I was chatting with Andrew Loh recently about how to better engage middle-ground Singaporeans on sociopolitical issues.
Loh shared about how both opposition politicians and activists in Singapore could benefit from being less aggressive. He felt that mellowing down can help them to better align themselves to the sentiments on the ground.
He observed that this type of approach helped MP Low Thia Khiang achieve so much in the past few decades. A similar approach is seen in the present WP secretary general, Pritam Singh, who was observed by his party colleagues to have “learnt how to present a better tone” and to be “assertive, and not aggressive”.
Why being aggressive doesn’t always work?
When one wishes to persuade and win others over, be it in sales, blogging, politics or activism, the key is always to first understand your audience and then adjusting your tonality and points based on the characteristics of this group.
So, what is the Singaporean audience like?
In Professor Cherian George book ‘Singapore Incomplete’, he describes them like this:
Singaporeans seem to be “allergic to people they perceive as argumentative.. often accusing them for creating trouble and ‘disturbing the peace’… As a result, critics who think they are acting in public interest often find the public positively hostile, treating them like troublemakers.”
Based on my own social circle, I do agree quite a bit with what they said. While we do receive considerable western influence, Singapore is an Asian society after all. Certain qualities are valued here such as ‘face saving’ and ‘humility’.
When one is overly-opinionated or aggressive in their approach, it may not work with the general populace and may even backfire.
One could appear to be arrogant or cause others to lose face when engaging in online arguments with them. Women and minorities who behave in such a manner could end up receiving even more harassment and abuse than they normally would.
Precisely because Singaporeans are generally like that, Professor Alan Chong from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies felt that Singapore would take best to “a charismatic leader who adopts a conciliatory approach” on both local politics and global issues.
Learning it the hard way
I guess I’ve learnt this lesson in 2015. When I was younger and more immature but my approach as a blogger was one which was aggressive and insensitive.
Those who have been following me for a long time would recall that some example of this was in March 2015, I wrote a post about Lee Kuan Yew which did not work well with many as I did not take into consideration how my audience felt especially with the entire week of tv programs, news articles and social studies textbooks glorifying the man.
I still stand by the points I made today. However, I definitely agree that the way in which I expressed my opinions, could have been more sensitive.
Over time, I realized I was simply being in my own echo-chamber, talking to those who already agreed with me. However, I was alienating those who may not share the same viewpoints as I did or those who have not formed much of a view about local politics, rather than engaging them. Yet, this was the very group which required engagement the most.
From there, I spoke with some friends who gave me feedback on how I could improve myself. Here is what I’ve done:
1) I try to acknowledge their points first and to find a common ground
Rather than putting down people straight away, I’ve gradually learnt how to choose collaboration over conflict. One of these ways is to find a common ground first.
One of the founding fathers of USA, Benjamin Franklin, had the same problem as I did.
His recommendation was first to acknowledge the valid points in other people’s arguments first, before proceeding to explain your own.
When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing him immediately some absurdity in his proposition.
In answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right…but in the present case there appeared or seemed to me some difference, etc.
For instance, when writing about how we should not discriminate against certain groups, I would not choose the common response of simply labeling the opposing side as ‘bigots’.
I would first start with a point that most reasonable people can agree on. For example, ‘meritocracy’ is a value which most Singaporeans believe in and agree on. Thus, I would use that as a common ground: “I feel that it is wrong to discriminate against someone because of their race, religion, marital status, sexual orientation, when it comes to job applications and promotions.”
This approach was pretty effective for me and I got to benefit from the same way as Benjamin Franklin did:
I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engaged in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I proposed my opinions procured them a readier reception and less contradiction.
2) Rather than stating my opinion straight away, I would sometimes ask questions instead
Another approach which Benjamin Franklin employed to help others to become more receptive to his ideas was to try to come across as not being dogmatic.
“I even forbade myself the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as “certainly”, “undoubtedly”, etc.
I adopted instead of them “I conceive”, “I apprehend”, or “I imagine” a thing to be so or so; or “so it appears to me at present”.”
Instead of stating a definitive opinion on my blog entries, I would sometimes position them as questions instead.
Title: Is it fair to label Millennials the Strawberry Generation?
Why you should not be ageist and call Millennials the strawberry generation!
Title: How effective is the Singapore Jobs Bank?
Why the Singapore Jobs Bank is simply a waste of taxpayers money!
During grassroots engagement, I would also ask residents questions about what led them to their viewpoint
Resident: I feel that you all are not speaking up enough!
Instead of: No, we are speaking up a lot… gives tons of examples
Me: Oh, what were the specific instances that had brought you to this conclusion?
3) I would always put people’s perspective and feelings first
I realized that people don’t really change their viewpoints based on facts but rather based on emotions sometimes.
When you throw facts at them, they may resist it even more especially when it clashes with something they have believed in all their life or close to their heart. Think about why there are people out there who strongly believe the world is flat; that there is no climate change or obesity isn’t bad for one’s health.
Coming to terms with this helped me to improve myself and the way I engage others.
Rather than just telling people the hard truth, I began working hard on expressing my ideas in a way that is both honest but at the same time sensitive to the feelings of others.
Initially, it was really frustrating like I would take a long time to try to phrase things in the best way I could in my head. Sometimes, by the time I have thought of what I wanted to say, others would have moved on to the next point.
However, the more I practiced this, the faster and better I got at it.
4) I complemented my online efforts with ground work
I also learnt over time that the people I was engaging with on my Facebook page were merely people with the same values, backgrounds and interest as i did.
They were slightly more centre-left in political orientation; went to similar jobs; worked in similar industries etc. They were also people who already interested in current affairs in Singapore in the first place.
How could I then target the others outside of this bubble I was living in? What about the regular auntie and uncle who were apathetic about sociopolitical issues? Or, the student who only grew up with one version of the Singapore story?
House visits was one of the best ways. Almost every week, I would go on House Visits to engage residents, understand their viewpoints, pain points, fears and engage accordingly. To better understand youths, I tried to engage with them face to face via policy forums and our monthly youth hangouts program.
From these insights, I began to re-pivot myself to focus more on issues that impacted people’s lives directly such as bread and butter issues.
By writing this post, I am not trying to say that I have become some expert in engaging Singaporeans.
Rather, I hope to share my newfound understanding of how the general populace is like and my own experience on working on my weaknesses and improving the way I communicate with them.
Ultimately, I feel that what I’ve done may not work for everyone but some basic universal principles in citizen engagement would always be valid – know your audience; show respect; be patient; be warm; never think or come across like you’re better than anyone and ask questions. Most importantly, we should choose all these over conflict and putting others down.
What other methods do you think can work well with engaging Singaporeans? Please share your answers with me 🙂