Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mas Selamat saga: Communications management by the government and media

In the wake of the Parliamentary revelations concerning Mas Selamat and his seeking refuge with relatives following his escape from Whitley Road Detention Centre, we see a textbook public relations management executed by the government and the media.

I believe Minister of Law and recently appointed Minister of Home Affairs K Shanmugam handled the situation well and firmly. He also provided the necessary reassurances concerning national security, homeland security and religious and ethnic relations.

It is often rare for this government to act in anticipation, and be proactive rather than reactive. Unless there are serious issues concerning race, religion and political opposition, the approach would often be reactionary.

This time, closely tagged to the accounts of Mas Selamat's relatives harbouring him in a HDB flat in Tampines is the continual reassurance that the actions of his relatives are not representative and cannot be projected onto the Malay-Muslim community.

The mainstream media is also diligent (or careful) enough to report the facts revealed and discussed in Parliament along with the remarks, reassurances and soundbites of prominent religious/faith leaders in the country.

The challenges faced by the government, in this instance, are highly complex and I infer can include the following:

1) Some Non-Malay/Muslim Singaporeans may possibly become suspicious, fearing that there could be Malay-Muslim Singaporeans who "do not know better" and could have the moral capacity to harbour individuals who could pose security threat.

2) Some Malay-Muslim Singaporeans may be thrown into the spotlight again in view of national interest/security versus kinship ties.

3) Some Malay-Muslim Singaporeans may see the act of harbouring a relative in a different moral light.

4) Singaporeans in general might fear being racially profiled.

The last thing the Singaporean government needs is suspicion between the communities, as well as doubt within the Malay-Muslim community concerning their negotiation of their status as citizens of the country and as kin to their respective relatives.

These are very sensitive issues and the state, in the form of K Shanmugam and the Members of Parliament who asked him questions, has not only shared the facts, but also their word of caution and assurance.

The mainstream media too, long charged by Lee Kuan Yew to be integral to "nation-building" however he defined it, did a fairly good job to report in a way that anticipated what a misinformed readership might probably have misread. They had a duty to define the boundaries for "inference", "interpretation" and "imagination" of the escape and refuge.

This concerted communications management by the state and media are aimed at preventing (or minimising) any wild inter-ethnic/religious imaginings communities might have of one another. They do what they can in their control, and the rest is left to society to decide for themselves.

What makes this communications management exercise potentially effective and successful (unless the media becomes oversaturated with "national education" again), is not only how well the message and the medium are well-calibrated and controlled, but appointment of the messenger is crucial.

I cannot imagine Wong Kan Seng saying what K Shanmugam had said. He lived through the fiasco and security failure, and is obviously still disgraced by it. No amount of externalising the problem (saying Singaporeans are "complacent" and bestowing upon us that favourable adjective in the process) can remove the taint.

K Shanmugam, new and also more importantly, non-Chinese, had to very difficult task to deliver the news. The same message carried by an ethnic Chinese man, and all the more a Chinese man who has lost a little bit of respect from some Singaporeans (and most netizens), will be taken differently from that carried by a non-ethnic Chinese man.

Apparently, identity plays a huge role. I believe it would be a little more convincing if an ethnic minority could tell us possibly implications (or not) on ethnic minority communities, rather than a member of the (ethnic) majority saying the same thing. Perhaps, K Shanmugam's ascension to the role of Minister of Home Affairs has been very timely, and highly beneficial to maintaining good and peaceful relations between communities in the country.

Well, we should give credit where it's due. The government and media have done a decent job framing and fencing discussions pertaining to the latest episode of Mas Selamat. It has always been their primary responsibility to ensure peace and security, and they have done the necessary, in my opinion.


It is quite interesting that the latest installment of the Mas Selamat saga has occurred at the same time as the discussions on the "maintenance of parents" bill/act.

We see how issues of the family are being dictated by the state.

The state wants you to take care of your elders.

At the same time, the state expects you to cease when it comes to national security/issues.

Our sense of familial belonging is determined and articulated in terms of the interests of the nation. The state tries to inculcate in us that sense of belonging, telling us how we should love and care for our elders and relatives, telling us that the family is the bedrock/building block of society, yet at the same time tell us these values are secondary to national affairs.

Another paradoxical gem sociologically unearthed...

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