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Jan 24, 2010

"New Media like Multivitamins"

This is an insight in The Straits Times interview of Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan's "Health Minister Says"  blog   to express as the Minister of Health, while the Ministry of Health is an official website.

The Straits Times Friday, January 24, 2010

When Khaw Boon Wan blogs, it's official

He announces the arrival of a new stock of vaccines, explains a policy reversal, answers unasked questions and dispenses health advice. Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan puts all these messages and more across, not at press conferences or through press statements, but in his blog. He tells Insight why he goes into cyberspace to engage the people

By Jeremy Au Yong

SOMEWHERE in Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan's home lies a precious keepsake - a bundle of 1,000 letters, each one written over three decades ago.

The letters were all written by Mr Khaw in the 1970s, when he was studying engineering and commerce at the University of Newcastle in Australia. Each night for almost four years, he would sit down and write a letter to the woman who would become his wife.

'We were separated, I studied in Australia, she studied in Singapore, so I wrote to her every night,' he says, smiling.

'It's like a reflection of the day. It's very much like diary-writing and I expressed it very personally to my girlfriend.'

He started a blog entitled 'Health Minister Says' last September and has been updating it regularly ever since.

And he says he has been able to keep it up because his writing habit inculcated by the voluminous letter-writing of those days has left him with just the skills he needs for blogging.

In fact, he says it takes no more than 15 minutes to knock out a blog post.

'Formulating the thoughts will take a little bit longer but it's part and parcel of my life,' he adds.

The writing typically takes place at lunchtime, just after his daily gym session. His time on the treadmill is often spent thinking about what he wants to put down.

What started as a blog though has now expanded to encompass nearly all the main tools known as Web 2.0. There are the Health Ministry Facebook page, a YouTube channel for its videos, a Flickr photo stream for its pictures and even a Twitter feed for SMS-length updates.

This immersion in new media, the blog in particular, has led to a flurry of headline-making news. In the four months since the first blog post went up at, various newspapers have been running stories on his statements, comments and thoughts.

Politicians using new media are no longer rare - more than 20 MPs here, including Foreign Minister George Yeo, have active Facebook accounts. But Mr Khaw is the first here to put it to official use.

Many announcements that might have been made through press conferences or press statements from the ministry are now entering the public domain via the blog.

For instance, his first online post was written to explain why pneumococcal vaccination was included in the National Child Immunisation Programme.

Only recently, he concluded a five-week public consultation on the upcoming Health budget. Some 200 responses were gathered through Facebook and the website of Reach, the feedback unit of the Government.

In four months, the blog has drawn more than 20,000 visitors. The Facebook page, in turn, picked up 1,900 fans. A Facebook user becomes a fan by clicking on a button on the page.

Yet when talking about his hit count, Mr Khaw is careful to note that statistics form but a small part of what he is trying to do.

'It's not a numbers game,' he says. 'I'm more interested in having meaningful interaction. There's no point having half a million followers and have it very frivolous, like I'm eating char kway teow tonight or I'm watching Avatar tomorrow.

'I think Jackie Chan's followers would be interested, I don't think Khaw Boon Wan's followers would be interested in whether I've watched Avatar or not,' he says, laughing.

It's not about me

LISTENING to Mr Khaw lay out his thinking on new media, it is clear he has given the question of how to engage in cyberspace considerable thought.

Indeed, he says he spent months thinking about how to use it optimally. He discussed it at length with his staff and read popular blogs like those belonging to US President Barack Obama and Microsoft founder Bill Gates before finally jumping into the Internet.

He says: 'If you just plunge in mindlessly, then it could be a very unproductive journey. For us, the biggest fear is time commitment, and ending up spending a lot of time to very little effect.'

The first one, of course, is that it should not be about him.

The online persona must be the Health Minister, who happens to be Mr Khaw - and not vice versa.

'I could easily set up a Khaw Boon Wan Facebook page and deal with it that way as most people do,' he says. 'But I decided that I will do a Health Minister blog, a Health Minister Facebook. Then I can focus on health issues and health issues only.'

There are two clear advantages to this approach: First, visitors to the site are less likely to treat his online engagement as simply a round-the-clock, queue-free Meet The People Session.

The second advantage is that the entire Health Ministry online presence can be easily passed on to whoever takes over the office of Health Minister.

Explains Mr Khaw: 'It becomes part of the Ministry of Health's infrastructure and if we build it up to a significant constituency, hopefully it becomes an important platform.'

Another ground rule: Everything put up - whether a deep discussion of official policy or a call to people to eat healthily - must have a clear purpose.

'I shouldn't tweet for the sake of tweeting, that would be stupid. I shouldn't blog for the sake of blogging, I would seem out of date and that would also be stupid.'

New media like vitamins

HOW does Mr Khaw strike a balance between the formal nature of officialdom and the casual nature of the blog?

As he sees it, the new media are like multivitamins.

While the core formal announcements must still go out via traditional channels, those which are less important and less newsworthy might be better made online. In other words, it is good to have, but if you are someone with limited access to the Web, you can get by fine without it.

When he was clear about how his blog should work, he recalls, all he needed was an opportunity to get it going.

That came during a Parliament session in September, when he disclosed that pneumococcal vaccination would be included in the National Child Immunisation Programme. It was a reversal of the decision he made two years earlier.

Although he made the announcement, he did not get the chance to explain why he changed his mind because no one asked him about it. Apparently the MPs who had posed the original question to him were too shocked to ask any follow-up questions.

So he took to the blog.

He explains: 'I was the one, a few years back in Parliament, who said we would not be including pneumococcal, so why did I change my mind? What are the circumstances which have changed to cause this change in policy? I think I need to explain that to Singaporeans. To put all those things in an official press statement is kind of odd.'

For the record, Mr Khaw changed the policy because there had been developments in the vaccine making it more suitable for children, and an expert committee had recommended its inclusion.

The minister would soon find many other instances that were blog-worthy - events that were of interest to some, but did not warrant a full- blown official statement.

One such situation was to do with the arrival of the H1N1 vaccines. He had announced officially that the Government had ordered 1 million doses of the vaccine, and that they would arrive in batches before Christmas.

Having done that, he thought it no longer necessary to put out a new statement every time a batch arrived.

'Every week, or every other day to put out a press statement saying another 200,000 have arrived, I think is very boring.'

Instead, he suggested that Mr Chua Soy Tee, deputy director of the ministry's resource management division, write the blog, complete with pictures of the doses in the store.

'It's more informal, more casual, a more human angle,' he says.

Not for every ministry

ALTHOUGH Mr Khaw is pleased with the response to his blog, he does not for a moment assume that he is somehow leading the way in government e-engagement.

He stresses that what he does works for him and his ministry, but it may not work for somebody else.

The health portfolio, he notes, lends itself very much to the kind of engagement seen in the new media.

It might not work as well in a ministry which demands a certain level of secrecy, like the Ministry of Defence.

The bottom line is that politicians seeking to leverage on new media need to do it at their own pace and in their own way. There is no right or wrong.

Says Mr Khaw: 'It's a very personal thing, just as keeping a diary is a very personal thing. I don't think one should prescribe it to someone else.

'At the end of the day, you must be yourself. Never do things because everybody else is doing it. I think that would most certainly fail.'



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