Talking to government, east Asian style - Monocolumn | Monocle


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26 July 2012

Submitting government interview requests in east Asia is not something that should be taken lightly. It’s like an art form that has stopped in its tracks and refuses to catch up with modern times, at least in some places.

Indonesian officials don’t hand out email addresses easily. Instead you are faced with the world of not so useful phone numbers. There are so many numbers to call and so many people that are not quite the right person you need to speak to that it’s perfectly possible to spend an entire afternoon calling number after number after number, only to end up at the phone number you first started out with. You’ll either be told the “workday is now over and call again tomorrow,” or the person picking up the call will hang up on you as soon as he recognises your voice from earlier in the day.

Chinese government officials, if they venture so far as to respond to an interview request over email, often send a reply from a mysterious Yahoo address with many numbers in it. But you have no time to ponder the numerals as you try to decipher the attachment – a Google-translated document, which makes little sense, and doesn’t have a signature and is written from an entire government department.

“We are Harbin Urban and Rural Planning Bureau. Our leader has got the information that you want to publish an article about Harbin. Thanking you very much for your warm care of Harbin city,” but then, “No possible to meet. No pictures please.”

The Singaporeans will have more questions for you than you’ll need answered for your story – what exactly will you write in the story? What is your angle? Why do you want to talk to us? Who told you about us? How many pages will the story be? How many photographs will you include? What is your purpose of this story? We want to approve the story before print. When you say “No, that’s not possible,” they say “No, that’s not possible.”

And then we have the Koreans and the Thais. Fax is the preferred way of communicating here. Sending an interview request via fax seems outdated enough – you wonder where it goes, who picks it up at the other end and who stuffs it in the bin? But the Koreans take first prize for making the fax-experience almost comical. They not only ask for a fax but “in Korean please”. You call to follow up and get the familiar click in your ear when you start speaking English.

Hopefully in the not too distant future I will have learned to speak Bahasa, Mandarin, Korean and Thai fluently and all fax machines will have been banned. Until then though, I’ll just have to keep perfecting the art of submitting interview requests on the phone, online, and unfortunately, by fax.


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