This is a piece written for The Diplomat (here), a publication by the National University of Singapore Political Association (NUSPA). This commentary is a combination of two past articles (here and here).
Last year in September, in response to the government’s endeavour to start a “National Conversation”, Miss Zuraidah Ibrahim penned a commentary in The Straits Times:
“Now, however, people’s instinct to rely on the Government has become a political liability, since even the Government knows that it cannot solve all problems. In a sense, the National Conversation is an attempt to address this dilemma by educating Singaporeans that governance involves trade-offs: no government can please all the people all the time, and long-term gain often requires short-term pain.”
In her opinion, Miss Zuraidah believes that Singaporeans need to be educated on the significance of trade-offs – that our administration, contrary to popular belief, cannot pander to the desires or needs of every individual. As individuals within a collective community, constituents should be cognisant that the government has to balance the demands of many; more often than not, these expectations are varied, and desires may not reflect realities.
I concur, and against the backdrop of the ongoing National Conversation, my view is that since our politicians do not have all the answers, it would be increasingly constructive to engage citizens in participatory, collaborative sessions to allow them to experience these dilemmas first-hand. This is a move away from the traditional policy of merely informing citizens about these difficulties and expecting them to accept things as such.
Let’s Do It On Our Own?
The National Conversation, hence, needs to be framed around the citizen. More often than not, present initiatives are overwhelmingly didactic, with too much emphasis placed on guest politicians who indulge in nifty monologues and explanatory expositions instead of actually conversing with audiences. Rather than engaging in serious exchanges with their audience to explore alternative solutions, they – at least sometimes – seem more intent on getting their personal perspectives across.
Therefore, my proposal is to get participants more involved during sessions, to start talking and debating with one another. Why should our representatives and ministers take centre stage in such a counterintuitive fashion?
Politicians have a predilection, from my experiences in dialogue sessions or policy forums, to lament that Singaporeans do not comprehend that trade-offs in socio-economic concerns are inevitable, that it is impossible to please everyone. Yet, instead of being preached to in such a contrived manner, we should be given the chance to explore and experience. The proposition is that we should stop relying on the government to handhold us all the way: we, as citizens, have the abilities and intelligence to bring something new to the table.
Picture a discussion session concerning education policy involving parents who have been divided into smaller clusters of four or five for structured sharing. While one reckons that her child is burdened by too many school assignments and co-curricular commitments, another feels that syllabuses and pedagogies are not rigorous enough, and that there should be more work. How can they reconcile this difference? No resolution might be reached, but through the conversation, would they not see the complexities of policy dilemmas? Would new ideas not be bounced off one another?
A Curious Catch-22
A specific example might help to illustrate the benefits of a more participatory approach. To use a context that many readers might be familiar with, National Servicemen could be granted ample opportunities to articulate their views. Present circumstances are a curious Catch-22, particularly for full-time National Servicemen (NSFs): they are the ones who are most cognisant of on-the-ground developments or challenges, but are not granted the channels to reflect these insights, to provide constructive feedback.
Beyond their units, worries over potential breaches of confidentiality and other repercussions prevent NSFs from voicing suggestions for improvement. Within units, there are two primary barriers: first, not all regulars and commanders – given their traditional predilection for the chain of command – may be receptive to such comments; second, even if they are, they could be solely concerned about operational or training procedures. Yet, unit efficiency and the consideration of military-wide matters are not mutually exclusive notions.
Most crucially, a cohesive platform for the explanation or comprehension of propositions – on policy details – does not seem to be readily available. I envision the organisation of general sessions between men, commanders and regulars (one of my friends suggested that these could be done anonymously, with no pressure from rank or appointment), which could cover the basic sharing of training experiences (for the purposes of understanding and interaction), or the engagement of decision-makers in a more informal, relaxed setting.
Although the military’s strict hierarchy is not necessarily a reflection of the Singapore society at large, the above example illustrates the benefits that could be gleaned from such a consultative and spontaneous approach.
As clichéd as it may be, one should “be the change you want to see in the world”. Our heightened involvement as citizens in public discourse does not necessarily mean that we work independently from the government, or that policymakers may abdicate their responsibilities. On the contrary, our engagement can be complementary, because a more informed and knowledgeable electorate would only serve as a stronger check on the government, rendering it more accountable.