“Critics might consider the process elitist but it has evolved over the years and it is generally accepted that the people’s touch is an indispensable quality of top leaders” (Hallmark of Top Leaders in Singapore, The Straits Times Editorial).
Much has been made of the philosophy of servant leadership which characterises the newly-elected government, yet in the face of growing diversity in Singapore there is scepticism whether engagement through conversations – indicating a willingness to listen or process feedback – can be sustained. Especially beyond traditional contact points such as meet-the-people sessions, dialogue sessions, and even social media pages or messages. Moreover, with crucial aspects of socio-political change, in the form of “social fragmentation and the stratification of interests” as well as “the emergence of a more educated and demanding electorate” (ST, Oct. 2), how should more Singaporeans be involved in discourse?
The Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) undertaking, for instance, has reached a sizeable number between 2012 and 2013. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has already committed to build on the OSC project, which should function as a collaborative starting point. “We will debate and argue over what the (next) chapter should contain, how the story should develop. We will do that online and offline, in civil society and in Parliament. That is normal, and healthy. But at the end, we are all co-authors of the chapter,” he said at the swearing-in ceremony of the new Cabinet.
If so, the OSC initiative should be scrutinised before expansion. Has it shaped public consultation strategies of the ministries or government agencies, on policy recommendations in particular, and have participation rates increased? Has the government been able to reach a more diverse distribution of respondents, beyond those who may have been active in the community? What are the outcomes which can be expected from these conversations, and what about the dialogues or perspectives which emerge spontaneously, “online” and “in civil society” for example?
To encourage frank viewpoints, the OSC and its agenda should be structured with discussions which even question fundamental assumptions or underpinnings which undergird policy-making processes or governance structures.
In this vein, a proposition such as “all social endeavour is ultimately based on the vitality of the economy” should not go unquestioned. Strong growth in gross domestic product used to be assumed, but does it necessarily feature as prominently with a new social compact? In addition, above and beyond state structures or arrangements which may have persisted for a long time – such as those premised upon race, with implications on self-help groups and public housing arrangements – participants could think about the effects of globalisation, and if longstanding, Singaporean traditions still hold. Discourse along these themes would be enriching.