SINGAPORE — An advertisement on the Build-to-Order (BTO) flat scheme, put out by the Ministry for National Development (MND) and the Housing and Development Board (HDB), and detailing various information and factoids on BTO flats, was the subject of a question asked by Workers' Party (WP) Member of Parliament (MP) Leon Perera in Parliament on Tuesday (28 February).
The Aljunied MP had raised a question about the intention of the advertisement and whether it was necessary, as part of several MPs questions on the Government's advertising strategy.
"I agree that there is a legitimate public interest served in government advertising that serves to nudge citizens to do beneficial things, like take up healthy habits or apply for a useful scheme, for example. But some advertising seems to not embody a nudging intent," said Perera.
"Some ads seem to be aimed more at fostering 'feel-good' vibes towards an agency, and some even seem to aim at persuading the public to see the government in a good light with no clear public interest served, in terms of ultimately nudging positive behaviour," he added.
The Aljunied MP then showed the House a paper copy of the said BTO advertisement, which was labelled 'BTOgether' and contains the subheadings 'Delivering homes to Singaporeans' and 'Providing homes for every budget and need'. The advertisement shown by Perera also contained information about BTO waiting times as well as BTO statistics from 2022.
"But what is the public interest served here? To raise awareness so people apply for BTOs? But is this necessary? The application rates for BTOs are already very high and rising. Is there a need to raise awareness? So what behaviour are we exactly nudging with this ad?" asked Perera.
"If the reply is that such advertising raises public confidence and trust in the agency or government and hence conduces more public participation in schemes, then surely the best way to establish trust is good service delivery, and surely that trust cannot be bought for advertising," said Perera.
Perera then suggested that advertisements should only be run when there is a "measurable behavioural trade-off" and applying a return-on-investment test, so as to free up more revenue for the national budget.
Of public interest
In response, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Tan Kiat How said that having just come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Singaporeans are feeling "anxious about the availability and affordability of BTOs" and that he empathises with them.
"There is a reason why MND proactively puts out facts and figures, including BTO launches, the median prices of BTO flats, so that all Singaporeans, especially young Singaporeans, know about the pipeline of BTO flats coming up, and make the best decision that they can based on available information," Tan said.
"These ads show factually, for example, the median price of a 4-room BTO flat in a non-mature estate is around S$347,000 before grants. This information helps our Singaporeans make the best decision that they can, and to reassure them that public housing is available and affordable.
Tan added that "this is in the public interest" and that "there is no point made in the MND infographic to get Singaporeans to feel good about the government".
"On the MND ads in particular, it's about telling factually to all Singaporeans about some of the BTO launches that are coming up, some examples on how they can apply for the CPF grant, how they can think about proximity grants, living near their parents, and giving them information to make the best decision that they can. So, I really don't quite understand where Mr Perera is coming from," he said.
Advertising evaluation campaign
In responding to Perera's suggestions on testing, the minister said that ministries use "objective industry metrics to evaluate their campaigns".
"Additionally, MCI (Ministry for Communications and Information) also requires ministries to evaluate the effectiveness of their campaigns. MCI does this for MCI-led advertisements, but MCI does not yet have a system to enable centralised tracking and is exploring the best way to achieve it," said Tan.
"COVID-19 has taught us that public communication is crucial to maintaining high public trust in the government. This makes a difference to Singaporeans, and we take this public trust seriously. I would like to emphasise that government ministries' spending on advertising is guided by impartiality," he said