“Actions by the Government impact on people in a number of ways, and we need to understand exactly how is it impacting across a cross-section … The reason I meet them is because it gives me a raw, unedited, unexpurgated viewpoint on issues” (Understanding Their Concerns, One On One, Miss Alicia Wong).
The one on one discussion sessions Law Minister K. Shanmugam has had with an assortment of Singaporeans – reported in the news commentary Understanding Their Concerns, One On One (August 4, 2012) by Miss Alicia Wong – are definitely praiseworthy. Mr. Shanmugam would have developed a greater appreciation for on-the-ground circumstances and perspectives; the participants could be more cognisant of policy considerations and trade-offs; in the bigger picture, the exchanges contribute to a constructive culture of feedback and discourse which could galvanise future initiatives targeted at different audiences. The value of these personal, face-to-face conversations is notable, especially if one takes into account the ubiquity-accessibility of online platforms, and the convenience of virtual correspondence.
Nonetheless, these outreach efforts are extremely time-consuming, and the demand for such intimacy would progressively outstrip the available supply; that is, the ministers and their team of elected representatives. As Mr. Shanmugam and his counterparts continue to talk candidly to Singaporeans, I posit that it is increasingly imperative for corresponding dialogue sessions – many of which are chaired by policy-makers – to be comprehensively enhanced to facilitate quality discussions on a range of political, socio-economic issues.
Quality Dialogue Sessions
The first problem is the dialogue sessions are often too broad in their agenda, and their participants therefore are not equipped with the right knowledge and questions to engage in quality conversations with the guests-of-honour. Materials can be prepared and disseminated to the individuals before the actual session. For instance, there should be clear distinctions between municipal concerns and broader, national policies, and these should be made clear to the participants before the commencement of sessions (where there could be separate segments, or different time-slots for the appropriate themes).
Along the same tangent, the profile of the audience matters too. It is convenient to group Singaporeans based on their ages and professions – students, youths, working adults, older constituents – but I reckon the specialisation would be more meaningful if the dialogue sessions are divided by topical focuses, such as education, housing, healthcare, public transportation et cetera. This will ensure that the questions raised and follow-ups posited would be more engaging, and relevant to the members in the audience.
Most significantly, it is imperative for us to move beyond the rhetorical discussion, to make sure that relevant opinions articulated and feasible recommendations postulated are not left hanging without any form of continuity. Unless the dialogue sessions are conducted on a more regular basis, many ideas remain stagnant, as there is rarely acknowledgement from the administration on whether the points have been contemplated. Besides the pedantic reliance on the national feedback unit, communities can institute focus group discussions or small-scale policy study workgroups, for interested parties to not just talk, but to collate actual suggestions that could be submitted to the relevant agencies.