Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen had a curious quote about leadership attributed to him last Friday (TODAY, Aug. 21). After the annual Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum, TODAY reported this:
“Armed with a pointer, Dr. Ng walked among the rows of students as he delivered his presentation on Singapore’s history and its growth, peppering the audience with occasional questions and personal anecdotes.
In the question and answer session that followed, Dr. Ng described his presentation style as an example of what he felt leaders should be: Closer to the ground. “It’s a process of communicating and getting closer to people. Sometimes when you’re a leader, you tend to be a bit too far, which is why I decided to ask you questions and come near to you,” he said.“
As contrived as the endeavour might be, one gets the gist of the message. Never mind the fact the physical distance does not necessarily correlate with a better understanding of the participant – and by extension “closer to the ground” – or that in capacities as leaders of their constituencies, it is assumed that parliamentarians are already close to their people as well as their concerns. In recent years, the traditional formats of dialogues or keynotes with questions-and-answers sessions have also been shaken up by well-intentioned guests who involve the participants in discourse.
Yet what is perhaps more crucial is whether individuals on the ground feel empowered to partake in these conversations. The chatter on the Internet may project the image of an active citizenry or consultative government, but it would appear that constructive engagements have been far and few between since the Our Singapore Conversation initiative from 2012 to 2013. One wonders if the aspirations and recommendations mooted were taken into consideration, and how the exercise – with significant involvement of and feedback from Singaporeans – may have shaped policy-making processes. In other words, how has rhetoric shaped actions?
And in this vein the value of these dialogue sessions could be evaluated too. How useful are the insights when speakers are often limited by time, and do facilitators challenge them to go beyond motherhood statements? Besides raising questions, can participants contribute more substantively? And can sessions be made more sustainable, so that views could potentially generate greater impact too?