Will ‘National Conversation’ Work in Singapore?

In an effort to include ordinary Singaporeans in the planning of the nation's future, the government has launched a “national conversation” that will last for about a year to gather people's views.

Led by the Our Singapore committee, the national conversation will take place online as well as in various dialogues and meetings. Our Singapore Conversation has both a website and a Facebook page, and urges people to share their views on Twitter using the #oursgconv hashtag.

The exercise has been met with positivity from some Singaporeans. Petunia Lee writes about her experience of attending a dialogue session:

From the Facebook page of Our SG Conversation

I must say that my experience of the SG Conversation opened my eyes to other Singaporeans. For one, I didn't realize that the elderly in Singapore felt such a sense of dispossession and rejection until one elderly gentleman from my group said his piece. For another, I had had the wrong assumption that harmonious race relations are so much a part of us that we don't need to work at it. It was a Malay lady doctor who in her impassioned speech convinced me that race relations can cause today, as much rawness as in the 1960s.

So yes… I think if, as explained by Mr Tan, the aim of the SG Conversation is to teach each of us some truths about our own country, then it did achieve that aim with me.

However, many others are wary of the exercise, seeing it as nothing more than a public relations endeavour. Molly Meek believes that the whole national conversation is simply a ploy to change the ruling party's image:

The PAP’s [ruling party] strategy is intelligent—one even wonders if they have consulted professionals on the matter before proceeding with their efforts—and one cannot helped but be impressed by their measurable success. The strategy employed  is perhaps fairly simple—target a few citizens, including prominent ones and lesser-known ones, that are moderately against the PAP, give them a different impression, and let them spread the news that the PAP really is not what its detractors have made it out to be. In fact, these do not even need to say anything—a mere talk with the PAP that leaves them with nothing to criticize will be effective enough for others who can still be convinced to support the PAP.

An editorial at publichouse.sg points out that the conversation may not lead to real change:

Even if it is assumed that the ministers leading the current initiative are of a keenly liberal bent, the older guards in the Cabinet remain likely to have a veto over the final product.  It is instructive that a majority of the more liberal suggestions made by the Remaking Singapore Committee – such as for the government to define the out-of-bounds markers for political debate, creating an Economic Relief Scheme for the structurally unemployed and subsidising the MediShield premiums of low-income groups – went unheeded.

‘Join the Singapore Conversation’ website

Howard Lee, writing for The Online Citizen, commented on the perceived partisan bias in the conversation:

We simply do not want to see a Conversation that is dominated by people who might be sympathetic of the ruling party's position on national issues, and are hence more likely to be part of the ancient echo chamber. How would we look forward, if so?

In other words, Wong and others like him need to realise that the ball is in the PAP's court to prove that they can be non-partisan, rather than lambast those who are raising the red flag on partisanship as ‘politicised’. Proof is in actions, not words.

We want diverse voices, even oppositional ones that sit at the far ends of the fence of logic and possibility, to get to the bottom of matters and stimulate a hearty, if not heart-felt, discussion, rather than another consensus building show-and-tell. And Singaporeans have the right to expect the National Conversations to be like that.

While the conversation continues in dialogue sessions and on Facebook, the Twitter hashtag #oursgconv appears to have been hijacked by anti-opposition spam:

@SGSilentMaj : Freedom of expression is bad for #Singapore #sgpolitics #sgelections  http://bit.ly/REUBsd http://bit.ly/TJjDZX

@SGLaoBaiXing : WP taking credit for PAP's work #sgpolitics #sgelections http://bit.ly/TcBoTM  http://bit.ly/R4RV9G

@theonlinesg : WP have no vision #sgpolitics #sgelections #oursgconv http://bit.ly/T1qhqo http://bit.ly/RWyvlo

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