PM's press secretary has been actively communicating to the media. Will other govt spokespersons do the same?

Government spokespersons, it's time to hear more from you.

Martino Tan| June 21, 09:10 AM

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's press secretary Chang Li Lin has come out to rebut an article in The Economist magazine, arguing that PM Lee’s defamation suit against blogger Roy Ngerng was not just an allegation.

Separately, she asked the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) to clarify a June 17 interview with Ngerng, as ABC had wrongly reported that PM Lee was suing Ngerng for "questioning the government".

Examples of clarifying and rebutting incorrect press reports and commentaries are not new.

Former Press Secretaries to Prime Minister and Minister Mentor had written in to international publications such as The Economist and New York Times to clarify errors.


An update needed for government-media relations

But what should be updated is how a government spokesperson assess a certain site, publication and platform and whether they deserve his/her attention and responses.

A government spokesperson's role should not literally be a press secretary who merely provides prompt responses and replies to all media outlets and held accountable by the press.

This means a press secretary's role should not be platform-specific.

Instead of viewing each news outlet in isolation, a spokesperson should be prioritising which sites matter most, especially in terms of how the media coverage will affect international opinion and the views at home.

Currently, Singaporean politicians from the ruling People's Action Party appear to be their own spokesperson online, communicating political decisions and issues to the public via social media platforms.

But politicians should not be the only communicators for the government.

Here are a few reasons why more government spokespersons, such as the senior civil servants and press secretaries, should be out there, explaining the government's position to the public online and offline.


1. A government spokesperson can focus on communications and provide information that is easily understood by the layman. 

In the United States, Press Secretaries regularly front the press briefing for the President. The press briefings are circulated online to inform the public about the issues that concern the White House. It is not an easy job, with a press secretary surviving in the position for less than 2.5 years on average.


Press Secretary Jay Carney just announced his resignation in 30 May 2014. Source: Youtube

Barack Obama as the president of United States, also makes press appearances, but only for important matters, such as announcing the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, or the killing of terrorist Osama bin Laden.


Source: Youtube


In contrast, our press conferences tend to occur less frequently.

Moreover, our very hands-on politicians front almost all of the press conferences.

This inevitably results in a press conference becoming a "high-stakes" occasion where there is little room for mistakes or gaffes, as there are no press secretaries or alternative spokesperson who will cushion the brunt of media scrutiny.


DPM and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean at the Kovan Double murder press conference


Source: Youtube

Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin and Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo on calling the SMRT bus drivers' action an "illegal strike".


Source: Youtube


2. A government spokesperson can protect the office-holder from reputational risks.



China's Foreign Ministry Spokespersons 

In China, Foreign Ministry spokespersons are appointed to comment on diplomatic relations. In fact, there are three Foreign Ministry spokespersons and none of them is the Foreign Minister.

Such a position allows some diplomatic wiggle room if the spokesperson commits a gaffe. The foreign minister can then step in and offer a clarification.

In Singapore, ministers tend to be the key communicators on all things political.

Take PM Lee's personal lawsuit against CPF blogger Roy Ngerng. Could the press secretary be the conduit instead? We cannot expect PM Lee to be responding to every single assertion that Ngerng made online. I mean, PM Lee has to run the country, right?

So, for the press secretary to address the issue first, this will help to preserve the reputation of the office-holder. And hopefully, the office-holder is not perceived by the public as a "bully".

As The Economist noted, "even many Singaporeans who think Mr Ngerng is wrong have some sympathy for him and feel the prime minister is bullying him."


Other civil servants should also face the media and public

Finally, it's time for civil servants to explain and articulate the policies they implement.

The ministers might have been elected to make the political judgement and decisions on policies, but top civil servants ought to also take the lead and present the policies to the public.

And as we move into a new normal state of affairs in Singapore, the civil service will have to re-examine its ethos and come up with a new value system more befitting of the society we have become.

For instance, is there a need for the civil servants to play a more active role in articulating the policies they implement? Definitely.

This is not a new demand on the civil servants though.

As socio-political news site noted in its article last year, Singapore used to produce civil servants like JY Pillay, Sim Kee Boon, and Philip Yeo who could create world-class institutions and articulate government policies.

Pillay was the visionary chairman of Singapore Airlines, Sim the man who helped create Changi airport, and Yeo was the chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB) who encouraged foreign investments and as chairman of A*STAR who promoted biomedical research.

Singapore is at a crossroads as we face the challenges of preserving a fair social compact. Policy problems are often not simple, and the policy choices are not always clear.

With several policy dilemmas facing us, we expect to hear more from the policy experts who execute them.


Top photo from Lee Hsien Loong Facebook.

If you like what you read, follow us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest updates.