MPs size up communication challenge

Singapore is undertaking the biggest public communications blitz in recent memory as the Government sets out to explain the details of the Pioneer Generation Package to seniors.

The drive to explain its health-care benefits will involve grassroots volunteers and health-care workers in the thousands.

But while the Government has tackled far more difficult subjects in the past, such as the introduction of GST in 1994 and various rounds of CPF cuts during the recession years, the current effort is daunting for two reasons, said a dozen MPs and experts interviewed yesterday.

These are the complexity of the health-care schemes in the package with their many concepts and the difficulty of effectively reaching out to the seniors, often requiring face-to-face explanations.

"It may take 18 months for us to fully reach out to all the people involved. We cannot expect this communication process to be short-term," said Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad.

The $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package, the centrepiece of the national Budget, will benefit 450,000 people aged 65 and older this year.

But it is an uphill task in some ways. For one thing, seniors are struggling to understand the technical concepts and intricacies behind the schemes, said Marine Parade GRC MP Tin Pei Ling.

"It is a bundle of benefits that even young and educated people take a while to grasp. We cannot throw words like MediShield Life, premiums, top-ups at senior citizens. These are jargons we have to simplify for them," she said.

Further, details for some of the benefits will be hammered out only in the coming months.

Also, communicating to the elderly is challenging as most speak Chinese dialects, not English, and some are illiterate.

But unlike CPF cuts, which are controversial changes politicians had to coax and convince the public to accept, the bundle of benefits for pioneers is widely welcomed, the MPs noted.

Tampines GRC MP Irene Ng does not foresee a problem getting people to accept it politically.

"The difficulty lies in explaining it to the seniors. I always tell them, 'Don't worry if you can't remember all these details. Just remember this: You don't have to worry about medical costs. Have that peace of mind. Come and see me if you have problems with medical bills'."

A government survey of 1,500 Singaporeans last month found seven in 10 have heard of the package. But of those aware of it, four in 10 do not know its benefits.

This, say the MPs and experts, can be improved by engaging seniors on their own turf.

Face-to-face sessions are most effective, MPs added.

Some, including Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah and Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Zainal Sapari, have ramped up efforts to meet and speak to seniors at places where they congregate, such as coffee shops, senior citizen corners and void decks.

"You cannot wait for them to come online or read the news.You have to go and find them, be there to listen and ease any worries," said Mr Sapari.

The Sars crisis in 2003 saw Chinese dialects making a short-lived comeback on local television to keep the elderly informed.

The preferred channel then was the mass media, not community interaction, noted Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Seng Han Thong.

"It's the opposite with the Pioneer Generation Package, which requires us to be closer to the ground. With Sars, we tried to avoid contact or gatherings. "Also, the message then was 'Be worried, take care of yourselves.' Now, we tell people, don't worry, we'll take care of you."

This article was published on April 23 in The Straits Times.

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