The time has come for us to stop organising large-scale dialogue sessions.
I am not referring to keynote addresses or guest lectures, which are usually thoughtful and insightful, especially if the invited speaker is competent, and presents his or her perspectives intelligently. By large-scale, I mean when there are more than 40 to 50 members in the audience, listening to one or two guests responding to questions. Since there is not a lot of time for in-depth interactions, the engagement is disappointingly superficial. Individuals with pressing queries might not get the opportunity to articulate them (recently here, guests like to “pool” questions, which further dilutes the quality of the responses). More significantly, what happens after the dialogue session, even if valuable perspectives were highlighted?
I am slightly annoyed, because in Singapore – and particularly in the universities – we are very fond of inviting politicians or high-ranking bureaucrats for discussions on a range of socio-political issues. This predilection is not exactly curious, for it looks great for the school or association (“look, we are engaging the students”; “there must be impact, because our event was covered by the press”; “great attendance, and we managed to invite someone so prominent to join us”; “our participants pose really pertinent questions”). We, including myself, must learn to stop patting our own backs so frequently.
Yet, the proliferation of online commentaries and immediate correspondences point to the value of more direct and accessible exchanges. Furthermore, the advent of smaller, more intimate sessions – such as those under the Our Singapore Conversation banner – shows that these concerns are best discussed in more controlled settings. There is also an advantage of having participants talk to one another, instead of listening passively to a single speaker (and making the incorrect presumption that he is necessarily right, since it is difficult to challenge his propositions actively). In other words, these are the kinds of genuine dialogues that we should be organising on a more regular basis.
We have so many more attractive alternatives, so why stick to the pedantic status quo?