Saturday, November 10, 2012

Where talk is cheap: Rushed start for Our Singapore Conversation puts it on a weak footing for public engagement

With Singapore's reputation as a smart planner, why did the national conversation start off the way it did?

Flip flops over public positions (first saying there are no sacred cows, then quickly backpeddling), indecisiveness over the role of bloggers and Opposition parties (first stigmatising both for their partisan views, then claiming "no one has a monopoly on wisdom") make one wonder if the people responsible for steering the national conversation can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Given time, the public relations (PR) blunders that dogged the national conversation could have been avoided if care had been taken to place substance over form.

So why the rush?

Clarion call
A possible reason is the Establishment's recognition that it urgently needs to reshape public perceptions that it is out of touch with the views of Singaporeans. Make no mistake, the unprecedented loss of a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) during last year's General Elections (GE) has stoked fears that more dominos will fall come GE 2016. The loss of heavyweight ministers, toppled from Aljunied GRC, was a clarion call that something had to be done to soothe simmering discontent.

Had the Establishment's feedback process not been so dysfunctional, we would not need a national conversation in the first place because the Establishment already has ample avenues to hear and respond to your views and aspirations on hope, heart and home.

* The NTUC trade union and grassroots body, the People's Association (PA), make no bones about being firmly in the MIW camp.
* There are weekly Meet the People Sessions (MPS) chaired by Members of Parliament, which allows MPs one-on-one face time with their residents.
* There is the feedback portal called REACH, which is a clever acronym which stands for reaching everyone for active citizenry @ home.
* Most government ministeries have a feedback unit, and a No Wrong Door policy that ensures public feedback reaches the desk of the right ministry.
* MIW MPs can draw feedback from their respective Facebook pages.
* We have a compliant mainstream media who operate within out-of-bounds (OB) markers drawn up by the Establishment.

Adding the national conversation to this massive hearts and minds machinery will count for nothing if the system's well-known intolerance for feedback it doesn't like to hear does not change.

Well meaning Singaporeans will be hesitant to step forward as they have seen how the system treats outcasts and people it deems as political or security risks.

Indeed, word has it that some universities in Singapore require undergraduates to submit their questions to the moderator before questions can be raised with certain invited guest speakers. This is a departure from the previous practice during Q&A time when anyone who has something to say simply walks up to the microphone and fires away. The new guideline was possibly introduced to avoid a repeat of the situation when a guest speaker of some standing was flummoxed by sharp questions from the floor.

The ground is sweet
At the other extreme, lick spittles will migrate to whichever platform is the flavour of the day. They will do their utmost to ensure obsequious praise and finely calibrated accolades reach the right ears, at the right time and place.

A jaundiced view of real world issues, fanned by a coterie of advisors who have a personal agenda to advance is, in my view, one chief reason why MIW big shots get so blindsided with tactical, granular issues that irk heartlanders. This is why the ground is always sweet: No one dares to be the bad guy to pop the news that may anger their political masters.

In the larger scheme of things, the lack of a Red Team who can serve as rigorous sparring partners to Establishment thinkers is one weakness the MIW have yet to fix.

So while a MIW candidate may dominate when it comes to crafting grand strategic issues like foreign policy, that same strategic genius may be clueless about everyday, bread and butter issues that worries households at the tactical level. And the price exacted during a GE is a heavy one indeed.

National effort
To their credit, the folks who named the national effort to get Singaporeans to think and articulate the future that they want did a splendid job calling it the national conversation, which is officially known as Our Singapore Conversation (Our SG Conversation).

Elevating it to a national platform ennobles the talk shop.

It gives it a gravitas and prestige that grassroots dialogues held in community centres simply cannot match.

Branding it as something "national" is doubly smart because cynics and critics who want no part of the national conversation risk casting themselves as self-centered, uncharitable spoilsports with no community spirit who turned their backs on a national-level initiative. It is like turning away the tissue paper auntie at hawker centres who is trying to eke out a living selling packs of tissue that you may neither need nor want: Banish her from your table and you will be seen as a cold-hearted, pitiless, tight wad.

After 47 years of having their lives dictated by the Establishment, Singaporeans will need some convincing that what they express during the national conversation really counts for something. From reports in the mainstream media, participants are not short of ideas and feedback, as evidenced by hand drawn mind maps and suggestions compiled during sessions held thus far.

Heaven only knows whether these ideas end up on the next trash barge to the Pulau Semakau landfill, or whether the Establishment will think through, reflect upon and implement your ideas that have bubbled up from the ground.


sgcynic said...

Nary a word on the housing proposal by the SDP. We do not expect the government to accept the suggestions, not without due diligence, but if the government is sincere in wanting the people and various groups in society to come forth and make constructive suggestions and take ownership to improve Singapore, the least the government can do is to send the signal that it appreciates the effort by people to do so. Just imagine your boss telling the whole organisation that he welcomes feedback and yet any suggestion put forth gets the cold treatment. Action speaks louder than words; a poor track record amplifies and so the incumbent better be more on the ball to put itself on even weaker footing.

Anonymous said...

What is lack is NOT ideas to move Singapore forward to next level but the current Establishment lacks of political will to carry them out. Too conflicts of Interest in Singapore.

Nobody in the Elits Group wants to rock the boat that is too comfortable for them.

Hence,Change is Invitable in Singapore Politicial arena if current Establishment continues to pay lip services to long overdue problems i.e. housing, transport, mass influx of foreign "talents", health, cost of living while wage get depressed to dangerous low level, rich and poor gap continues to grow wider and wider etc..

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

So what's the purpose of posting this ''Slay the cow peh cow bu'' post on OSGC FB by OSGC and Committee member SPS Sim Ann on her FB?????

Anonymous said...

'' Singaporeans also want to know what happens after the views are collected, he said.

"If you look at the previous consultations, like Singapore 21 and Remaking Singapore, the whole exercise ended with the publication of the report and little mention was made after that," said Assistant Professor Tan.

"We need to show that this is consultation for the purpose of making everyone feel that they belong. One certainly hopes that this whole exercise will not be a one-off consultation exercise, I certainly hope this will be an on-going conversation." ''

Anonymous said...

Forgive me, but I don't live here.
What does MIW stand for?

David Boey said...

MIW is local shorthand for Men In White. It's a reference to the all white outfit worn by members of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).

Best regards,