REACH is exploring new ways to engage every segment of the population because “Every Voice Matters”
Conversations | By Nicole Foo, Editor-in-Chief and Michael Zhou, President of NUS Students’ Political Association
Photo: REACH Singapore
REACH as an important national feedback unit
When former PM Mr Goh Chok Tong and his Cabinet colleagues set up the national Feedback Unit in 1985, it was the first time that Singaporean citizens could channel direct feedback on policies to the government, via the engagement unit.
Since then, the environment, techniques and channels of public engagement have changed profoundly. But REACH has remained an important platform with a core mission to “give voice to the people”, says the current REACH Chairman Minister of State (MOS) Mr Tan Kiat How.
Helming the motto of ‘every voice matters’, REACH’s leadership team – comprising of MOS Tan and his deputy chairpersons Parliamentary Secretary Madam Rahayu Mahzam, Parliamentary Secretary Mr Eric Chua and Member of Parliament Mr Patrick Tay – has sought to gather responses from segments of the community that are not often or easily reached through common policy feedback mechanisms.
These segments include citizens who are less digital savvy, such as the elderly and those less familiar with the use of the English language, amongst others.
“All these feedback matter, as they are received in real time, consolidated, and then shared with other partners in government, so as to help policy-makers make better decisions”, stressed MOS Tan, who is also the Minister of State for Communications and Information & National Development.
Adapting to digital platforms and attracting Singaporean youths
On adaptation and evolution, REACH has leveraged on new digital technology platforms to widen and deepen engagement with citizens.
In the past, when physical listening points and dialogue sessions were a mainstay, constraints like space capacity and the size of the crowd limited citizen engagement by the feedback unit.
However, virtual platforms have allowed REACH to be “much more scalable”, says MOS Tan. Indeed, the Minister of State shares that the number of respondents has multiplied many-fold compared to previous years.
He also adds that more advanced technology has enabled REACH to engage in better respondent segmentation and analytics, which have helped generate “deeper and richer insights”.
Furthermore, virtual platforms have paved the way for greater youth participation in REACH activities and dialogues on government policies.
While youth engagement has been on REACH’s agenda since the beginning, there is room to boost the awareness of the feedback unit amongst the younger population, according to MOS Tan.
Thus, REACH has raised its profile and extend its reach via new social media sites such as TikTok – which is highly popular among youths today – and rolled out branding campaigns by partnering with bubble tea chains like LiHO that young people frequent.
Apart from the above initiatives, the unit has also adopted other strategies such as launching a comic strip with characters such as ‘Skeptical Susan’, ‘Apathetic Andy’ and ‘Rachel REACH’ - a half-human, half-AI persona to break down complex issues. Such strategies enable REACH to diversify and enrich its engagement platforms to connect with different segments of the population.
COVID-19 and REACH’s engagement on vaccine issues
With COVID-19 posing large health risks to communities worldwide, REACH has stood at the forefront of engaging the public in Singapore on their views and concerns around issues regarding the pandemic. In 2020, despite it being a COVID-19 year, REACH engaged 56,000 citizens through a wide range of platforms.
“We’re very much involved in the effort to engage the community on their concerns … the information that they need to know, to protect themselves and their loved ones”, affirms MOS Tan.
From WhatsApp interactive chat groups to virtual listening points, as well as partnerships with platforms like Grab and Foodpanda, REACH has utilised a variety of methods to seek the public’s feedback on COVID-19.
He further shares that they are “working very closely with the professional community” to organise sessions to disseminate relevant information and answer questions about COVID-19 vaccines.
For example, a Clubhouse session was recently held by the feedback unit, where Parliamentary Secretary Madam Rahayu and Professor Lim Poh Lian from the National Center for Infectious Diseases came together to address queries on the efficacy of vaccines and how our population can better prepare for the virus becoming endemic.
REACH conducted the session in partnership with local online news site Mothership. Concerns raised were then relayed to professional colleagues in the healthcare sector.
MOS Tan notes that bringing together partners and professionals like Professor Lim to talk about issues is one of REACH’s fundamental abilities to make conversations more inclusive, informative and meaningful.
Indeed, the use of Clubhouse to gather feedback from youths and citizens makes the discussion more inclusive and two-directional, where everyone gets an opportunity to voice out their concerns and questions. Such exchanges will then allow information to disseminate faster and clearer, and provide the organiser with a quicker channel to receive feedback from a broader spectrum.
A more informal and interactive setting like Clubhouse could also make public discussions less intimidating, which helps encourage more frank and candid exchanges between participants and the organiser.
Ultimately, adds the Minister of State, such platforms are a way to help frame issues, and provide avenues for the government to better understand residents’ pain points and concerns.
Post-pandemic: challenges, staying relevant and future initiatives
Although COVID-19 is still ongoing, MOS Tan shares that the country is progressing steadily in terms of vaccination rates. However, he believes we still cannot take our progress for granted given the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation.
When asked by The Convergence about the key challenges REACH might face when the pandemic tides over, he quips that COVID-19 might actually remain embedded in societies for “the long term”, and REACH would therefore “have to adapt and be quite nimble”.
MOS Tan thinks that its success will boil down to “attitude and mindset” when confronting challenges, and in recognising that there will always be opportunities in every crisis “to pivot, to transform, [and] to emerge stronger”.
Nonetheless, he recognises that the feedback unit must have the humility and honesty to acknowledge that it may not “have all the ideas” and solutions, and constantly reach out to new partners for collaboration.
He opines that digital platforms like Clubhouse and Tiktok are beneficial for REACH’s ability to stay relevant and competitive. They help foster more community partnerships and “create new ways of engaging [and] interacting”.
Apart from harnessing the powers of virtual platforms, the unit is also looking to new initiatives such as holding neighbourhood chats in cafes and facilitating a ‘coffee corner’ in schools where students can organise their own listening points.
Ultimately, there is “no one-size-fits-all” approach adopted by REACH and experimentation is a key strategy of the unit.
Investment into new capabilities and ways to reach all segments of the populace will be necessary to ensure that ‘every voice matters’.
About the Interviewee:
Mr Tan Kiat How is the Minister of State for National Development and for Communications and Information. He is also the Chairman of REACH, the lead agency in facilitating whole-of-government efforts to engage and connect with Singaporeans on national and social issues close to their hearts. He is the Member of Parliament for the East Coast Group Representation Constituency. Prior to entering politics, Mr Tan spent close to 20 years in the public service. Mr Tan was previously the Deputy Secretary in the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), and later Chief Executive Officer of the Infocomm and Media Development Authority (IMDA).