The MRT ‘blessings’ – how a PR stunt became a subject of ridicule

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Recently, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan shared several pictures on Facebook of religious leaders praying for the MRT’s new Tuas extension, only to end up as a subject of ridicule by netizens.

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The Ministry of Transport (and/or the Minister himself) probably did not expect such a negative response from the public. Otherwise, they would not have went ahead with the plan. Hopefully by now, they would have realized why this incident was problematic. If not, the remainder of this article might serve as a useful guide.

To begin, it must have appeared to many members of the Singaporean public that the ‘blessing’ was a PR exercise. It is unlikely that the Transport Ministry believed prayers would aid it in fulfilling its responsibilities in increasing the safety of our train network and reduce breakdowns. And in any case, no religion demands that prayers have to be be publicized for them to work.

Hence, this appeared to many as a PR stunt with two clear objectives: first, to draw attention to the line extension and extend credit to the government for its efforts in expanding our existing rail infrastructure. Second, to reiterate the fact that Singapore is a tolerant, multi-religious nation of many faiths that co-exist in harmony with one another.

But what went wrong with this PR exercise?

Let us begin with the exercise itself. The large gathering of religious leaders, deliberately dressed in their ‘appropriate’ religious attire, looked extremely ‘staged’ and contrived. Given the recent controversies concerning race issues and LGBT rights, the artificiality of the exercise probably reminded some Singaporeans about how our existing narrative on our racial and religious harmony is built on facades and sugar-coated presentations that conceal underlying tensions. It also triggered many people’s hatred of ‘wayang’ politicians, and what they see as insincerity in the way they conduct themselves. Furthermore, the idea of praying for a government project to succeed appeared rather ‘backward’, and reminded many Singaporeans of Malaysia’s Raja Bomoh and his divine coconuts.

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But these concerns merely scratch the surface. The reason why the reactions were so negative was because of the context in which the PR stunt took place.

First, given the recent MRT breakdowns, the PR stunt gave the impression that the Minister was more interested in looking good for the cameras rather than looking into the existing problems with our MRT network, and the state of our current infrastructure. This is obviously upsetting for many Singaporeans who were affected by the recent breakdowns and who probably felt that the Minister had gotten his priorities wrong. It did not help that the PR stunt was at least partly an attempt by the government to take credit for its latest line extension project. The immediate thought that must have sprung into many people’s minds was: “why are you so proud in taking credit for expanding our rail network when you cannot even get our existing lines to work properly?”

Second, by inviting religious representatives to pray for our MRT trains, the PR stunt seemed to suggest two things: first, that the government is somehow running out of ideas on how to solve the existing problem, and is therefore now resorting to prayer. Second, that there may be some non-worldly factors that are affecting the running of our train lines and so the recent breakdowns are not necessarily the government’s fault – other supernatural forces might be at play.

I am not saying these are true (they obviously aren’t). In fact, I believe the purpose of this exercise is more benevolent than many people think. Rather, I am saying that these are the sort of impressions that a poorly thought-out PR stunt like this can leave in people’s minds.

Of course the Transport Ministry might respond that they do not actually believe that these prayers would have an impact on the efficiency of our transport network, and that they wholeheartedly take full responsibility for any deficiencies in our MRT system and are working to resolve them. They would be right to do so. But if that really is the case, then why host this ‘blessing’ session?

Furthermore, there is another problem. If the Transport Ministry were to admit that prayer does not work, how would the religious leaders who gave their blessings feel about the incident? If they found out that the government did not sincerely believe in the effects of their prayers, they would inevitably feel like they have been ‘used’ as mere props by the government. What else could they have been invited for? Notice how this puts the Ministry in an awkward position.

Hence, all in all, this was a bad idea.

I hope this explains the sort of impressions that a PR stunt like this can leave in people’s minds, and why they would think that way. I am not saying that these people are correct, nor do I endorse their views. I am merely trying to show how and why they arrived at their conclusions, and also how this incident clearly demonstrates how a lack of sensitivity to surrounding circumstances can turn a PR exercise, even if well-intentioned, into a subject of ridicule.

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Author: Rio Hoe

Rio is the chief editor and co-founder of Consensus SG. He is a Singaporean law student and currently in his final year of law school. His interests include politics, legal theory and political philosophy.

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