Parliament: Desmond Lee sets out how govt, civil society can work together

A man paints the roof of one of the bicycle shops in Pulau Ubin watched by the free roaming dogs on the island.

The project to redevelop Pulau Ubin is a good opportunity for active citizens to work with the Government, said Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee on Wednesday as he spoke about how the Government and civil society can be "strong partners" in building a better Singapore as long as both sides are open-minded.

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Here is the speech by Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee on "Active Citizenry and Active Communities" in Parliament on the debate on President's Address:

A fortnight ago, the President emphasised that "government spending, by itself, does not create a wealthier, a better or a happier society. It must be matched by individual and community effort and initiatives." He said that "[a]ctive community involvement engages the human spirit, provides personal fulfilment and strengthens our collective well-being."

During his speech in this Chamber yesterday, Mr Laurence Lien also suggested that we should see how we can strengthen civil society as well as Government's engagement with civil society, and recognise the contributions to Singapore. This is very much in the same vein as what Ms Faizal Jamal spoke about a moment ago.

Civil society, an active citizenry as well as government can be strong partners to build a better and brighter Singapore.

Supporting people in need

In many instances, active citizens and civic groups can bring government schemes and assistance even closer to the ground. In my constituency, for example, members of the local Volunteer Aid scheme (V8) regularly visit families and individuals facing difficulties, and work closely with government agencies and VWOs to bring government schemes and other forms of community assistance to them. I know this also happens in many places across the island. These volunteers are active social change agents.

I have been working in MND for about eight months now. During this time, I have had the tremendous privilege of meeting and working alongside many passionate Singaporeans, including those in the environmental sphere, who give their time and energy to pursue a range of very worthy causes.

Preserving our Heritage

For instance, on the heritage front, I have been struck by volunteers like Kwek Li Yong and Jasper Tan, who are founders of My Community, a civic group that champions the preservation of history and heritage in Singapore. Together with grassroots leaders and residents of Queenstown estate - Singapore's first satellite town - Li Yong and Jasper, both in their 20s, have set up their own Queenstown heritage trail, complete with a smartphone app to boot. They are now dedicated to raising funds and collecting artefacts to establish a Queenstown heritage museum.

Some have turned passion into their life's mission. Take Lim Chen Sian from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), for example. Probably our one and only Singaporean archaeologist, he has been actively involved in the last 12 years leading major archaeological investigations in Singapore. Mind you, he is young - in his early or mid-30s I guess. I had the opportunity to visit him and his team of volunteers and staff as they dug and investigated a site at Fort Canning earlier this month without any fanfare. Over the last 30 years, individuals and volunteers such as these have been quietly and assiduously working on sites across Singapore, uncovering troves of artefacts from Singapore's 700-year old human history. Such is the age and depth of our land. In so doing, in Chen Sian's own words, they "breathe life into the arid history composed of innumerable dates and dusty personages" and "animate the people who lived in the past". He shared with me that, some time ago, for example they had discovered, among other artefacts, pieces of a rare Chinese porcelain compass at Fort Canning, dated to the mid-14th century, which is believed to be the only example known to date in the world.

Promoting Animal welfare

Our animal welfare groups have been just as admirable, engaging Government on concerns that the have on the state of animal welfare. I meet some of them from time to time and invited them on a working trip with AVA and some veterinarians to study animal management practices. One of the projects we have been working closely with SPCA and Action for Singapore Dogs on is Project ADORE, a pilot initiative proposed by these welfare groups, run for the rehoming stray dogs in HDB estates.

Rehoming stray dogs is not a straightforward issue. It involves more than just animal welfare groups. We have to balance animal welfare concerns with broader public sentiments, and try to create "win-win" solutions. Some HDB residents have reservations about having their neighbours keeping larger dog breeds. So, we have moved cautiously on a pilot basis through ADORE- educating the adopters to train their dogs well and sterilise their pets.

ADORE has been a great success, because SPCA and Action for Singapore Dogs, both civic groups, understand the broader sensitivities and the different dynamics at play and have run the pilot well. As a result, HDB residents are slowly accepting these re-homed stray dogs. We have, therefore, decided to transit Project ADORE, which is an AWG-proposed scheme, from a pilot scheme to a permanent programme. In fact, MND, AVA and HDB have started partnering another animal welfare group known as Save Our Street Dogs (or SOSD), on the rehoming of strays, and have recently included them in Project ADORE. So, it is a clear example of how civil society, with good proposals mindful of sensitivities and dynamics, across the broader society and aim to actively seek and achieve change, in tandem with government.

Civil society engagement

Civil society may not always agree with government, or indeed with each other, or in certain groups even among their own members. This is the nature of ground-up initiative. This can either be a source of strength or a weakness, depending on the nature of the relationship. With civility and open-mindedness on all sides, there is strength in diversity, even if ultimately stakeholders agree to disagree on certain areas. Government doesn't have a monopoly on all knowledge; in fact, it is well recognised that government decision-making can benefit greatly from wide and inclusive consultation on many fronts. By having a mature and robust conversation, government, civic groups and Singaporeans can move towards common ground and win-win outcomes, even on difficult issues. This is not to say that everyone falls in line or that people are compliant - there is often intense discussion and people push their points of view robustly and passionately, but ultimately they respect each other and are prepared to listen to each other and consider each others' views. Through genuine engagement and consultation, participants feel that they have a stake in the outcome.

On the other hand, if there is no civility in the conversation and people are close-minded or unwilling to recognise the legitimacy of other people's points of view, then the difference of views and opinions becomes a source of division, friction and gridlock. People congregate around opinion-leaders whose views they subscribe to, echo-chambers are formed, and groups shout at each other from the mountain-tops. If a decision is made to move and break the gridlock, it may be perceived by some as unilateral, top-down, heavy-handed or zero-sum. Outcomes are more likely to be sub-optimal compromises rather than genuine win-win outcomes.

There are many recent examples of government and civil society engaging more deeply and constructively on a range of issues. As a whole, we are feeling our way forward as society develops and matures, to find the right balance for constructive debate and inclusive decision-making.

Ubin Project

The Ubin Project, which I announced during COS and which is mentioned in the MND addendum, is structured for such open dialogue. Our purpose is to see how we can sensitively enhance the natural environment of Ubin and protect its heritage and its rustic charm.

Over the past two months, we have formed a broad network of stakeholders, who are passionate about Ubin and keen to share their ideas. They include biodiversity experts, conservation activists, history buffs, socio-anthropologists, students, volunteers and Ubin community leaders and residents. They come from organisations as diverse as Nature Society, Singapore Heritage Society and Raffles Museum of Bio-Diversity Research, or join us in their own personal capacities. We call this the Friends of Ubin Network, or "FUN". It is diverse, but we can open up even more. I am excited by the many interesting ideas shared by our Friends of Ubin thus far.

The discussions at the Network centre around 5 broad themes: Biodiversity conservation, Heritage, history and community, Sustainable design & practices, Education & research, and (e) Nature-based recreation. Instead of discussing each of these topics in silo, where there is a risk of echo-chambers forming when people of similar interests come together, we decided to discuss all 5 in sequence and have broaden participation - so that for every theme about Ubin, we get a broad range of views from people with different perspectives. I think we will get better outcomes this way. So, this is not just about Ubin, which is important to many of us, but also about the way in which we try to engage across the spectrum of society.

Our consultation will not be limited to the Friends of Ubin Network. In fact, we will be reaching out to an even wider spectrum of Singaporeans, through a microsite which will be launched later today. This microsite will provide updates on our Network discussions and our agencies' engagement efforts, and allow everyone to submit ideas on what they think and like Ubin to be. We will also go out and about to talk to people and gather their views. Madam Speaker, the Ubin Project is another good opportunity for the government and the community to work together on something close to our hearts. And, I encourage all Singaporeans to participate in the process because it is much about the process than it is the outcome.

Madam Speaker, I support and thank the President for his address.