What if I can't write well?

I was reading the CNA article about PM Lee talking about Government’s approach in engaging S’poreans in new media. I can’t help but totally disagree with him on the issue of sending template email to our minister or REACH.

Citing the leadership tussle by Singapore women’s group AWARE, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted how easy it is to mount online campaigns.
He said he received many emails from opposing camps.
“Many of the emails were identical. Exactly the same letter, word for word. Obviously somebody cut and pasted from a template,” Mr Lee said.
“That’s not just my surmise. It’s a fact because some of them didn’t fully cut and paste so if you read till the bottom of the letter, you will see down there the rubric is still there. The rubric says please enter your name and IC number and send this to the PM.”
Hence, Mr Lee said that in this instance, it is not independent feedback, but an organised campaign to lobby and pressure the government to back one side against the other.

What if I can’t write well? Does that mean I cannot feedback to my Government? Does that mean I do not have a say?
Is sending template emails to our Minister/REACH wrong? Sending a template email doesn’t mean the feedback is not independent. I find it hard to believe that our government expect every citizen to be able to write emails in their own words to them. Not everyone is proficient in the English language to write a good email to their MP. They might not be able to convey their message to their MP well if they write the email themselves. Which is why they rely on email template by other like minded people who are more proficient in the English language. Why penalize those who aren’t able to write well? Why stop REACH-ing to those who are not good in words?
Copying a template email does not mean that it is Astroturfing. It is like a petition using email. Do you see people writing in their own words in petition? No. They put their name there because they support a certain clause. It’s a group of people with similar point of view coming together to send out one unified message to their Government. I do not see what is wrong with that. I do not see why the Government should ignore these people just because they are not confident of writing in their own words. End of the day, it’s the message carried in the email that is important.
Do not discriminate those who can’t write well. Every citizen’s feedback to the government, be it thru their own writing or template from a like minded person, is still a feedback from a Singapore citizen that should be taken seriously by the Government.
And by the way, when I vote, I put a cross on a printed sheet of paper. It’s also somewhat considered a template. Does that means my vote doesn’t count? Do I need to write a good essay on why I’m voting for a certain party before my vote is counted?


  1. I don’t the PM is trying to say that everyone should try to write in their words. I think he is trying to illustrate that a lot of people just blindly forward the email template without reading the content of the template or giving the issue discussed in the template a serious enough thought to see if the template really represent what they really want.
    Mass media is a double-edge sword. It can rally people to a cause, but it also has the power of influencing and fanning emotions of the masses easily. The true problem here is not people who can’t write well, but people who can’t think well, and are easily influenced by popular opinion and do not know what they want or don’t want.
    When emotions run high for a particular issue and the policymakers receive a lot of template emails, is it really safe to assume that each and every of these email are representative individual opinion or the result of a well engineered marketing campaign?
    Besides, there is also the assumption that the people who sent emails are a good representation of popular opinion. The true case could be that there are more people who might think differently of the issue at hand but didn’t want to or could not be bothered to make known their opinion. In this case, are those who keep quiet automatically at the mercy of the opinions of those who are more vocal?

  2. I also think there is a crucial difference between voting and email templates. Voting is an authenticated process. Each person is entitled to one and only one vote.
    There is however no way to authenticate email, especially that which is a template. I know of several people who sent multiple copies of the AWARE email templates using different email accounts. One of them even went to the extent of creating email accounts to send out the emails using fake names.

  3. CK: I don’t think people blindly forward the email. They know what they are forwarding and they feel that it represent their feeling. I don’t see how forwarding template email means its a well engineered marketing campaign. It may also be possible that everyone feels the same way.
    And I don’t think the issue here is with the authentication. If someone wants to cheat and send multiple copies, he/she can also easily write the letters differently.

  4. I think you are underestimating the ability of a good marketing campaign to influence public opinion and overestimating the ability of the masses to thinking critically.
    This is my favorite illustration of this point: http://www.dhmo.org/
    Having said all that, I want to stress that I don’t think that the government should ignore emails just because they are templates. But I think it will be a huge mistake to assume it is a popular opinion based on template email just because of sheer volume.

  5. CK: I’m not underestimating the power of a good marketing campaign. But I do not think that just because it’s template email means that it’s from a well marketed campaign.
    Be it a template email or unique email, the Government have to look into it. It is sad to see that the Government dismiss the issue just because the citizen are using template emails.

  6. Precisely because it is template email, it _is_ from a well marketed campaign. Substantial marketing effort has to be in the works in order to get a lot of people to send the same email template. How else would independent individual happen to download the same template and email it out?
    Feedback shouldn’t be about number, it should be about quality. For example, if the government want to gather feedback on e.g. making abortion illegal
    It creates Website #1 which allows for free-for-all comments.
    From Website #1: 970,000 for making abortion illegal, 30,000 against. So does it mean we have a 97% majority against abortion?
    Let’s say the government creates Website #2, in which visitor must use their SingPass to register their vote. Result: 70,000 for aborting censorship and 30,000 against. Here we have a 70% majority for making abortion illegal. How does this stat compare to the Website #1? Don’t you think it is a lot more representative if you can identify individual opinion?
    Let us go further: based on Website #2, we have 70% majority against abortion, should the policymaker base their judgement on this statistic?
    Let us assume that the adult population in Singapore is 3,000,000. Based on Website #2 results, we only have representative result from 3% of our population. What about the rest of the 97%? Just because the 3% is more vocal does not make them representative of the entire population. It simply means that 3% of the population is aware that they can register their views on the issue and is bothered enough to made known their views.
    It is important to understand that statistics is at best an estimation. The quality of the statistic is highly dependent on the quality of the sample population. If our government is basing its policies on the NUMBER of feedback sent by the vocal few, I think we should be very worried because these numbers are easily manipulated.

  7. CK: Template does not equal well marketed campaign. Template does not equal faking identities. We are now talking about people using template emails to let the government know their stand.
    The Government should not make policies solely based on the number of feedback. But the number of feedback should be taken into considerations.

  8. DK: No, I do not imply template emails equal fake identities. But to assume that a forwarded template should carry the same weight as an independently written feedback is impractical.
    For example, if I get my friends to cut and paste the comments I have made to your websites. Will you be more inclined to believe that my ideas are shared by more of your visitors? If instead I get my friends to comment in their own words, how would that affect your opinions?
    Shan: It is so convenient to claim views in line with the government to be simply “elitist”. That in itself is a template comment, which apparently is everywhere is Singapore blogsphere.

  9. to say is the elitist’s way of thinking is putting it too lightly.
    the episode is a “mock” or has denigrated those who can’t write to express themselves well.
    the way i see it, strength in writing does not equate to a good thinker or that writing has substance. many can write well, but where is the substance?
    politics is a family affair. any responsible parents will not treat a weaker child lesser than the more talented one.
    sometimes, the lesser child tend to bring the family together than one who is full of self-importance
    if you discard a piece of writing because it has no literary merits , you might as well discard your less talented child to the rubbish chute.

  10. CK: The weight of the feedback should be judge by the person who send it, not the words used or the effort put in.
    People will forward the template to their MP/Minister/REACH only when they agree with it. If your friends does not agree with you, I doubt they will take 10 seconds of their time to copy and paste.
    And likewise, a well crafted marketing campaign can also get people to spend some effort and write the letter themselves. Therefore, I do not see why those who copy from a template should be penalized and not have their feedback heard.
    I guess it’s hard for both of us to come with an agreement on this topic. We seems to be going in circle. 🙂

  11. DK: If you have any experience running any campaign to gather feedback online, you will realize that the biggest challenge is to separate the genuine feedback from the spam.
    The same can be said about the akismet system you used for the commenting on your blog. Try turning it off from now on and sit back and enjoy separating the genuine comments from spams. 🙂
    I agree that we are going round in circles. While I applaud your inclusive approach to gathering feedback, I think it is too idealistic in practice. Here I suppose we have to agree to disagree.
    Here are some links for your leisure reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dihydrogen_monoxide_hoax
    Thank you for taking the time and patience to discuss this at length with me.

  12. Great article DK, being an Indian there was one thing that was drilled into us very early in life, fundamental rights. I believe that freedom of speech is a fundamental right. Now consider this, in a situation where I want exactly the same thing as the next person and someone has already taken the trouble of creating a note, why reinvent the wheel?

  13. I guess I see the whole topic from a IT-scientist’s point-of-view: Wouldn’t it be easiest if the government wrote an own e-mail client for officials which has comparison capabilities? I mean, like we now from Linux “diff” command which shows which lines have been changed and which remained the same. The application could then structure all e-mails with similar content as one big block of e-mails and display the differences in each e-mail.
    Thus, the MP would be able to look how many people had the same idea and still see if there are individual people who had another opinion and wrote their own words. I mean, the whole topic is just about dealing with a flood of e-mails, isn’t it? The MP needs to receive each citizen’s opinion, but he also has to be able to read everything (and not the same content 100 times). I think the technological breakdown of e-mails would solve this problem.

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