Ministers' silence spoke volumes in national dialogue

SINGAPORE - In a year of covering the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) exercise, one encounter has stayed with me.

In April, I sat in a small group of about eight participants who had gathered to talk about public housing affordability.

On my left was a middle-aged woman, who said she felt that new citizens and permanent residents (PRs) should pay a tax to be allowed to buy flats.

To my right was a new citizen, although, as he pointed out, the prefix "new" may not make sense after a decade or so.

He hadn't taken offence, and it seemed he didn't need to. Almost immediately upon finding out who he was, she said: "Maybe just PRs should pay the tax. New citizens are also citizens."

I don't want to give the impression that the more than 660 OSC dialogues consisted mainly of such cinematic moments. Over the year, I sat through exhaustingly misinformed conversations, selfish, monomaniacal monologues and some pointless arts and crafts.

But insofar as moments like these occurred, and I believe they did in sufficient number, I understood what the OSC team, headed by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, was attempting.

When one comes face to face with someone who holds an opinion that you vehemently disagree with, or someone who would lose out if a policy that you want is enacted, it may temper your view.

But even if the conversation does not change your mind, which it realistically may not, what it achieves is to show you that those opposed have real reasons to be.

More importantly, it reminds you that despite being on the other side of an issue, they are human too, with responsibilities, desires and fears of their own.

It shows you that the opponents you may have characterised as wicked, cowardly or selfish are fellow citizens who think of their own intentions in as pure terms as you do your own.

As a bonus for the ruling party, it also helps you realise that the policymaker who has to make the call between equally beseeching parties has a very tough job.

This is, to use its feel-good vernacular, the "common space" of respectful disagreement.

Mr Heng seems acutely aware that as Singaporeans become more heterogeneous and politically assertive, the common space is shrinking. Hence, an OSC exercise that has stubbornly defied expectations through the year: staying woolly and open-ended when many criticised its lack of direction; reaching 50,000 when sceptics thought 5,000 more likely.

This is not to say it was perfect. The open-ended, woolly sessions did go on for too long and I maintain that it's mildly insulting to those who have given up their Saturday mornings for a serious national conversation to be made to cut out pictures and craft headlines from the future.

The thematic dialogues, on housing, education and health care, were clearly more rewarding for participants who felt that they could delve deeply into issues.

And despite its colourful graphics and chatty style, the OSC's Reflections newsletter is still a government report that has been scrubbed of some other memories I have from the sessions - like the overwhelming and consistent discomfort with foreigners and the way rapid population expansion has transformed the country into a harsher, less home-like place.

But one thing I appreciated about Reflections, in comparison to the final reports of previous mass engagement exercises, was that it presented participants' views largely unvarnished.

Findings that broke with government policy - like the overwhelming majority who wanted Housing Board flats to be less of an asset - were not buried, participants were quoted verbatim, and there was a notable absence of the Hectoring Government Voice, reminding us of the vulnerability of a small country with no hinterland or natural resources.

Where there was no consensus, like the deep chasm between those who want gay Singaporeans to be treated equally and those wedded to traditional notions of family, the Reflections report did not try to extract or impose a false consensus based on political calculation. It preached only respect.

It is this reticent quality that is crucial for the Government to hone, if it is serious about growing that common space, or preventing it from shrinking further.

For while the OSC was useful for encounters among citizens, the role it assigned to ministers and policymakers was, to me, equally impactful. If in the room, the politicians listened in from the fringes, neither interrupting to set anyone straight nor throwing their weight behind any one view.

Many times, I saw Cabinet ministers quietly sit down next to groups, barely noticed by participants in heated debate.

We know that the Government tries to listen, and that it can act quickly and decisively. But what I believe it needs to do more of is simply this: Hang back, and wait.

Whether the wait is for these conversations among ordinary Singaporeans to play out, for citizens to reach a moment of private understanding on their own, or for a group consensus to emerge organically - wait, and let water find its own level.

Too often in our public discourse, confrontations are cut short by a Government anxious to move and restore order, and to show it is responsive to those urging it to act and authoritative to those it thinks are trying to undermine it. But in so doing, it swells to take up all of that common space, pushing Singaporeans to the edges, and becoming a behemoth to whom all glory accrues, but also all blame.

Of course, there is a wide swathe of areas where decisive government action is necessary, be it defence or law and order.

But there are many issues - from racist remarks by union staffers, to a spat between the St Margaret's Secondary principal and her students who shaved their heads for cancer awareness - that it unnecessarily inserts itself into.

In either instance, the action of politicians imposed a resolution, cut short a fruitful conversation on societal values and diminished a common space that grows, like a muscle, through the exercise of robust disagreement.

The Reflections report has, as one of its aspirations, "trust" between the Government and citizens, but also between different groups of citizens. When citizens disagree, it envisions the Government in the role of "mediator".

But in reality, whether it is confrontations between animal rights activists and those who want stray animals culled, among groups of residents tussling over walkways, or even between employers desperate for manpower and those who want Singaporean- first laws, the Government is judge, jury and executioner, untrusting of its citizens' ability to grow in understanding and tolerance without heavy interference.

In an interview with The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao two weeks ago, Mr Heng reflected on how a trusting relationship is defined: Even when good friends disagree, they do not become untrustworthy overnight to each other, he said.

The metaphor cheered me for its unwitting assignation of status. The People's Action Party and Singaporeans are so often described as parent (or nanny) and child, that it's a pleasant surprise to hear us described as good friends.

For unlike with a child in helpless infancy, rebellious adolescence or accepting adulthood, friends are on equal footing, and trust runs both ways.

Rahcel Chang

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