Singapore's move towards greater citizenship engagement is a "very natural evolution", says Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing on the SGfuture dialogues.
In the early years of nation-building, top-down decisiveness was crucial to set things in motion quickly, Mr Chan, one of the two ministers leading the SGfuture engagement series, tells The Sunday Times in an interview. The initiative's other co-chair is Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu.
But today, with the country more stable and a broader talent base from across different sectors in society, the system has to "naturally evolve" into one which taps the strengths of its citizens, he says.
"Our challenge now is in harnessing these diverse perspectives from a broad swathe of people who can come together for the common goal of building a better Singapore."
Mr Chan adds that the power of conversation lies in giving citizens the opportunity to make a difference and contribute to the direction Singapore is heading.
Although the series is due to end in the middle of the year, "we shouldn't see it as an exercise of a few months", he says."We should also not try to measure it in terms of output or products, because the real success is not just the products but also the process, through which people feel that sense of ownership and engagement."
There are two ways citizens can identify with their country, Mr Chan notes. It could be purely "transactional" for the top-down benefits they get, or "participatory" which is, by far, more powerful.
And this goes beyond just sharing ideas with the Government: one larger benefit is in building understanding and common ground among different groups of Singaporeans, he says. This was also evident from the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) exercise.
The SGfuture series, in which about 5,000 people have taken part so far, is set against a vastly different climate. The OSC occurred during a time when there was discontent over policies such as housing, immigration and transport. Today, Singapore is basking in the afterglow of its Golden Jubilee celebrations, and readying for a choppy, uncertain road ahead.
It is against this backdrop that citizens can contribute their ideas to chart the nation's future for the next 50 years. Mr Chan says: "For many young people, the chances are they will still be around at SG100 and they're asking themselves what kind of country they want to see." He adds: "If we can harness that and harness that well, it can be a powerful way to build the next lap of Singapore's development. It's encouraging."
MOBILISING A NATION
Mr Chan, who is also labour chief, notes that unlike Singapore's early years, it can no longer look abroad for solutions or models. Being at the forefront means creating models that Singapore needs to evolve on its own - and the SGfuture engagement series is probably "quite unique".
"It is the mobilisation of the entire nation towards not just a common vision, but an action plan where everyone can contribute."
And no idea is too small. "Some people start off collaborating on very localised projects - how to take care of the elderly or the latchkey kids in a certain precinct," he says. "All these small little things add up to a mountain."
Ms Fu, meanwhile, tells The Sunday Times that a suggestion from a December session to establish a weekly "Giving Day" when staff in a company contribute spare change to a charity of their choice, can likewise create ripples if more firms come on board.
In the grand scheme of things, the Government is an enabler and a catalyst: it propels people to come together and it provides the resources to fulfil ideas, Mr Chan says.
"We try to bring people from different backgrounds, people who we previously may not have engaged before or brought into the network. It is through such serendipitous interface that you find new ideas and new ways of doing things," he says.
It is in this spirit that Mr Chan, who is deputy chairman of the People's Association (PA), challenges his colleagues to "actively go and get people who are not in known networks to come and participate" in the PA-run SGfuture sessions.
Ms Fu, for her part, says that she has observed groups of strangers coming together to spearhead upcoming SGfuture sessions and collaborate on projects. The relevant agencies will work with participants on these ideas, and for those that are in the works, the agencies will also help link up participants.
Even after the SGfuture engagement series ends, Ms Fu says efforts to build a culture of open sharing, engagement and participation as "an integral part of the Government's approach to partnering citizens for the future" will never end. "This also means that within the Government, public agencies will need to reorganise ourselves in order to effectively involve and engage Singaporeans," she adds.
This might mean even more dialogue sessions. Already ongoing is one on a Founders' Memorial. The Committee on the Future Economy is also consulting the public.
Asked if all this might lead to dialogue fatigue, Mr Chan says different groups of people attend various sessions based on their areas of interest, and there are various platforms to cater to these interests.
"I don't think the individual will have any fatigue. It's really like a menu of options that is made available to him."
This article was first published on Feb 21, 2016.
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