30 September 2012

National Conversation: Listen More, Talk Less

Singapore's National Conversation 2012 was introduced during the National Day Rally Speeches of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat on 26 August 2012.

A National Conversation on "Our Singapore" is needed to define what sort of country Singaporeans want and how it can be achieved, because Singaporeans have diverse needs and wants.

Haven't Singaporeans been having conversations among themselves and with the Government?

Feedback Unit and REACH

The Feedback Unit was set up in 1985 with the aim to give Singaporeans "a forum to understand major policies, ask questions, make suggestions and generally participate in working out a solution", according to then First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.

The Feedback Unit was restructured in 2006 to move beyond gathering public feedback and REACH (reaching everyone for active citizenry at home) was launched to become the lead agency for engaging and connecting with citizens.

REACH's key roles are:

■ Gather and gauge ground sentiment.  REACH feels the pulse of the ground and keeps the Government apprised of key issues of concern amongst Singaporeans.

■ Reach out and engage citizens.  REACH works closely with community and grassroots organisations to reach out to more heartlanders, as well as, voluntary welfare groups, professional groups and groups with specific needs and interests.

■ Promote active citizenry through citizen participation and involvement.  REACH will facilitate the formation of workgroups to develop ideas into concrete proposals for the Government’s consideration.

REACH aims to encourage and promote public participation in shaping Government policies.

Does having a National Conversation mean that REACH has fallen short in its mission?

Remaking Singapore 2002
The Government appointed the Remaking Singapore Committee in February 2002 to complement the Economic Review Committee's work through a review of social, political and cultural programmes and practices.  The Remaking Singapore Committee set out its recommendations to the Government in June 2003.

Let's examine the subject of foreign workers.

The ERC recommended that Singapore should continue to attract foreign talent to supplement the local talent pool and to keep our doors open to foreign workers, while carefully controlling the inflow primarily through the levy.  It rejected the (usual) extreme case of not having any foreigners, as that would affect the economy and Singaporeans.

The RSC recommended that the process of integrating foreigners should begin before they became citizens and Singaporeans' concerns vis-à-vis foreign residents and new citizens (non-resident foreigners were not mentioned) should be addressed holistically.  The impact of non-residents on Singapore's infrastructure was not addressed.

Perhaps, neither the ERC nor the RSC had expected the number of foreigners to almost double from under 1.1 million in June 2003 to more than 2.0 million by June 2012.

National Conversation 2012
Just because there was a National Conversation ten years ago doesn't mean that we should not have another, said PM Lee.

He is right, although most people would think that the Government should have a continuing dialogue or engagement with the electorate.

Maybe, the National Conversation is conceived as a special or an exceptional conversation that takes place once in ten years.

Even so, things may change, sometimes as soon as a major conversation has ended, and thus necessitate a further dialogue or engagement.

The aim of National Conversation 2012 is to look at problems afresh in a new situation, with a new generation, and with a new perspective, according to PM Lee.

Looking at problems afresh is one thing.  What happens after that is more important.

The Government says changes may be made on issues where none were previously made, but adds that the National Conversation is not an exercise in culling sacred cows.  It is unclear whether this means that only non-sacred cows will be culled.  Perhaps, a sacred cow that is about to be culled is no longer a sacred cow.

To be effective in a democracy, a government is expected to know, and keep itself up-to-date with, its people's needs and wants as it tries to shape the future of the country.

If, as we sincerely hope, the Government already knows what the people's needs and wants are, what then is the purpose of the National Conversation?

Managing the people's expectations will be a key challenge of having the National Conversation, according to Mr Lee.

Perhaps, that may explain why MediaCorp's A Conversation with PM Lee was telecast five times in the English language and three times in Mandarin.  And, that was at the commencement of National Conversation 2012.
Perhaps, that may explain why seven (out of 26) members of National Conversation 2012 committee are Government political office appointment holders.

The Government should do more listening, understanding, reflecting and empathising and less talking during the National Conversation.  The point of the National Conversation should be about listening to what the people have to say, and understanding, empathising with and reflecting on what the people have said, instead of explaining why some needs or wants cannot be accommodated; explaining can come later.  Otherwise, the National Conversation is an exercise in futility, and a waste of everyone's time.

National Conversation 2012 should be a genuine feedback and engagement exercise, rather than something serving as a safety valve for the people's frustrations and problems.  It should involve an exhaustive rethink of Government policies, rather than minor or cosmetic changes combined with an attempt to explain how existing policies either already address the people's needs and wants or cannot be changed without putting the country's future at risk, followed by business as usual.

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