08 April 2020

Can Singapore's politicians listen to the experts?

We established in our previous post that panic buying is a human response to crisis. Panic is fed by the trio of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.  In Singapore itself, the government dithered and delayed before the politicians put the technocrats in charge to deal with the global pandemic. Before that, various departments issued directives that were at cross-purposes with each other. These public failures of judgement and coordination fed the fear, uncertainty, and doubt in Singapore, which exploded into an wave of panic buying across the island when the authorities raised the national disease outbreak alert to Orange on 9 February 2020.

Trade minister Chan Chun Sing, a ministerial member of the multi-named task force, reacted with a furious, dismissive, and insulting rant some time later, to a group of businessmen at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He ridiculed the panic buyers, insulted them, and accused them of undermining Singapore's national standing and survival.

Sure, minister Chan might not be a psychologist, sociologist, or a communications expert but was what he said that wrong? Didn't he say what everyone else was thinking? Wasn't this what we'd expect from a straight-talking former career general? Wasn't this highly strategic and forward thinking befitting a former Chief of the Army and a former front-runner for Singapore's next prime minister?

Playing chess with Death during the plague
Can Singaporean leaders communicate?

We note that despite being initially clearly unapologetic, despite polling companies popping out of the woodwork to produce unsolicited surveys apparently conducted at their own expense that sanction his spiel, the minister has nevertheless toned down his rough-hewn, salt of the earth, talk first shoot later, Trump-lite persona since this incident. But let us stick to the incident proper.

In an absence of clear standards for what to say what a crisis strikes, it would be reasonable to give the minister the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to his personal preferences and communication style. After all, the electorate is diverse and different messaging is needed to reach out to everyone.

But as it turns out, there are clear standards for these things. There is such a thing as crisis communication. And as it turns out, there are experts who are paid very good money by government bodies all over the world to teach civil servants and leaders on how best to communicate with a fearful, panicking public in a pandemic. Some of them are altruistic enough to make public their teaching material, course notesvideos, and case studies on the internet.

There's even a training seminar commissioned by a health industry association that's available online, for visual learners.

And as it turns out, the minister broke every major rule of crisis communication that is taught anywhere in his rant.

Peter Sandman's risk communication course materials set out the following observations of pandemics: Every new disease brings about uncertainty. This uncertainty may decrease over time as scientists learn more about the virus. Crisis communications require governments to retain credibility and command during the entire period. It's about communicating in a manner that maximises and preserves trust, credibility, and the ability to command even when the government and its experts are learning and unsure, and may even have to change their minds and public recommendations when they learn new facts.

Sandman further recommends that governments be more open, to inform the public to give them choices for useful action, to share dilemmas, acknowledge uncertainty and unpredictability and their effects on policy, and to respect opinion diversity. He helpfully warns any overeager or panicking civil servant against setting unrealistic goals. In particular, he advises public health officials and coordinators:

  • Don’t aim for zero fear.
  • Don’t forget emotions other than fear.
  • Don’t ridicule the public’s emotions.
  • Legitimize people’s fears.
  • Tolerate early over-reactions.
  • Establish your own humanity

  • What's amazing is the minister managed to break all these rules with one rant.  To add insult to injury, the minister exaggerate the panic buying into a national extinction level event. And to rub salt into the wound, he boasts that he made a gamble and released the national stockpile of surgical masks to placate the panic buyers!

    Similar courses on crisis management and crisis communications have been taught at the Civil Service College. Granted that Chan Chun Sing is a minister but he was first a career civil servant and would've had access to the module, especially when it was taught by the excellent Viswa Sadasivan. Perhaps as a general and Chief of the Army, this module or elective may have seemed a frivolity; experience proves otherwise.

    Did the minister make a simple mistake or was this a major strategic disaster?

    There is evidence that minister did not make a rookie mistake; his rant was carefully planned, rehearsed, and polished. Such folly smacks of genius; a lesser mind would be incapable of it.

    We at Illusio refer our readers to the transcript of the minister's rant, which occurred some time before 17 February. It is an academic exercise to compare this rant to the gist of his public statement made a week earlier on 9 February, or even to the whatsapp message the minister apparently forwarded to his grassroots leaders as deputy chairman of the People's Association on either 8 February or the mornign of 9 February.
    Dear GRL,
    below is a message from PA Deputy Chairman, Minister Chan Chun Sing (CCS) that he would like to share with all GRLs.
    “Recent news of panic buying at local supermarkets has been circulating widely, both locally and internationally.
    When we panic and behave badly, it adds to the global negative impression of Singapore. People lose confidence in our cohesion and rationality. This has longer term consequences for us.
    When people run on essential items, it weakens our ability to negotiate and secure more supplies. That means we end up paying much more during such extraordinary times.
    If Singaporeans continue to behave like this, we will be finished before the virus kills us.
    Nobody will do business with us or believe in us anymore.
    These are serious implications that Singaporeans must understand. It is not just about being kiasu. It affects our national standing and survival.
    We are not just defending against the virus. We are defending our social cohesion and international standing.”
    - CCS
    The texts of the minister's rant, his public statement, and his message to grassroots leaders indicate a coherent message that has been carefully crafted and continuously worked on over the course of a week. Not only that; his rant, statement, and message appear crafted for the same audience: the public at large.

    Yes, even the rant at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The SCCCI is a business lobby group. Under what circumstances, in response to what type of questions by a business lobby group, would the minister engage full-tilt on his rant? Communications theory suggests: none. We at Illusio posit that the minister was so intent on repeating and promulgating the ideas in his painstakingly-crafted message that he forced it out at the SCCCI, regardless of the relevance to any question they might have asked him. The fact that the questions can all be taken out and the rant reads and sounds more or less coherent further proves the point.

    This wasn't just a momentary lapse on the level of Vivian Balakrishnan's callous quip in parliament. This is an error, repeated thrice, that shows to those still looking for signs of Chan's chances of still becoming the next prime minister, that he lacks good judgement even when, or especially when he tries his best to strategerize.

    Are there any lasting consequences from Chan Chun Sing's disaster communications?

    For insulting the public, overreacting to the public's overreaction to a crisis, showing one's ignorance of history (this isn't the first time Singapore's seen panic buying, or any country for the matter) or even psychology (this is perfectly rational behaviour)... it is surprising and perhaps comforting that the minister has retained his membership in the Singapore government's multi-ministry Covid-19 task force.

    Chan Chun Sing's totally bogus game with Death

    However, there are real consequences. Having a minister break faith with the public so decisively and visibly and without consequence, and a conspicuous lack of remedial messaging from his colleagues from the task force (such as acknowledgements of public fear and worry, reminders of proper stockpiling protocol which recommend ideally two weeks of supplies), panic buying will become a normal occurrence in this pandemic year, and has indeed become a regular feature in Singapore's Covid-19 pandemic experience. Public resistance has been baked in, at least in terms of panic buying. By writing off the public in his rants, the public in their minds have also written the minister off.

    Perhaps the best remedial messaging would be this, as suggested by Dr Sandman: "Even if you say nothing about potential shortages, enough people will anticipate the worst to produce an immediate pre-pandemic run on supermarkets, hardware stores, drugstores, gas stations, banks, etc. You don’t have any good choices – only a dilemma you cannot escape. If you warn of shortages, you’ll be accused of contributing to panic buying. If you don’t warn of shortages, people will rush to the stores anyway, and you will be seen as an unreliable source. Warn of shortages. And share that communication dilemma with the public.

    In recent days, the minister has been insisting that there is no need for the public to stockpile. This is not only in contradiction to the Total Defense handbook given to all Singaporean households but other emergency advisories to maintain a stockpile of 2 weeks' food, water, and medical supplies in an imminent emergency as well. In light of this, the minister's public statements continue to be not just wrong but outright irresponsible.

    We hope that when this is over, given how the minister has nevertheless toned down his rough-hewn, salt of the earth, talk first shoot later, Trump-lite persona since his rant, that he will be ceremoniously be put to pasture and posted to a position of irrelevance where he can do no further harm.

    And for the rest of us? A lesson that fighting an epidemic isn't just about doctors curing patients, experts recommending social distancing and lockdowns, but also how to communicate and manage public fear and uncertainty.

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