COMMENTARY: "Why is Singapore so afflicted by the acronym disease?"
Writing for Lessons on Leadership, a new series hoping to inspire the next generation of Singaporeans through the stories of Singapore’s many successful business leaders and entrepreneurs, our contributor Abel Ang writes about how acronyms may not be the best way to go when it comes to clear communication.
Abel Ang is the chief executive of a medical technology company and an adjunct associate professor at Nanyang Business School.
Singapore is acronym heaven. Perhaps, as a country, our national dish should be alphabet soup instead of chicken rice.
Thanks to the pandemic, we have had a crash course in infectious disease acronyms. After all, the disease that is on everyone’s minds is itself an acronym, COVID-19 stands for “coronavirus disease 2019.”
Singapore’s overall COVID-19 response has been managed by the MTF (Multi-Ministry Taskforce) which is co-chaired by three ministers. The taskforce has been adjusting measures to break viral transmission chains and keep Singapore safe.
As a population, we have had to adjust our lives around the recommendations of the taskforce, such as restrictions regarding dine-in and defaulting to WFH (work from home).
MTF and WFH are some of the more recognisable acronyms that have emerged from the pandemic. But over the last one and a half years, we have also had to learn that CCFs (Community Care Facilities) are different from CRFs (Community Recovery Facilities), which are also different from CIFs (Community Isolation Facilities).
And then there’s how PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests are more accurate than RDTs (rapid diagnostic tests) done using ART (antigen rapid test) technology, and that people with ARI (acute respiratory infection) need to go for a mandatory swab test.
Workers in sectors like construction, aviation and maritime must also go for rostered routine testing (RRT) because they are deemed to have higher risk of exposure to COVID-19, with some of these tests being conducted at RSCs (Regional Screening Centre).
Government agencies: A rich source of acronyms
Beyond infectious disease acronyms, another rich source of acronyms in Singapore comes from government departments.
As an example, HTX stands for Home Team Science and Technology Agency. HTX’s mandate is to “focus on areas such as surveillance, forensics, chemicals, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosives threats, as well as robotics and unmanned systems.”
I personally sleep easier at night knowing that we have HTX as an agency, even though I am not certain what letter “X” has done to “S,” “T,” and “A” from the agency’s name. I suppose some level of mystery is needed for an agency whose mission is to “secure Singapore’s future as the safest place on planet earth."
Another agency which has added to the acronym vocabulary in recent years is Enterprise Singapore, lovingly known as ESG.
What I appreciated about the creation of ESG, whose mandate is to champion Singapore enterprise development, is that there was care taken to retire older agencies that had served their purpose, specifically International Enterprise Singapore (IES) and Standards, Productivity and Innovation Board (SPRING).
Besides reducing the number of acronyms in the Singapore landscape, the merger of the two former agencies led to clearer public communications, sharpening of focus, and greater passion for the development of Singapore business interests here and overseas.
Why we use acronyms
So why is Singapore so afflicted by the acronym disease?
According to researchers from Purdue University, led by Professor of Social Psychology, Kipling Williams, there are three reasons why people use acronyms:
1) Speed and efficiency. Abbreviations take up less space on a page and are easier to type out such as SIA, instead of Singapore Airlines every time a reference is made.
2) Ingroup identity. An acronym gives us Singaporeans a secret insider knowledge when we talk to each other. It makes it easier for people in the group to communicate with each other, while keeping non-group members out.
3) Mischief. Abbreviations can be used as code to obfuscate a message to create an impression that the matter that is being discussed is particularly complicated or impressive.
What happens when acronyms end up alienating people?
Williams has been studying the effects of ostracism in communities for more than 20 years. He said that “abbreviations are meant to be shortcuts, but they end up alienating people”, adding that increased acronym use is “likely to make people feel excluded and ignored.”
In the same way that the infectious disease acronyms have been confusing and frustrating for many, the same could be said of the many government acronyms that are regularly created and used.
Let me cite as an example, a recent front page story in the Straits Times on the Emerging Stronger Taskforce (EST), which was launched to chart Singapore’s post-pandemic economy, about a year ago.
According to the article, the taskforce recommended creating Alliances for Action (AfAs) of public-private partnerships to seize growth opportunities. The article references the Future Economy Council (FEC) and Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs).
The short 486-word article used acronyms 14 times, which was about as many paragraphs as there were in the article.
The Emerging Stronger Taskforce’s own published report contains 118 pages, but no index on the numerous acronyms peppered throughout the report.
Reducing agencies, learning to communicate without acronyms
According to the “Singapore Abbreviations” page on Wikipedia, the “most important” category for Singapore abbreviations comes from Singapore government departments. The “Singapore Statutory Board” page on the same site lists that there are 66 statutory boards in Singapore.
Can we do a better job rationalizing the 66 statutory boards? Perhaps there are more Enterprise Singapore’s out there, where agencies can be merged to reduce the number of government acronyms, sharpen the government’s execution focus and get better results.
Williams also recommends that acronyms be replaced by the words that they stand for because by doing so, “we greatly improve our communication.” So, instead of creating an acronym for each government initiative, why not make communicating without acronyms a priority in government public communications?
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised when he was first sworn in as Prime Minister in 2004. He said: “Let us be a dynamic city that is open and inclusive.” We need a long overdue realization of how acronyms cause people to feel excluded, confused, and ignored - quite the opposite of the open and inclusive Singapore that Prime Minister Lee promised.
Acronyms lead to ostracism, especially for those who cannot religiously keep up with the many government task forces and initiatives out there. Ironically, it is this very group that the task forces and initiatives are trying to reach and support.
Steve Jobs said that “deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,” which I believe is sound advice for us to take on board.
I dream of a country where we can clearly communicate and connect with each other — without acronyms. A dynamic Singapore where we have fewer government agencies and initiatives — yet more impact. I dream of an open and inclusive world where we have won the war against the pandemic, and where the pandemic vocabulary can be filed away in our minds — never to be used again.
Top photo by Mothership.