Amidst all the concerns about whether the points thrown up during discussions would be taken into consideration by policy-makers and parliamentarians, I thought – as a participant last year (here) – the greatest value of the Our Singapore Conversation endeavour was that it allowed for Singaporeans from all backgrounds to talk. As the youngest member in one of the groups, I found the initial engagement the most honest and meaningful. The other members talked about their life experiences in Singapore, their tribulations and accomplishments, and how the country had changed in the past few years (for better or worse).
In fact, I would contend it was the absence of “official government representatives” that made our discussion more honest and insightful. No one was pandering to a “guest-of-honour”, since everyone was more focused on what their counterparts had to say. Yet, towards the end of the first phase of Our Singapore Conversation, some of my peers anecdotally reflected that the sessions – especially those held in schools, and conducted by an external agency – seemed to be more focused on consolidating “ideas and proposals” that could be presented to a visiting civil servant or minister. I am against such engineering, for it reduces spontaneous dialogues into pedantic “seminars” or “questions and answers”.
Therefore, first, it is crucial for these upcoming conversations to not be crafted with the end in mind; in other words, the bureaucrats should not expect or pressure participants to posit policy recommendations. One does not have to offer solutions to articulate his viewpoint on an issue. The perpetual obsession with quantifying these experiences should not persist.
Second, should we go beyond conventional categorisations and divisions of race, professions, and age? What is the value of coming together as a “Chinese community”, a “Malay community”, when many of the concerns – healthcare, housing, education, and the economy – are in fact common to all Singaporeans? While it might be true that certain issues – such as National Service, or assistance for disabled individuals – might require more focused exchanges; nevertheless, diversity in engagement is imperative. Needless segmentation could inadvertently reinforce stereotypes, and dilute the quality of the interactions.
Third, and most importantly, we must have faith that Singaporean participants can provide valuable on-the-ground perspectives, if given a constructive space to talk amongst themselves, and not with – or to – a government representative. Banish the belief that a politician needs to officiate these events, to grant it some degree of esteem. The appreciation of difference and the difficulties in policy-making will naturally be heightened, with the realisation stakeholders are motivated dissimilarly, and that a consensus that pleases all is virtually non-existent.