Awareness campaigns: Propagandistic or effective policy-tools?

Asit K. Biswas and Julian Kirchherr

GLOBAL POLICY | March 7, 2013 

Launching an awareness campaign requires courage and determination. Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew lacked neither. On August 14th 1983, he uttered live on television: “It is stupid for our graduate men to choose less educated and less intelligent wives if they want their children to do as well as they have done”.

There was immediate reaction to the statement in the Western media. Who was this politician who believed that he could interfere in people’s personal decisions such as whom to marry? Even many of Lee’s supporters disagreed with him. His People’s Action Party (PAP) lost 12 percent of its votes in the elections the next year. The press named it the “Great Marriage Debate”. It is one of the most controversial examples of an awareness campaign in Singapore’s history.

Whereas Lee’s statement may have seemed authoritarian initially, it addressed a very serious policy challenge. According to the 1980 census, uneducated Singaporean women gave birth to an average of three children, while those with secondary or tertiary education only had 1.65 children.

For a small and resource-poor country such as Singapore, talent is the most precious asset. Such talent is not the result of fortune or coincidence. Indeed, there is now considerable agreement among experts that intelligence is inherited by at least 50 percent. Hence, the Singaporean dating and marriage patterns have led to a “thinning of the gene pool”, Lee argued.

To increase marriage rates among graduate women, Lee’s forceful statements launched a marriage debate. It explicated and clarified reasons for adopting new family-oriented policies in Singapore. For instance, Singapore set up a Social Development Unit (SDU), a government dating agency for university graduates. It also implemented a range of education and housing benefits for educated women with children. The awareness campaign and the subsequent debates helped the Singaporean citizenry to understand the big picture and the rationale behind the new policies.

As a result, birth rates among graduate women graduate rate picked up. By 1992, the number of babies born to mothers with secondary or tertiary education had nearly doubled compared to 1987. During the same time period, the number of babies born to mothers with no qualifications or only primary-level qualifications dropped by up to 34 percent.

The success of Singapore’s family policy continues today. The proportion of tertiary-educated single women aged 35 to 39 decreased from 27.8 percent in 1990 to 24.8 percent in 2010, for instance. Admittedly, Singapore still has a fertility problem. According to the World Bank, the country only counts 1.15 births per women – significantly below the replacement rate of 2.1. Nevertheless, the country appears to be on the right track. The “Great Marriage Debate” and its complementry policies did foster attitudinal and behavioral changes.

Singapore has many lessons to offer on the design and effectiveness of governmental awareness campaigns. Its marriage campaign might be the country’s most well-known and reasonably successful one, but it has had many such campaigns on many issues. Its water awareness campaign has been one of the most successful. Whereas a marriage campaign would prove too delicate, and perhaps too sensitive, for most Western governments to adopt, Singapore’s water campaign should be easily replicable.

A successful awareness campaign often needs someone who starts it with a provocative remark or a creative slogan. It is a necessary lubricant which should precede, connect and explain a range of policies such as new regulations or subsidies. To be effective, an awareness campaign must run over a prolonged period of time engaging citizens at regular intervals.

Attitudes often change only gradually. Singapore’s water awareness campaign has run since the 1970s and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Launched by Singapore’s Public Utilities Board (PUB), it encompasses conventional tools such as slogans, flyers and public fora which address most Singaporeans, including young persons.

However, PUB’s most radical instruments proved most engaging. In 1995, for instance, the agency interrupted water supply to 30,000 randomly selected households for as long as 14 hours per day. This six-day water-rationing-exercise was highly controversial– and launched a heated discussion on Singapore’s water problems. Singapore imports over 50 percent of its water from Malaysia.

Nowadays, PUB focuses on less controversial, but also engaging activities. For instance, it conducts house visits to educate homeowners on water conservation practices and assists them in the installation of water saving devices. It also initiates meter reading contests and established a Water Conservation Centre with interactive exhibitions. In 2007 it introduced a Watermark Award for water awareness activities. For the youngest Singaporeans, it runs a Water Conservation Video Competition.

Singapore’s water campaign has been complemented by a range of regulations and requirements such as making the installation of water-saving devices and the metering of all water consumption mandatory. Furthermore, water charges ought to discourage excessive levels of consumption.

PUB’s water campaign and complementing policies fostered long-lasting attitudinal and behavioral changes in Singapore. Today 94 per cent of Singaporeans feel they have to play a part in water management. Singapore’s per capita water consumption has dropped from 172 liters per day in 1995 to 153 liters per day in 2011. PUB aims to lower it to 140 liters by 2030, mainly through adopting more awareness tools.

Even today, Singapore is often ridiculed in some quarters as a “nanny” state. Its awareness campaigns have contributed to this image. However, Singapore’s so-called “nanny-ing” compellingly illustrates the potential of awareness campaigns in policy-making.

Indeed, awareness campaigns belong to the toolkit of effective policy-making. Singapore barely adopts a new government scheme which is not accompanied by a campaign. However, this instrument is neglected by most governments of the Western world which dismiss it as “propagandistic”.

Ironically, many of the same Western governments eagerly adopt policies which propagate certain choices and impose values on citizens in a somewhat hidden manner. Think of tax benefits for married couples or the ban of same sex marriage in many countries. Public discussion and awareness campaigns expose such governmental values. Hence, campaigns often are the most honest and straight-forward way to communicate with and nudge citizens towards desirable policy directions.

Such campaigns also can alter the playing field. They address the roots of many policy problems, whereas many Western governments nowadays tend only to cure the symptoms. Think of the water awareness campaign. In a country with water-aware citizens, demand for water is likely to decrease compared to other countries which do not pursue such campaigns. In a country where no efforts to enhance water awareness are undertaken, the government can only attempt to satisfy existing demand – by importing more water, building more dams and treatment plants or increasing desalination. Which country is more sustainable over the long-term?

Admittedly, such campaigns are not the silver bullet. Achieving a particular policy objective will always require adopting a concert of complementary policy tools. However, awareness campaigns can play a central role in introducing and coordinating policies. Effective awareness campaigns alter values and attitudes addressing the roots of many policy problems. Citizens understand and appreciate governmental actions when the policy-makers expose and explain them. Hence, a re-appreciation of campaigns as an effective instrument is overdue.

Asit K. Biswas is distinguished visiting professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, and founder of Third World Centre for Water Management. Julian Kirchherr is a research associate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore.