provide useful lessons

At the regional level, the different levels of economic development and governance capabilities of ASEAN states would make it difficult to address transnational issues, which can have adverse effects on Singapore.  Non– traditional security challenges such as the transboundary haze issue– stemming from forest fires in Indonesia– have adversely affected Singapore’s economy. Similarly, food and energy security issues demonstrate that Singapore’s security is intricately tied to regional security. This would be something for the GCC to think about if they really wish to extend their membership to countries which are less well off.

The issue of migrant workers is also an important area that is often swept under the carpet. Beyond economics, if there is to be any genuine GCC –ASEAN relations, it has to at some point address the inequalities related to migrant workers – who are an integral part of development in the Arabian Gulf as well as remittance for some Southeast Asian countries. Given the fact that ASEAN is made up of countries that are either supply or demand foreign labour, engaging countries in the region would be vital to understand various perspectives on the matter, including experiences that may have resonance in the Arabian Gulf.

In terms of challenges at the national level, while there is a high level of growth and development in Singapore, there is also a high level of income inequalities. In terms of cultural diversity, Singapore is a unique case study of a Muslim minority in the East for two main reasons. Firstly, there are nuanced differences compared to Muslim minorities in the West as Singapore Muslims operate in an Asian context. Secondly, Singapore Muslims, to some degree, are wired slightly differently because of the context that they are in vis-a-vis their Muslim-majority neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia.

It is clear that while the “little red dot” is generally a glowing example of national development and political stability, and an advocate for cordial international ties, Singapore’s domestic limitations and regional vulnerabilities need to be recognised. The Gulf Arab region has the opportunity to learn both from Singapore’s achievements and its challenges. This constitutes not only a means to enhance development levels in the Gulf Arab states, but also a medium through which they can better understand the political and socio-economic dynamics of the East Asian region. In addition, , the importance of increasing inter-regional people-to-people contact should not be understated, as it serves to fill in gaps which conventional notions of development have failed to cover. Enhancing such ties would not only provide a means of approaching sensitive issues, but may also serve to “dispel negative stereotypes of each other. Such elements are therefore necessary in ensuring deep relations between the GCC and Singapore (and in extension GCC-ASEAN) beyond diplomatic missions and economic interactions.

This post is based on a book chapter in Asia-Gulf Economic Relations in the 21st Century: The Local to Global Transformation.