Before the year 2011, a group of 20-odd elderly men in Potong Pasir used to gather daily around a void deck, rather spontaneously. A haphazard collection of flowerpots by the side marked their cosy conversation space, and for years they came together to chit-chat, to eat fruits, and to muse about issues within the constituency and beyond.
Then, the General Elections happened. Town Council flyers were stuck systematically onto the flowerpots, and they were then moved to a fenced-up “Community Garden” overnight. The group of old men never came together thereafter.
This anecdote was shared during an Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) mini-dialogue a few weeks ago, which focused on the way forward of the OSC exercise (the formal publication or newsmagazine is available here). The stated intent of this specific article was to look at “how the conversation amongst Singaporeans could continue into the future”. It sounded reasonable.
I remain opposed to the notion of an “aide memorie” or “memory aid” (here), and made is quite clear that any document which focuses on facts and figures (popularly known as key performance indicators) – instead of the exploration of ideas – will have little significance.
Nonetheless, the cosy setting of the mini-dialogue (just four of us) made for a tremendously enjoyable conversation. The fact that we disagreed on points rendered the discourse even richer. While some thought that the OSC engagement process was well-intentioned and well-executed, valid criticisms were highlighted. There was the lack of representation (linguistic or vernacular barriers, marginalised communities were not empowered); the second phase was still considerably generic (because many participants did not join the first phase; and the OSC team did not capitalise cleverly upon the numerous online platforms available.
This evaluative discussion was necessary before we explored how the national conversation should proceed. Should we continue with this discourse? Can the OSC mechanism address the trust deficit between the government and the citizenry? We agreed on two main points:
First, if the consultation process is to be constructive, it has to be organised competently. While we have moved away from the antiquated format of not having large-scale dialogue sessions (not entirely though, since we still have a slight predilection for policy-makers to make closing remarks, or to field questions, here), all of us concurred that the facilitators must be proficient, to know when to entertain viewpoints. An effective volunteer facilitator during my first session (here) allowed for diverse opinions to be articulated fairly.
Second, moving forward, we need to allow for a degree of messiness. Like the earlier anecdote, while a central “Community Garden” manned by a gardener would allow for produce to grow, some things – like the oft-cited kampong spirit – will only flourish when Singaporeans contribute collectively. The same goes for a national conversation, consultation.
Any suggestions would therefore have to include a heightened acceptance of such spontaneity. The proliferation of information and publications online can be overwhelming, but this process of exchange should be embraced. Consequently, on significant matters or policy decisions, the respective ministries can organise focus group discussions to gather relevant feedback. The under-promoted OSC web platforms should be rejuvenated to sustain the many sessions happening around the island. Some lessons can be drawn from the Committee to Strengthen National Service, which has expanded its online presence productively (here). The imminent end of the OSC does not mean the actual process ceases.
Most importantly, we have to remember: the OSC is but one conversation that is going on.
The challenge now is to sustain the actual process beyond the OSC. Very conveniently, the success of the yearlong endeavour can be quantified by the policies enacted, but it shouldn’t. Instead, we will know if we have truly succeeded when we stand behind our propositions confidently, when processes of perpetual consultation and communication are sustained throughout the country, and when individual citizens are galvanised to have their voices heard (when they plan independent chats to have themselves heard).
Talk, we always must.