On the same day that Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced that fourth generation leaders and Members of Parliament (MP) will lead a series of discussions to chart Singapore’s future (TODAY, May 17), Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-yin called on the government “to seek out more ‘non-establishment types’ to participate in national-level focus groups, committees, boards, ministries, and Parliament” (May 17).
And in this vein – and I also agree with Miss Kuik that “there are more people who have dissenting views about what’s going on in our country than government-commissioned opinion polls reveal” (which at its core is related to sampling issues) – the success of the upcoming national conversations depends if “naysayers” and less-privileged Singaporeans participate in these discussions, as well as the extent to which they can set the agenda and to extend their participation beyond these one-off endeavours. Having participated in the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) series in 2012 and 2013 and the sessions by the education and defence ministries, and having benefited from the interactions with different Singaporeans, the risks of running over the same old ground and of selective engagement must be noted.
In fact, a quick scan of the 48-page OSC summary report – which Mr. Heng led – reveals observations which speak to these risks:
– The word “sceptic” appears 15 times throughout the report, and in particular Professor Kenneth Paul Tan – an OSC committee member – wrote about the importance of inclusiveness in public deliberation. He first observed “the unmistakable exclusion [from the committee] of opposition politicians, prominent activists, and public intellectuals known for their more controversial views” and warned against the exclusion of “the so-called vocal minority”, but noted that the conversations were a start to build discursive spaces for diverse groups of Singaporeans. Whether the OSC was successful in engaging the “naysayers”, however, is less clear.
– Many of the themes and headlines presented in 2013 remain contested or unresolved to date, and while they may point to a lack of progress they also hint either at repetitive agendas or broader problems related to how the discussions were structured in the first place (the absence of a “so what?” vision, in addition, underlines a scepticism of subsequent initiatives such as SGfuture and the Youth Conversations). More precisely, many of the headlines in the five-year-old report were just talked about in the past week in parliament: “Singapore can do better in education and meritocracy” and “Let’s broaden how success is defined” (by Education Minister Ong Ye Kung), “What makes a Singaporean” (by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Indranee Rajah”, and “A home or an asset? (by Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong).
In other words, how are the upcoming discussions announced by Mr. Heng substantively different from those in the past? And how will those with “dissenting views” – even if they are virulently anti-government – be invited and engaged? Bear in mind too the less-privileged Singaporeans who may be struggling to make ends meet, who are therefore less likely to have their perspectives represented. Or an over-reliance on Singaporeans already familiar to the government Mr. Heng mentioned “different” four times in single sentence, when explaining the planned outreach “to different segments of society … people in different occupations, who have different interests and passions, and who are contributing back to society in different ways”, yet the difference has to be more precisely quantified.
And finally, how the agenda of the conversation or discussion is set matters. A limitation of the Committee to Strengthen National Service, for instance, was the presumption that conscription is necessary in the first place, which as a consequence precluded individuals who may wish to pose more fundamental questions. Mr. Heng said that the government will consolidate views shared in the House “before providing further details on the discussion series”, though perhaps more fundamentally a participant-driven discursive agenda could be beneficial. If it is the case that government does not always know best, empowering citizens to take a lead would be a useful start.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.