SGfuture dialogues: Let them not be same old, same old…
by Kwan Jin Yao
TWO years ago in July 2013, nearing the end of the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) endeavour, the organising committee brought four of us – participants and facilitators – together to share our experiences and thoughts on continuing these conversations into the future.
During this sharing session, which was also published in the OSC reflections report, three suggestions were teased out:
1. Reaching out to more individuals – the marginalised communities or those active on the Internet, for instance – beyond the 47,000 participants
2. Striking a better balance between broader conversations on aspirations and more focused ones on policy recommendations
3. Detailing useful perspectives from these conversations, so as to engender further discourse or even criticisms online. I suggested that the ideal is to have discussions run by citizens. “We come together, and once we produce a report, we can just submit it to a government agency,” I concluded.
Reviewing these suggestions seems like a good starting point to evaluate the new SGfuture initiative. After all, Minister for Culture, Community, and Youth Grace Fu acknowledged that the year-long OSC in 2012 and 2013 provided a “very good idea” of the aspirations of Singaporeans, and SGfuture could hence galvanise them “to step forward to put the values that they have envisioned in the OSC into action.”
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing also added that the initiative can “build consensus about the future [Singaporeans] wish to have, and to commit these aspirations to action.”
Yet – beyond such ambitious rhetoric – how different will SGfuture be from its predecessor, and will the shortcomings be addressed? Details are scant right now. When asked by TODAY for the timeline and scope of the series, Ms Fu said more time was needed, and that it was “a bit early” to talk about “concrete numbers” for now.
On the contrary, one would think that this initial phase is perhaps the best opportunity for the government to explain – more specifically – how the OSC exercise segues into SGfuture, and even to describe how the OSC might have benefited the civil service or the policymaking process. Otherwise, why bother with these undertakings? In fact, without a coherent strategy for the SGfuture sessions, which will be held until mid-next year, how will the facilitators be briefed, and what end-goals should the participants work towards?
It might be good to look at the three suggestions listed above to make the SGfuture exercise a more fruitful one.
1. How will more Singaporeans – not only in terms of the the numbers, but also their diversity, be engaged, or would SGfuture end up involving the same OSC participants, rehashing familiar refrains? The OSC was organised by a secretariat with the support of community groups and G agencies, and it is not clear if SGfuture intends to broaden the target audience. Is it, for example, only for “young” people? To accommodate those with familial or work obligations, changes to the format and availability of the sessions should also be made.
It is one thing to talk about marginalised communities, and another to involve them in discourse.
And will opposition parties – who were not part of the OSC two years ago – be involved this time, assuming they are keen to get on board in the first place? “We will take views from the opposition, we will take views from civil society, we will take views from people from different walks of life,” was the commitment made by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in September this year, following his party’s landslide victory in the general elections. Political hustings in that period – from substantive manifestos to rousing rally speeches – generated insights which have translated into nothing meaningful since then.
2. Is this a series premised upon grander aspirations for the future, specific policy recommendations, or both? And for which socio-economic or political areas of interest? The present dialogues lined up – from “The Future of Collaboration” to “Matchbox Mayhem: The Social Canvas” and “Community Building through the Arts” – appear haphazard, unanchored by an overarching vision for the national initiative.
One of the main weaknesses of the OSC series, which the Secretariat conceded, was that initial contributions in the first phase were too broad. This was rectified, somewhat, in the second phase which included the ministries, though even facilitators at the sessions organised by the Ministry of Education – which I attended – found it difficult to zoom in on specific topics or pathways. On the other hand, I thought the Committee to Strengthen National Service (NS) in 2014 was so fixated on crafting implementable recommendations, that it did not give participants the chance to challenge the premises for NS, or to think deeper about the corresponding principles of defence and deterrence.
Different ministries or issues, in this vein, would require sessions to be organised differently.
3. What is expected of participants, and how will the organising committee of SGfuture consolidate perspectives from these dialogues? Throughout the next six or seven months, will they also leverage upon the Internet and its communities? Because if the outcomes from the first dialogue series organised by the National Youth Council is any indication, more has to be done to ensure that outcome of SGfuture is not a hotch-potch of proposals which may lack rigour or feasibility.
While well-intentioned, discussions on how to encourage less consumerism will yield little unless they are matched by commitments or community projects. A new volunteer hub sounds great in an SGfuture setting, yet in the past few years the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre as well as the Youthbank online community, for example, have already implemented such a proposal in Singapore. In this regard, assessing their effectiveness and areas for improvement will be far more fruitful.
And as the G provides a more coherent vision for SGfuture, perhaps like-minded Singaporeans – besides the convenience of the ubiquitous petition – should find ways to initiate their own conversations too. Feedback may not necessarily be considered, but most will agree that questioning and sceptical mind-sets are necessary to keep the G constructively in check.
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