Published: 22 July 2019
Mr Desmond Kuek
Partners at Genium & Co
1. Thank you for inviting me to this symposium.
2. We are gathered here on the topic of crisis leadership.
3. In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world, it is impossible for organisations and leaders to know it all, prevent it all, and run businesses and operations according to plan, all the time.
4. But as leaders, we cannot take our eyes off the ball and leave things to fate. We must plan where we can – do scenario planning, develop contingency plans - make use of as much information as possible, and execute with available resources, as best as we can.
5. Crises will strike, and we may not know what exactly what the crises are, how and when they will strike. But we must nonetheless be always prepared to deal with crises.
6. At the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), we believe that a key responsibility of good crisis leaders is preparing ourselves, the organisation, and the community for crises.
7. So I would like to first discuss this with you today, drawing on examples and work relevant to the MHA. And I hope that it will start our thought process on how we can prepare ourselves for crisis leadership in different organisations, with different functions.
Being prepared for crises in a digital age
8. One of the new areas we have to take into consideration is the use of Internet, social media and digital technologies which are now ubiquitous. They are double-edged swords when it comes to crisis.
Digital platforms as enablers and amplifiers of crises
9. Digital platforms can be enablers and amplifiers of crises, when they are used to spread radical ideologies or misinformation.
10. For our work at the MHA, we have seen that they can be used as tools to radicalise individuals, who go on to conduct acts of terror and violence. For example, in January this year, the Internal Security Department detained a 40-year-old man after investigations showed that he was radicalised online and harboured intentions to travel to Syria to join the terrorist group ISIS. And since 2015, we have dealt with more radicalised Singaporeans than in the period between 2007 and 2014.
11. Digital platforms can be used to instantaneously spread falsehoods that can create tensions, misunderstandings, and anger among different communities, which can lead to violence. We saw this in the mob-related incidents in India in recent years.
12. Misinformation can also be used to shift public opinion and deepen social fault lines, leading to social unrest and political instability. We have seen this in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections, where it was reported that the most popular fake news stories were more widely shared on Facebook than the most popular mainstream news stories.
Digital platforms as part of crisis communications
13. But on the other hand, digital platforms can also be used to help manage crises, when used as part of a well-thought out crisis communications strategy.
14. In March this year, we saw a white supremacist attack two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand during Friday prayers; killing 50 people. His livestreaming of the killing spree on social media ignited fear, and panic by spreading his brand of hate and violence.
15. But this was met with online messages of solidarity from the New Zealand and Australian governments and communities. And social media was also used to organise and publicise numerous vigils in displays of support of the Muslim community, and more broadly, diversity and harmony.
16. While all that could not change the fact that the terror attack had taken place, such use of digital platforms helped to manage the crisis, shaped how responsible citizens reacted, and united the community.
Singapore’s experience in preparing for crises
17. So what does this mean for us when it comes to crisis leadership? How do we use digital platforms effectively so they are a force of good in times of crisis?
18. I would now like to touch on the following areas in my speech. First, the importance of getting accurate, clear information out to the public and stakeholders to calm and guide them. Second, the ability to obtain accurate information from the ground to sense-make. Third, the need to have in place mechanisms to prevent falsehoods from spreading and making the crisis worse. Fourth, the ability to mobilise resources to deal with the crisis. And lastly, I would also like to touch on the ability for us to come together, a people, after a crisis.
19. I will be drawing on examples relevant to the MHA.
Crisis Communications – Disseminating accurate and clear information to calm and guide the public
20. On the first point – crisis communications. How do we disseminate accurate and clear information to calm and guide the public?
21. As leaders, we know all too well the need to be upfront with the public, with stakeholders when a crisis occurs. Because it is important to have everyone on the same page, to have everyone understand the situation and know what the next steps are. A lack of information can lead to panic, disorder and continued danger if the public does not know what to do or what to expect.
22. In the context of MHA’s work to ensure safety and security in Singapore, the SGSecure movement was conceptualised to prepare Singaporeans for crises and the SGSecure mobile app was launched around three years ago.
23. The SGSecure app allows security agencies to send out alerts to members of the public when an emergency strikes. So for instance, when a serious fire occurs in Singapore, alerts will be sent out via the app to warn members of the public to avoid the danger area.
24. Our security agencies will also provide regular updates on the situation via the mobile app. This ensures that members of the public know what is going on, stay calm and they receive clear instructions on what they should do.
25. Members of the public can also request immediate assistance from the Police and Civil Defence through the app, or SMS the Police if it is not safe to talk.
Crisis Information-Gathering – Obtaining accurate information from the ground to be able to sense make
26. Next, I would like to talk about crisis information-gathering. We know that in a crisis situation, knowledge of what is happening on the ground, is critical.
27. Police cameras were introduced in 2012 and they were installed at HDB blocks and multi-storey carparks. The expansion of the scheme in 2016 under Polcam 2.0 took these cameras to a wider range of common areas such as town centres, neighbourhood centres, and linked walkways leading to transport nodes.
28. We have also made possible information-gathering from members of the public. For instance, via the SGSecure app’s “point-shoot-send” function, members of the public can report suspicious sightings. And via the i-Witness function within the Police@SG mobile app, members of the public can provide information about criminal activities to the police.
29. The ability to sense-make is an important factor in crisis leadership and we need to develop channels to get accurate and useful information from the ground to aid in our decision making.
30. I have provided some examples from the MHA, but for yourselves, for your purpose, I know that these channels can differ from organisation to organisation, depending on what types of information are important to the leadership in a crisis.
31. So we all have to think about and explore what those channels are, that are useful for our individual purposes.
Having mechanisms to prevent falsehoods from spreading and causing chaos amidst the crisis
32. That brings me to the next point. Apart from having accurate and useful information to aid decision-making during a crisis, we must also guard against harmful and inaccurate information.
33. We live in a world where falsehoods and misinformation can spread quickly online. Such misinformation can lead leaders to make inaccurate decisions, just simply because the information is false.
34. Further, misinformation can lead to panic and chaos. This can exacerbate a crisis situation, causing harm to members of the public.
35. This year, we enacted the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) to specifically target misinformation. The legislation gives us levers to act decisively by issuing corrections or take down orders to prevent misinformation which harms public interest from proliferating.
36. But apart from legislative levers, it is also important that we nurture an informed public that is able to discriminate between what is factual or not. Then during crises, they will be less likely to be misled by misinformation.
37. So through the National Library Board, Media Literacy Council, and schools, we continue to work towards educating the public on detecting and debunking falsehoods. Once individuals learn how to do so, they can begin using digital platforms as a space for informed discussions, and help in the fight against misinformation.
The ability to mobilise resources to deal with the crisis
38. So far, I have been talking about the digital realm, but this is only part of the story. Crisis leadership can also require us to take physical action to solve the crisis and this can involve mobilisation of manpower.
39. In the SGSecure movement, there is a concerted effort to involve various different stakeholders because we believe that when a crisis strikes, we will need all hands on deck to effectively deal with the crisis.
40. The training of active responders is an ongoing initiative of SGSecure. With more trained and active responders on the ground, more can be mobilised to assist should there be a need to.
41. Moving forward, SCDF’s MyResponder app will be incorporated as a feature within the SGSecure app to allow us to more effectively mobilise community responders.
42. We also conduct lock-down drills and put into practise advisories like “run-hide-tell” in schools so teachers and students will know how to react should terrorists storm the school.
43. We have also established safety and security watch groups in many public places, such as shopping malls, so that tenants and mall managers will know what their roles are during a security incident.
44. We also conduct table-top exercises so that grassroots leaders and members from the inter-racial and religious groups are aware of the roles they can play in times of crisis.
45. So in peacetime, we have developed channels to train and mobilise responders and volunteers.
The day after the crisis
46. The last point I would like to touch on is that to survive and move beyond a crisis, we must stay united as a society. The ties that bind us together will hold our society steady in difficult times.
47. So in our regular interactions, we need to strive to foster understanding between different communities and groups, so that misinformation or divisive sentiments aimed at shaking up our racial and religious fault lines do not take root.
48. Last month, Singapore hosted the International Conference on Cohesive Societies, a forum attended by about a thousand delegates from close to 40 countries to discuss issues surrounding faith, identity and cohesion. The attendees included academics, government officials, and members of religious and civil society groups. It was an important opportunity to deepen dialogue and understanding among different communities.
49. At the local level, the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles bridge religious, ethnic and community groups within neighbourhoods, and deepen the understanding of various faiths, beliefs and practices. They also respond and assist in the recovery process should crises hit. We continue to encourage such grassroots efforts to help deal with crises.
50. When necessary, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act and the Penal Code also allow us to stop the spread of harmful content that impacts religious harmony, so as to protect our society.
51. To conclude, in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, it is impossible for organisations and leaders to know it all. I have provided some examples from how we deal with crises at the national level from the MHA perspective.
52. But these concepts need to be transposed to what your own organisations do and be tailored to your own organisation’s context.
53. Good crisis leaders prepare themselves for crises. In the digital age, this can include developing channels to disseminate accurate and clear information and to obtain accurate information from the ground so as to sense-make, to have the mechanisms to fight falsehoods should misinformation be used to aggravate the crisis, and building the ability to mobilise resources to deal with the crisis.
54. Today’s symposium is part of the effort to learn from each other, leverage areas of synergy, and deepen our collaboration in this endeavour.
55. I would like to thank Genium & Co for taking the lead to organise the Leadership Symposium to better prepare leaders and their organisations for crises.
56. I wish you all a fruitful symposium today.
57. Thank you.