In the last week or so, I attended two Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) sessions on Education: on May 9 and May 14, 2013. The first one was organised by the Ministry of Education (MOE), and the second organised by the main OSC committee. These two sessions were part of the second phase of the OSC (the former was a ministry-led one), based on main perspectives that had surfaced during the first, introductory phase (here).
The first MOE-led session – which was supposed to be more specific – was focused on stress and examinations (considerably broader), and had about 100 to 150 participants. The second was on school-going Singaporeans, and hope for their future in Singapore (one of the twelve distilled topics from the first phase, and this particular theme is more aspirational and forward-looking), but was much smaller. There were around 30 to 40 participants.
Education in Conversation: Conversational Shortcomings
Unsurprisingly, the volunteer facilitators from both sessions were generally competent, and encouraged all the group members to at least speak their minds during the group segment. Like the initial session I signed up for, what stood out was the diversity of the stakeholders – parents, educators, fresh graduates, students from varying phases – which consequently allowed for meaningful diversity in opinions. I had the chance to (again) posit my ideas on greater immersion between the tertiary institutions (here and here), on the management of stress (here), and how teachers should not shoulder a disproportionate burden of moral education (here and here), since the involvement of parents is crucial.
Unfortunately, I think the two biggest criticisms I have are: first, there was a consistent rehash of themes that have been highlighted before, and too little time to entertain multiple viewpoints (we had the people, but not the time); second, participants do not go away with a clear idea of how the OSC will pan out after the present phase.
Disappointingly for me, the session organised by the MOE was a little more rushed and much less constructive. A lot of the problems identified were things that many of us had talked about before ad nauseum (for instance, improving the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), expanding pathways for students, streaming, and reducing stress levels), but there was insufficient time to entertain opposing propositions, or to start moving forward, by exploring an assortment of constructive suggestions or policy recommendations.
There was an opportunity for more in-depth exchanges that was not seized. As opposed to generic conversations or broad overlapping themes, the groups could have been divided by phases (pre-school, primary, secondary, tertiary), or even more precise issues (PSLE, streaming). Perhaps this should warrant more focus group discussions in the future?
Following the end of the first session, Senior Parliamentary Secretary Sim Ann gave a charming speech, but even that did not justify the need for a mass group gathering at the end. If the intent was to allow participants to hear the perspectives of the other groups (though – in the interest of time – only a few groups were invited to share their viewpoints very briefly), the organisers could get individuals moving from group-to-group before the conclusion. This was done as a “Gallery Walk” (possibly because of the smaller group sizes) in the second session, but the eventual large-group dialogue did not generate more useful exchanges.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Suffice to say, the OSC has dominated the media and debates in the past few months, but it is not the only conversation going on (here). As a result, it should be impressed upon all Singaporeans (even the sceptics) that the conclusion of the OSC does not mean that the exchange of opinions should cease. Instead, the impact of the OSC endeavour will be premised upon two factors: first, whether Singaporeans will continue to channel their grouses to the parliamentarians and their corresponding agencies; second, whether relevant ministries or bureaucrats would be galvanised to seek on-the-ground feedback beyond the current hype.
Sure, the notes have been taken, and they will be communicated to the civil servants. Questions linger (even as we accept that not everything is feasible or implementable). Will this process continue? Should there be more intimate get-togethers for the interested ones? Or is the public expected to be more spontaneous in the future absence of the OSC platforms?
Furthermore, intriguingly, where does the OSC leave Reaching Everyone for Active Citizenry @ Home (REACH)? Given that the former has taken centre-stage for a period time, has it also – inadvertently – cast the government feedback agency to obscurity or irrelevance? Will REACH take up the OSC’s roles and responsibilities when the year comes to the end, and will it be able to gather the same traction and attention (which also remains largely subjective)? There has been comparably less scepticism associated with the OSC (it has gotten tremendous boost in parliamentary debates, as well as the mainstream media), but it seems unlikely for REACH to replicate the present outreach effort.
So, where do we go from here?
P/S: I move for the term “trade-off” to be retired, especially when it is used for government and policy descriptions (or when policy-makers and administrators throw it around to explain the difficulties of governance; urgh, I’ve had enough).