When I was in high school seminars were hard to come by, and students clamoured for seats to hear insights from guest speakers. Even greater fuss, if these speakers were parliamentarians or international personalities. Realising that the management of such sessions is not difficult organisations nowadays – schools and grassroots organisations in particular – hold them regularly, asserting that participants will gain from the expertise and experience of invited speakers. Some are even more effusive about perceived benefits, using terms like “youth involvement” and “civic awareness” to promote these events.
Associations could also use seminars cynically to justify outreach endeavours, or to prove their broader engagements in society.
Yet it is also harder to fill seats now. The phenomenon could be explained by the ubiquity of seminars, though their quality should be scrutinised too. It is the same problem that plagues the annual United Nations (UN) seminar organised by the UN Association of Singapore, which struggled to appeal to students last year despite a long history and hard work of the organising committee. It is worth neither the expense nor time to be in attendance.
Participation fees notwithstanding (there is little willingness to pay, when spoilt for choice), the appeal of hearing from an authority in a formal setting is no longer as strong. In pre-emptive races to fill seats organisers could invite guests with glowing portfolios, but deliver poorly on stage. Vis-à-vis alternatives on the Internet which offers more interesting content presented in engaging fashion students shun monotonous seminars. They too realise that takeaways are far and few between. Question-and-answer sessions allow for some dialogue, though the conversations – given the format and its limitations – are rarely illuminating.
It would therefore make more sense for organisations to focus on smaller sessions which encourage collaboration and collective learning. Unsurprisingly the Our Singapore Conversation initiative in 2013, amidst criticisms, brought Singaporeans together for these purposes. When I was a youth ambassador for the government feedback unit in junior college – and cognisant of the aforementioned limitations, especially the inability to press politicians more keenly during these sessions – our team pioneered the “Kopi with the MP” format, which allowed a small group of 20 or 30 to speak with members of parliament informally. While structured the discourse was open, with active exchanges between participants.
Demands for greater rigour will only grow, and if organisations are slow to customise their offerings then demand will continue to wane.