Dialogue – not monologue

In News Reports, Society on June 9, 2012 at 4:18 am

Because I have been in the business of asking questions for so long, I was interested to read about students’ reactions to having their questions lobbed back at them by ministers in ST today in the Home section. Seems they are uncomfortable with this. I’ve had my own questions thrown back at me by newsmakers many times too in the past. But I could always resort to the phrase: I am a journalist, I shouldn’t be giving my opinion. (In other words, hey, just answer lah).

I suppose students can’t reply in that way – nor should they do a Rueben. But really there are so many ways to ask a question that will get you a proper answer. Also, it’s the context that counts. Is this a Q&A session or a dialogue? Should there be engagement of minds? Or just one mind emptying itself out…?

Let’s take the question on whether $100 entry levy is enough to deter Singaporeans from gambling at casinos that was cited in the article. With the question posed this way, it’s safe to assume that the questioner DOESN”T think it’s enough. Frankly, I would like to know why too before proceeding to answer to the question..Obviously, the question has made a judgment call. In any case, what sort of answer could anyone expect? The minister will say not enough? We calculated wrongly? Wow…that would be a news story.

Or maybe the questioner DOESN’T have an opinion on the matter (didn’t research it or whatever) and just wants to hear what the minister has to say. If so, ask it this way: How did the Government arrive at $100 as the entry levy to deter Singaporeans from going to casinos? Or: Why does the Government think that $100 levy is enough to deter Singaporeans from gambling?That way, you get a more informative answer and if you are fast on your feet, you can ask a follow-up question: Based on what you said about XXX, don’t you think $100 is too low?

BTW, I note that these students are invited to a dialogue, not a monologue. That means, in my book, having an opinion based on facts and calling on the other party to respond.  So some thinking and researching should have been done in advance. But if that can’t be done for some reason, then just ask for information and insight. Hopefully, you’ll get an epiphany.


  1. Well maybe you should write another piece on the art of “answering questions.” I think the whole “what do you think?” response was a joke. I feel he should have been better prepared in his responses (Including that casino question you mentioned above. Come on Bertha, you know he should have done better). And as for the question on free media, I am not sure what he was thinking when he gave that example on Britain and the US; and when he insinuated that the social media folks are just screaming at each other. Well that is an invitation for them to scream louder). Furthermore, these are a bunch of students, and they are there to learn. “what do you think?” is an easy way out for the questionee (and mind you, this is not just any questionee). It can be easily be mistaken for a sign of incompetence, and I know DPM Teo can do much better than that. I am sorry, but it was very embarrassing and an easy target for his critiques to expand on in the virtual world (I bet there will soon be a rap song or something uploaded in youtube with the catchy title “what do you think?”). In my lifetime, I have been to many such discussion sessions and forums (on wide varying sensitive topics such as the middle east conflict, health-care etc), and I don’t recall a response as such from a high profile speaker (regardless of how difficult a “question” was). Regardless of whether you have or don’t have a good answer, the way you respond to such questions is an art (being too frank is bad, and “what do you think?” is horrible; you must somehow seek the middle ground). He should really learn from LKY in his “meet the press” sessions, and even when he held a Q and A session in NUS in the late 80s. I hope this is a lesson well learned on his part. Well, now he has to brush up on two areas: (a) the art of answering questions, and (b) the art of damage control.

    • Actually, I think LKY has gone even further, like questioning the basis of the question…which would totally intimidate anyone.
      As for What do you think? as a cop-out response. I guess it all boils down to intent? The questionee really wants to know what you think,
      or even whether any thinking has been done before the question is asked, especially a leading question. Of course, the flip side is the questionee
      himself buying time to think before answering. I’m sure from now, newsmakers
      will be quite careful with What do you think responses…Let’s hope they don’t resort to this officialese: We are constantly reviewing
      the situation. That’s the normal cop-out response from bureaucrats. I suppose they can be forgiven because they are not policymakers.
      But I can’t forgive them for lack of style!
      On the art of answering questions, many journalists I have trained will know that my motto has always been : You are only as good as the
      questions you ask. Never done how to answer questions – newsmakers should go hire their own experts (who will probably teach them how
      NOT to answer questions, especially difficult ones!)
      Thank you for writing!

  2. Thanks for the reply. I must also add that we live in a very different world today (as compared to a decade or even 5 years ago). The virtual tools we have (i.e. world wide web, social media etc) are a boon, but they can be lethal when it comes to “news reporting” (tools like FB, blogs, tweets, youtube and whatever else). Things go viral, and it is so much easier to misrepresent. Anyone hooked up to the web can “scream” just about anything in his/her own way (and even focus on one small blunder that was made by someone). So I understand where he is coming from regarding the social media folks “screaming” at each other comment. But he and any sensible politician (or any other representative of some important entity) has to be careful regarding how he/she conducts himself/herself, what is said publicly and what is released into the web. Alas! We live in a world where everything is cached once u release it into the web, or recorded (by an iphone etc) and uploaded in some video upload sites. So erasing anything in the virtual world is pretty much impossible (especially if you have hundreds of people perusing you online). And if you represent an organization or, in this case, the government, you MUST be conscious of this.

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