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Singapore govt experiments with social media

The Singapore government is on Facebook. Why? Dr Amy Khor, Member of Parliament, Mayor of Singapore’s Southwest district and Chairman of government feedback agency REACH, has the answers. Interview: Alice Kok

For government feedback agency ‘REACH Singapore’, new media is a key opportunity to drive public feedback and citizen participation. An acronym for “Reaching Everyone for Active Citizenry@ Home”, the agency was set up on October 2006 in an effort to go beyond gathering public feedback to engage and connect with citizens.
According to Amy Khor, Member of Parliament, Mayor of Singapore’s Southwest District and Chairman of REACH, the agency decided to use Facebook as a means to “reach out and connect with the youth, including young professionals, who are active in this network”. It is their plan to engage younger Singaporeans by leveraging on platforms with high youth presence. Also, by using a virtual network that transcends international borders, REACH hopes to connect with overseas Singaporean to help them stay rooted to the country.

REACH has been making waves in Singapore news for its recent foray into Facebook—a social networking platform launched in 2004 which has since hit estimate revenue of US$150 million. Among Singaporeans, Facebook is the 12th most hit website with 7.4 per cent of the 4 million-big population registered as users.

However, the agency is mindful that different segments and demographic profile of the population are comfortable with different communication channels. Hence the focus is not limited to online or new media but a range of methods covering conventional face-to-face dialogues to SMS, web chats, discussion forums, blogs, and an interactive exhibition that will rove at events in the local housing estates to promote awareness about REACH.

Having put REACH on Facebook, the agency plans to harness feedback in an approach administered by staff that will monitor the postings for compilation and send all feedback to the relevant ministries for their consideration and response. Khor concurs that “we will also request relevant agencies to look into and reply to specific requests.”

“What we are seeing now is active discussion on the discussion board. These range from transportation to environmental issues. We welcome the public to engage us and give us their feedback and views whether via new media channels such as web chats and Facebook or through more conventional platforms such as face-to-face dialogue sessions where they can contribute their ideas on issues and policies of interest to them.”

When asked if netizens will have their comments under strict regulations in accordance with Singapore’s reputation of a fine city—fines for littering, smoking in restricted areas, eating on public transport and many more—REACH insists that “They are free to comment on any issue they feel strongly about, as long as their comments are not deemed inappropriate and / or insensitive to other users, particularly with regard to race and religion.”

However, for a country that has set aside US$329 million over five years from 2006 to increase their Interactive and Digital Media (IDM) research and development capacity and capabilities, Singapore is not that much of a tech-geek.

REACH had its account on Facebook set up as a “profile page” instead of a “group page”, hence raking flake from the Singapore public for their violations of Facebook’s rules and regulations. The agency has since migrated to a “group page” but left some Singaporeans upset with their information being made available to a REACH administrative who has since taken over the initial profile account.

Khor gracefully explains that “REACH is still familiarising ourselves with Facebook. We regret any inconveniences caused to our Facebook friends due to this glitch.”

Living by the adage of “counting your blessings”, the mistake on REACH’s part is seen as a positive example of the power of the new media, which enables very prompt feedback and response. REACH now has more than 800 users and intends to refine its integration into new media culture. Their first foray into new media fuels their belief that many youth and other netizens will be encouraged to engage the government and give their feedback through the agency’s Facebook group.

As to future plans for using social media as engagement, REACH will monitor the usefulness and popularity of their various feedback channels, and work on them as appropriate in order to engage more Singaporeans. “We will also continue to explore new channels of communication when they arise, and use a mix of conventional and new media technologies to reach out to the wider community,” Khor concludes.

Singapore’s other attempts at Web 2.0
Early 2007, the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) procured a small island on Second Life – an internet-based virtual world video game that has a total of 10 million global residents.

This purchase is in line with the 2006’s 10 year infocomm master plan called the “Intelligent Nation 2015”. To use Virtual Worlds technologies in realising the iN2015 vision of establishing Singapore as a digital media and entertainment (DME) capital, IDA embarked on a collaborative project with a local polytechnic to experiment hands-on experiential learning in these cyber worlds.

Another of IDA’s efforts is an information resource site, infocomm123.sg, which offers tips on the use of infocomm in everyday life. Singaporeans can come into the website with any question related to the use of infocomm and have it answered by more advanced infocomm users. An interesting feature of the website is the Big Fact Book containing information resources ranging from security tips to a guide on e-government services.

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