Let's turn complaining into an art form

I was in Lisbon recently and noticed a cultural similarity between the Portuguese and Singaporeans.

  Portugal is famous for its Fado music, characterised by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the life of the poor, and infused with a sentiment of resignation and melancholia.

  Interestingly, this form of complaining and ranting about life in Portugal has become such an art that it is listed as a Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage.  

In Singapore, we too, have our own culture of complaining about the Government, neighbours and society at large.  While this national pastime is often seen as negative, I suspect that with some polishing and refinement, we might be on our way to be listed on the Unesco Heritage list one day.

  While Singaporeans' "complaint culture" is often seen as ranting and aimless grumblings, I see complaints as the positive act of problem identifications.  

We need to appreciate Singaporeans' sense of ownership, and that they care enough to speak up.   A strong nation with strong social capital and national identity can be created when people build their country together cohesively.

How shall we design a mechanism to embrace ideas - or complaints - in a constructive manner?

  These complaints could range from suggestions of ideas, to airing of frustrations, to explosive vitriol, or rude and outright vulgarities. Whatever forms of expression they might take, I respect that the seed of all complaints is the wish for a better future - as the objector sees it. There is dissatisfaction and disillusion when these voices are not heard or not acted upon.

Official channels like government platform Feedback Unit - now known as Reach - have failed to address this listening gap. The proliferation of many social media platforms has, instead, polarised public opinion instead of harmonising it, due to the self-selecting nature of these websites by their audience.

A moderate voice among an angry crowd can easily be cowed into silence by the shouting down of other bloggers. On the other hand, Government supporters tend to congratulate each other, and not to see alternative views. 

This leaves the silent majority nowhere to voice their ideas.


The opportunity here is for us to enhance our culture of problem identification by extending it into a more action-focused way of finding a solution. We may even encourage complaints by rewarding the "Clearest Problem Identification" and "Most Pragmatic Solution" offered. This is one way to use ideas of the people, by the people, for the people.  

We could crowd-source people-generated complaints and crowd-source people-generated solutions. We could partner with all three telcos to offer 10 or 20 free top-model phones as prizes for these great submissions every month. The solutions can also be debated openly and polished till pragmatic action is made viable.  

These suggested solutions are then sent to various action parties that can include government agencies or companies or NGOs.

  Government agencies have to reply within a week. The "Nation-Building" platform can have discussions with them and the public to develop the suggestions into concrete solutions, reject them if they are too raw, or ask for refinements.

  In this way, we avoid models of condescension where only the Government prescribes problems and picks preferred solutions.  

We thus unlock the genius of the people, encourage a society that questions norms, and offer innovative pathways forward. The approach will strengthen our social capital, plug service gaps, give voice to the people and build a resilient and empowered nation.  

The culture of inquiry is the seed of genius. It can extend to our education system and help us move away from prescriptive solutions towards disruptive mission-driven thinking. Over time, this will polish our ability to question, to offer solutions and to become a mature democracy.

•The writer is the founder of the World Toilet Organisation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2015, with the headline 'Let's turn complaining into an art form'. Subscribe