By Dr Wong Wee Nam
20 October 2012
Recently, Singaporeans were urged to participate in a national conversation. This is actually nothing new. It has been done before in S21 and the Remaking of Singapore.
From the looks of things so far, the exercise is not going to be very much different from its predecessors. The lives of Singaporeans would, therefore, not be expected to improve very much as the problems have already existed for some time and have not really been adequately addressed.
There is really no need to stage any kind of national conversation because Singaporeans have been engaging in political conversations all the time. You can hear or read them on the internet, in homes and in the coffeeshops. However, the PAP prefers the conversation to be carried out in their own way so that they can be seen listening to the people.
Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and after years of talking down to the people, giving lectures to lesser mortals and thinking that “I-know-better-than-you”, it is hard for them to change their style to conduct a conversation that is interactive and spontaneous. As a result, such a conversation is likely to end with polite questions from invitees who are not likely to make embarrassing repartees. Any question is likely to receive the usual answers that we have heard so often before. Thorny issues are likely to be warded off by defensive responses that provide no satisfaction to either the questioner or the answerer.
Conversations can only be meaningful and successful when the participants’ intended ends are clear. Is the exercise to sell the government’s position and defend its policies? Then it is not a conversation but a public relations exercise. It is even more so when the government talks mainly to the converts. This only serves to reinforce its strongly-held position.
In a true conversation between a government and its people, the objective must be for the government to understand and become aware of the citizens’ concerns and hardships, and for the citizens to understand the steps that the government need to take to address these problems. The aim is for both sides to have some psychological insights into the mindset of each other. It is for this reason that I wrote to the Minister for Health in August for a conversation to share ideas on healthcare. In the letter I said, “We certainly would like to know more about your ministry’s Health Vision 2020 so that together, we could come out with a better plan for our people.” Obviously, he does not see any need for a conversation on this issue as he has not accepted the invitation.
If real feedback is what the government wants, it does not need a managed type of sessions to achieve this. It can just read the many blogs on the internet or have the Members of Parliament go down to coffeeshops without an entourage to talk to people. Instead of staging a TV forum with a standard format, our TV could, like the Australia’s ABC Channel Q & A, have politicians from both sides of the divide, and include smaller players, top business people and even communal representatives to have a discussion on the chosen topic. At the same time audience in the studio could also throw questions at the forum participants and questions could also come in live via Skype or other electronic video feeds or mobile devices.
Is this national conversation really an attempt by government “to draw on collective wisdom and absorb all useful ideas; to canvass various opinions and benefit from them; to pool the wisdom of the masses; to put heads together so as to get better results” as the Chinese idiom goes? (集思广益)
Then it should follow the example of Zhuge Liang the highly-regarded Prime Minister from the State of Shu during the period of the Three Kingdoms from which the idiom originated. After the death of Liu Bei, Zhuge Liang became the de facto administrator of the State of Shu. The Prime Minister was known to be humble and often paid attention to the advice of the subordinates. In a famous proclamation after assuming office, he wrote, “The prime minister’s office allows everyone to come in and participate in the discussion of national affairs. This is in order to gather from the public the collective wisdom and opinions of the people. We can achieve better results by listening to the useful suggestions.”
Thus we do not need a national conversation. What we need is a more open society, a free press, a respect for alternative opinions and no gerrymandering in order for people to be given a truly free choice during elections. Then there would be no need to stage a year-long national conversation. This is because the dialogue between the people and the government would be an on-going thing all the time.