soft-spots for policy – why the #trainofdreams could have been better

Photo by Chris Mcgrath

It’s been a long time since I last blogged. There’s been a lot that’s happening on my side – I’ve got a few posts that I want to do. There’s of course my birthday post where I reflect the significance of 21 years of living ; there’s a post on the corruption of the volunteerism ideal that I’m still working on and finally some more for the e-publishers I freelance for.

But the one that has got me going the most is this one – the need for soft spots in policy making. Let’s contextualize things first. In the duration that I’ve been championing building spaces and mediums for communities to come together, I’ve realised that there’s a need to work with government in achieving these goals. For various reasons , the primary one being that of regulation and authority. As much as the Hidden Good prides itself in conducting guerilla activations and social experiments – we’ve always stayed in the legal zone, sometimes even playing very close to the lines.

The Train of Dreams was a tussle from the get-go.

Let me begin by saying that the people I worked with in LTA were extremely collaborative with the process. I’m very grateful for the mediating and brokering involved and the amount of effort that went into helping us achieve the product we finally achieved.  However the video you see, as happy as I am about it, is not the product that i had envisioned.

We’ve all heard of the busking on trains in New York and other subways in the West. When I was in the States last December, not only did I truly enjoy the performances , I noticed that the general mood in the trains was a lot happier and pleasant. The performers had an informal stage to reach an audience and the community was being truly integrated with the arts. So i decided in the spur of the moment that Singapore not only would benefit from this – but that it sorely needed this. It needed a way to invigorate its public spaces. Not only would this help to quell the frustration on the public commute; it would also give the creative arts the chance to truly be integrated in society.

It was daring – to take on public transport so fiercely, but I decided I wanted to do this and so made the necessary arrangements with National Youth Council to fund the project. National Youth Council again was such a great help throughout this process, helping to connect us to the people that we needed to be connected to and mentoring us throughout the journey. I recall NYC managed to help us pull together a meeting with LTA/SBS TRANSIT/ SKM/NAC for us to present our initial concept and get comments. We told them that compared to doing this without permission , we wanted to prove that collaboration with authorities could work and address potential safety and security concerns we had the maturity to accept we may not be aware of.

Where there were performances like these , rather regularly in Singapore:

We saw an opportunity for a mass activation across different stations on the trains themselves , spreading joy and officially approved. We had seen Proof of Concept through these videos – audiences generally really enjoyed the performances and wanted to see more. Regulators would not pursue illegal performers because the terms and conditions don’t directly prohibit it – they prohibit forms of it such as “those who create a nuisance” even though it’s so ambiguous. There were stakeholders to convince : LTA had to have a strong reason to back  this and they saw it as encouraging graciousness and improving commuter experience ; SMRT/SBS Transit had to be balance possibility for negative backlash with the more favourable possibility for a positive response; MHA had to be concerned about security threats.

However due to the uniqueness of the project , the operators and MHA were reluctant to allow the performances to occur. They could not reconcile the project with the existing systems and policies they had in place and were afraid of security threats. I had a few issues with these:

  1. There was a precedence of performers already performing on trains, showing Proof of Concept. Why is our activation being so critically analysed?
  2. Security-wise , threats could be mitigated by having us go through a security check. We had curated our performers and volunteers and so there was no random variable.
  3. The effect of performing on the trains would be a lot be more powerful than anyone else, as it is here where most frustration or apathy occurs. It is where we could spread the most joy.

Yet, because we had already begun engagements with the stakeholders, we couldn’t go rogue and betray the trust we had built with them. It was just not in our DNA. After 3 months of back and forth pushing, we finally accommodated for performances not even within the station, but outside.The whole process became a tiring one – that ultimately made me evaluate the value of bureaucracy and collaboration with authorities. I was appreciative of where we had gotten, and the final video did eventually communicate our message still (with a lot of focus on editing, you can’t imagine) – but it was not optimal, and as a content creator and creative juicer I was not satisfied.

It was from this series of events coupled with MP Baey Yam Keng’s speech in Parliament that I’ve decided  there’s a strong need for soft spots in policy in Singapore.

We need to have departments and teams in agencies that focus on collaborative projects with the community – not sidelined as a means to relieve pressures from society, but as an actual policy focus to build strength to strength solutions in society and tap into ideas that a humble agency would not be able to generate by itself. We need to accept risk as a natural side effect of policy work – and work to understand that not all solutions are zero negative effect solutions. We must learn to accept the possible spillovers as long as they do not harm or impede others’ rights.

We must have teams that recognise the inconsistencies in policies and realities and seek to if not address them in policy itself, address them in interim practice. Discretion and maneuverability become the words of the day as we realise that putting not just smart but decisive leaders will ultimately the agency move forward in capturing new possibilities. There is space for innovation in all agencies, even in regulatory agencies .

Through this process, I’ve learnt a lot about working with bureaucracy and civil servants from a community activist perspective. I’ve learn to empathise with the people that I work with, who are at the mercy of the policies and systems themselves, but strive to still help us achieve  our goals.. But most importantly I’ve learnt it’s necessary to modify the way our civil service interacts with its community and serves it. A much more real understanding is needed.

That’s something I will continue to fight for.


P.S. LTA has a division that we’re actually recently working with to explore new collaborative solutions. It’s pretty cool how they’ve involved us and are working with us . For the sake of respecting confidentiality, I won’t comment on the process, but there are plus and minus points here as well.


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