The Our Singapore committee and the “national conversation” that they’re supposed to be spearheading has dominated public discourse for the past few days. It’s been praised for being representative, but also slammed for excluding certain voices. It’s meant to “leave no stone unturned”, and yet we’re also warned against expecting too much.
Ministers, MPs and commentators alike are exhorting Singaporeans to “step up” and engage, to participate and be part of the exercise. By joining this conversation, Singaporeans will have the opportunity to raise issues that are close to their hearts and to argue for the change that they want to see.
But in the opposite camp are those who say that participating in this giant wayang would be falling into the ruling party’s trap. Joining in the established “national conversation” would mean becoming a PR tool for the PAP; with your (ultimately meaningless) participation, they would be able to fight the perception that there is a disconnect between party and people, and hopefully claw back some of the votes they’d lost in the election last year.
I see the points of both camps, which is why I’m not a little conflicted: do I or do I not join in the conversation?
On the one hand, I don’t want to be an angry keyboard warrior, refusing to stand up and be counted but still pissed off about all sorts of things. If you don’t speak out, if you don’t engage, things don’t happen. I get that. When I raise an issue, I don’t want people to turn around and say, “Yeah, but you didn’t say anything when you had the chance!”
On the other hand, my trust and optimism in this exercise is getting dampened with every article I’ve read. I’ve already blogged about my misgivings over the make-up of the committee. Then there are articles about how the key challenge will be “managing expectations” (rather than identify areas in need of change) and how we’re not here to slaughter sacred cows or move rocks. Then it is written that our Prime Minster has said that the conversation cannot undermine our core values of meritocracy, multiculturalism and financial prudence (although I always thought the values were justice and equality in a democratic society, as stated in our pledge). As the warnings and qualifications begin rolling in, I find it getting harder and harder to believe that this is going to work.
If this is going to be one big vanity project, then I don’t want to legitimise it, no matter how good my initial intentions may be. I don’t want my good faith to be turned around and used as an example of how the government has been wonderful in listening to me if it’s just going to be an empty exercise.
When I was invited to the CNA forum last month I said yes right away. If I were to be invited again today – after having read all I’ve read about Our Singapore and the “national conversation” – I’m not sure I would say yes again. Much as I’ve wanted to trust this as a positive effort, I’m finding it difficult to put much faith in it.
Still, it’s not too late. We haven’t actually begun consulting on any issue just yet. Although things have got off to a bad (very bad) start, there’s probably still time to salvage the situation. But we can only do this if we stop putting up OB markers to restrict ourselves even before we begin.
PM Lee may say that we cannot undermine our core values of meritocracy, multiculturalism and financial prudence, but what if those are the very values that need to be discussed, and perhaps even changed in some way? For example, how is meritocracy functioning in Singapore today? Is it a fair system, or one that is blind to the hugely-titled playing field? How well is multiculturalism working for us? Can Singaporeans speak maturely on issues of race and religion, and face up to institutional prejudices? And what about financial prudence? What does that even mean?
Right now I have to say that I’m not very inclined to be a part of this conversation. I’m just not convinced that we’re not being used as puppets to dance in this show of “openness”. But I will be keeping an eye out – even from grad school in the UK – to see where things go from here. And if the government can convince me that this is for real, then I will have no objection to be part of any discussion.
There is no need to tell me to “step up”; as far as I’m concerned, I have already stepped up. If they want to convince me – and the many other skeptics like me – that this is different from all the other shows of engagement (where our efforts to reach out to them were for naught), then it is the government who needs to step up even more.