Where is Singapore’s ‘national conversation’ going?
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Where is Singapore’s ‘national conversation’ going?

At the National Day Rally late last month Education Minister Heng Swee Keat spoke about the “national conversation” to be launched under the the name of “Our Singapore”.

“This national conversation will first and foremost be about putting Singaporeans at the heart of our concerns,” he said. “It will be an opportunity for Singaporeans to come together, and ask: What matters most? Where do we want to go as a country, as a people?”

The announcement did not come as a surprise. During his National Day Message, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that he had put Mr Heng in charge of a committee of young ministers to take a new look at Singapore’s policies. Beyond that, talk about building a more “inclusive” society and listening to the voice of the people has bee  going on for years.

Which makes it easy to understand why many Singaporeans aren’t putting much stock in the new “national conversation”. If we’d already been promised a conversation and engagement for years, what’s different this time? How will Singapore become any more inclusive this time, compared to all the other times we’ve been promised inclusivity? Will things really change? Or is this all just a huge wayang (show) to address the perception of a disconnect between the ruling party and the people?

In the past year, government ministers have shown a greater willingness – eagerness, even – to meet up with people to discuss issues. Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam met up with Gintai, blogger and SMRT Train Officer, as well as some other Singaporeans who had reached out. Even more recently, the prime minister himself hosted 19 commenters on his Facebook page to tea at the Istana.

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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hosts some Facebook supporters at the Istana. Pic: Lee Hsien Loong Facebook page

But has there been a point to these meetings? Are all these examples of engagement really leading somewhere, or is it all just a public relations exercise to cast a paternalistic government in a softer light?

As far as fundamentals go, not a lot has changed. Although the government has taken a few small steps towards providing more welfare and support for struggling Singaporeans, economic policies largely remain the same. The same goes for the government’s stance on others issues like the Internal Security Act and the death penalty. On the whole, things are being tweaked, but not changed.

Of course, it’s only been a year-and-a-half since the last elections. Change cannot be expected to come very quickly. Sacred cows don’t get slaughtered overnight. Politicians set in their ways will not have their minds changed in a day; try as they might to engage, it’s not easy for anyone to let go of their convictions and the belief that their idea is best. Singaporeans who desire change in society will have quite some time to wait.

Until then, the government’s motives for this “national conversation” will be questioned, and questioned often. After years of promises, disillusionment and a growing disconnect, it’s now up to the ruling party to try to regain the trust and goodwill of disgruntled citizens. Until the day where concrete change in the fundamentals can be seen, one cannot really blame people for thinking of the “engagement” as nothing more than a PR exercise. “No Pic No Talk (NPNT),” as they say on Twitter.

In this light, the national conversation should probably not be so much about the government inviting Singaporeans into established discussions (where they get to set the terms and the parameters), but about the government gaining acceptance into conversations that Singaporeans have already been having without them. And the government can achieve that by demonstrating its sincerity in taking action to review and change policies, remaining transparent and open with people all along the way (cut down on the closed-door, back room discussions please!)

Similarly, Singaporeans can do our part by continually pushing for an open society with more access to information, awareness and discussion of national issues; not just bread-and-butter ones, but all issues across the spectrum. Governments very rarely spontaneously change their policies; it’s necessary for people to point issues out over and over again. We don’t need to take our cues from the government; instead of waiting for the powers that be to open themselves up and give us what we want, we need to realise that motivation and mobilisation are also necessary on our part. If “Our Singapore” is meant to put Singaporeans at the heart of our concerns, then we also need to be at the heart of the movement for change.

In my last post here I wrote that the National Day Rally had given us cause for hope. Hope that we can build a better Singapore, together. That hope’s still there, but if we want to get anywhere, it’s going to be up to all of us to make sure that the national conversation doesn’t become just a round-robin of empty words.