“The process of arriving at a consensus matters tremendously. Political participation must be embraced in form and substance” (More Singapore Conversations Needed To Keep This Little Red Dot Shiny, Eugene K B Tan).
Diverse perspectives are productive for policymaking, so it is hard to disagree with the suggestion by Mr. Eugene Tan “to have more conversations regularly, rather than one Big Conversation” (TODAY, Aug. 28). Since the conclusion of the “Our Singapore Conversation” initiative two years ago – as well as complementary endeavours organised by the Ministry of Defence and Education – it would appear that large-scale discourses have been far and few between. Some may argue that the interest levels of Singaporeans are not as high, especially since the government has addressed hot-button issues since the last elections, but there have been even fewer discussions about aspirations for an ambiguous future.
Moreover, one also wonders if the aspirations and recommendations mooted during that national conversation in 2012 and 2013 were taken into consideration, and how the exercise – with significant involvement of and feedback from Singaporeans – may have shaped policy-making processes. In other words, how has rhetoric shaped actions?
In this vein, it is also less clear whether “Singaporeans believe that the ballot box is the only effective (but blunt) way of engaging the Government, and that all other modes of engagement lack efficacy and impact”. I think the landscape has changed in recent years, and these perceptions are far less ubiquitous. Mr. Tan further argues that “Singaporeans need to be able to deal with the variety of tempestuous issues with resilience and a willingness to learn from such stresses to the social fabric”, though in the absence of larger-scale sessions coordinated by the government spontaneous conversations have emerged too.
The Internet is a convenient example, with discursive news sites encouraging thoughtful commentaries or balanced viewpoints. Proponents point eagerly to the flurry of activity on social media platforms, and their many users who do not shy away from a debate. Yet at the same time, schools and youth organisations have organised settings through which individuals can articulate sentiments on different socio-political issues. Through simulation exercises they are compelled to be critical, and to substantiate positions with research.
What is perhaps more meaningful is how this plethora of feedback could be aggregated to understanding prevailing sentiments. It is not clear if Singaporeans were indeed galvanised by “Our Singapore Conversation” to organise their own conversations – though empirical studies could also determine the influence the initiative has had on developing a more active citizenry – so the value of these sessions could first be ascertained, so that conversations will not be defined by words alone, but also by the deeds they inspire.