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Meet-the-people sessions go hybrid: MPs adapt as engagement with residents shift online

Meet-the-people sessions go hybrid: MPs adapt as engagement with residents shift online

Workers' Party MP Jamus Lim (left) and People's Action Party MP Poh Li San meet residents. (Photo: Facebook/Jamus Lim, Poh Li San)

SINGAPORE: While physical Meet-the-People sessions have mostly resumed, the way residents make their issues and concerns known has shifted online – with many more using online channels to reach out to their Members of Parliament.

Last Tuesday (Jan 4), MP Jamus Lim (WP-Sengkang) wrote on Facebook that like many in Singapore who returned to their offices in the new year, the Workers’ Party resumed face-to-face ground activities last week.

But at his ward in Anchorvale, the Meet-the-People session (MPS) on Monday night was “scaled down”.

Letter-writing volunteers continued to work remotely while a split team of core volunteers were there, with crowd control to separate waiting areas for vaccinated and unvaccinated residents.

“Like many operations, we have also become very much hybrid in how we work,” said Associate Professor Lim. “Many residents now reach out to us electronically, providing sufficiently extensive details that we are able to assist them that way.”

"WE WILL EVOLVE AS THE PLATFORM EVOLVES"

MPs CNA spoke to said that they’ve noticed the shift, which has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the digitalisation of other aspects of life.

Assoc Prof Lim said that while he has resumed face-to-face MPS every Monday, volunteers and many residents have become so adept at using online video conferencing tools such as Zoom that he has retained that option for MPS meetings.

This is useful in some cases where residents are unable to make it on Monday evenings, have an urgent case that cannot wait or are physically unable to travel to the session. 

“So like everyone else, we have learned how to weave in efficiencies into a hybrid format,” he told CNA, giving some examples of how he and the Anchorvale volunteers have adapted the virtual sessions over time to make them more efficient.

“Like everyone else, we will evolve as the platform evolves.”

MP Poh Li San (PAP-Sembawang) said she has not resumed face-to-face MPS and has been personally replying to emails from residents who need help. Some also contact her via Facebook Messenger.

While most residents now use virtual modes to contact her, some who are not aware that face-to-face sessions have been suspended or those who are less tech-savvy still turn up for help. So every Wednesday evening, Ms Poh and a small team of volunteers head to her MPS office to attend to these residents, she said.

"BOON AND BANE"

Ms Poh and other MPs interviewed said that residents now do not have to wait for the weekly sessions to reach them, don’t have to wait in line and responses can be faster for straightforward cases.

Minister of State for Trade and Industry and for Culture, Community and Youth Alvin Tan (PAP-Tanjong Pagar) said that appeals and suggestions from residents come to him daily from many different channels.  

“I think we've had to adjust … MPS is not just MPS of old, where you know, you meet on Mondays or wherever day you designate, it’s really every day … It's almost quite relentless,” he said. 

“There is a boon and bane to being very available. You do inadvertently raise expectations.”

Mr Tan, who worked at multinational tech firms before joining politics, is one MP who has set up a large array of digital platforms from the now de rigueur Facebook page to a Telegram channel and a Tik Tok account.

He said that the primary channel residents use to contact him is email, and a significant amount of feedback also comes from WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram direct messages.

“I’m experimenting still, but I haven’t got an MPS type of appeal through Tik Tok,” he said.

To keep track of the cases, his team logs them on a cloud-based platform which also “pings” them if they have not responded to a certain case after some days, he said.

PHYSICAL SESSIONS STILL PREFERRED

Despite the conveniences, Ms Poh and Ms Foo Mee Har (PAP-West Coast) both said that they prefer physical meetings.

Said Ms Poh: “For physical sessions, we can comfort and interact with residents and speak with them, especially if their native language is not English. 

“Also, through the body language, we can better gauge if residents have other needs that they may not mention in emails or phone calls. Personally I still prefer physical sessions.”

All MPs said that if a case is complex, they would arrange a Zoom meeting, phone call or house visit to meet the resident. They also have skeletal crews manning their branch offices on MPS nights for residents who are not as tech-savvy.

When COVID-19 safe management measures allow, Ms Foo said would like to go back to meeting residents in person at MPS.  

“Besides the warmth and assurance that we can provide residents when meeting physically,  in-person meeting is most helpful for the more complex cases involving assistance that may be multi-faceted,” she said.  

“However, given the convenience of virtual channels for residents, we will explore continuing different formats.”

FUTURE OF HYBRID FORMATS

On the future of such hybrid forms of community engagement, Mr Tan said that different platforms have different users, so in the future, one would have to be quite mindful “what kind of content works on which platform” and also how the general public and constituents use the platforms to reach MPs.

Assoc Prof Lim said that in many parts of the world, employees are now used to the work-from-home option, and social and community engagement is “no different”.

“While we very much hope to be able to return to larger-scale weekend coffee sessions with residents and town hall meetings and constituency dinners, we also recognise that a subset of these – especially those where the nuances of a physical meeting are secondary compared to the content – could well go virtual,” he said.

“I am thinking of, for instance, inviting international guest speakers to part of an event, or providing time-sensitive counseling to an individual in need.”

Source: CNA/hm(cy)

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