Efforts to get views of diverse groups

Participants at the first citizens' dialogue of the Our Singapore Conversation engaged in a discussion last October. Participants welcomed the small group discussions, which put people at ease and allowed them to speak more freely. This was in contrast to townhall-style sessions where people face a policymaker.

SINGAPORE - The Government was just one participant in the national conversation, said Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) committee members and chairman Heng Swee Keat, as they pointed to efforts to reach out to Singaporeans from all walks of life.

This made the process remarkably different from past engagement exercises, with marginalised voices being drawn out, and diverse groups coming together.

Of the 47,000 who attended OSC dialogues, 4,000 went to sessions organised by community associations and voluntary welfare organisations, and participants included taxi drivers, the families of prisoners and the disabled.

For theatre practitioner and committee member Kuo Jian Hong, 46, the inclusion of "people and voices in places that are not obvious" was important.

Another committee member, Singapore Management University law professor Mahdev Mohan, 34, said that the format of small group discussion, as opposed to a townhall style where people face a policymaker, put people at ease and allowed them to speak freely.

Ministers were only peripherally involved in the sessions.

If they were present, they roved from group to group and listened in on discussions.

Entrepreneur Stanley Chia, 26, said that "in townhalls, only a few vocal ones stand up and ask questions". "So it was radically different in that sense."

That the OSC became the place where scientists met artists, or the young and the old interacted, impressed Singapore Muslim Women's Association board member Noorul Fatha As'art, 35.

"We tend to be (in) silos in our respective communities," she said, adding that the OSC has taught "respectful disagreement".

Mr Heng, who is also Education Minister, said he hopes that the habit of deep and respectful conversation continues.

At a press conference last Tuesday to mark the end of the national conversation and the launch of its newsletter, Reflections, he also repeatedly urged Singaporeans to refrain from judging the exercise by how much impact it had on policymaking.

It did not want to imitate previous engagement exercises like 2003's Remaking Singapore, he said.

That concluded with a list of policy recommendations like the five-day work week.

This time, the committee has distilled five core aspirations from the extensive discussions, and these will guide policymaking in future (see graphic).

Mr Heng added that rather than discrete pieces of legislation, the OSC's policy imprint has been broad and intangible, shaping the real-time drift of policymaking.

For example, a pilot of five Ministry of Education kindergartens, designed for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, was announced in February after OSC sessions showed him "how children from low-income family have difficulties in catching up".

The Reflections newsletter has taken pains to illustrate this, with two timelines running parallel to each other.

One marks the milestones of the OSC process, which comprised more than 660 dialogues; the other lays out policy changes that have occurred through the year as a result, such as new Housing Board flats for singles, and the free off-peak MRT travel pilot.

"Policymaking is not something where you stop mid-stream and say, well, since we are going to have the conversation, nothing gets done and therefore let's finish the conversation, then let's debate what should be done," Mr Heng said. "It is an ongoing, iterative process."

Some 60,000 copies of Reflections will be distributed to the public.

The newsletter is also available online at www.oursgconversation.sg/reflections


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