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Avoiding the fundamentals and going nowhere

By Andrew Loh

It is frustrating to see how the National Conversation initiative is turning out. Bertha Henson describes it as a conversation going nowhere and it feels like it is. From government ministers to our media facilitators, there seem to be u-turns and some dodgy shenanigans going on. In a word, the conversation is emerging as one which is less than honest.

At this point, I am not sure if it is on the part of the government or on some lower-downs who are trying too hard to, ironically, be inclusive.

The man tasked to facilitate this National Conversation, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, was reported to have said, “I don’t think we should start our Singapore conversation on the basis of looking for sacred cows to slay… I don’t think that would be a constructive exercise.”

That sets this NC apart from the previous Remaking Singapore one back in 2002 where sacred cows were explicitly said to be not sacred.

“There will be no sacred cows…there will have to be a systematic willingness to go through all policies and programmes we’re about to embark on,” the minister in charge in 2002, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, said then.

It was a view echoed then by Minister Khaw Boon Wan as well.

There seems to be less a willingness to slaughter these cows now.

And then there is the media, particularly Channel Newsasia, which seem to have gone the extra mile in excluding some segments from the telecast dialogue with the prime minister. Bloggers who were initially invited to participate in the session were later uninvited. The reason? Oh, the prime minister had already spoken to some bloggers at the Istana about a week earlier. This is not quite true, actually. The 19 guests invited to the Istana were invited because they had posted comments on PM Lee’s Facebook page. That was what we were told by the admins of PM Lee’s Facebook page.

There was nothing mentioned about bloggers – although there were a few who were bloggers, myself included – but this was not the reason why we were invited, as far as what I was told.

And after Minister Heng himself said that the NC is not a partisan undertaking, when he explained why bloggers and opposition members were not included in the committee, we find that several People’s Action Party (PAP) members were among those in the dialogue with PM Lee on CNA. This itself coming on the back of a Facebook posting by NC committee member, Sim Ann, Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Education & Ministry of Law, who alluded to critics as those who only “cow peh cow bu” (literally, “cry father, cry mother”). In local parlance, it is a derogatory and condescending remark.

If we want a serious conversation, such things must not happen and there must be honesty and transparency. Uninviting your guests is a thoroughly disrespectful thing to do. Period. And this sort of thing cannot but give rise to cynicism and distrust – the very two things which the government must want to avoid.

Trust, especially, is of utmost importance in such a national undertaking.

There must be good faith above all else.

I had called for exactly such a national dialogue in this article for Yahoo back in June. And when it was announced that the government would indeed be embarking on such an initiative, I was surprised (because I didn’t think it really would do so) and was quietly happy – that we would now be able to discuss and debate the real issues.

I also mentioned some areas which we should be talking about – such as in economic policies, media freedom and independence, space for civil society and civil liberties, political and artistic expression.

In short, the fundamentals.

After all, the aim of the NC is to decide where Singapore wants to be in 20 years, and what kind of society we want to be. Necessarily, thus, this would and must start from the foundations – the fundamentals – which would undergird all that we do as a society.

But so far, the NC seems to be focused on the mundane, the issues which we have already been talking about the last few years – public housing, education, birth rate, etc. Nothing wrong with these, except that they come at the total exclusion (for now) of the other issues – civil liberties, the rights of being Singaporean, our economic policies, freedom of expression, freedom of information, etc.

I would like to see, for example, a discussion on what perhaps we should have as inalienable rights which would be enshrined in unequivocal language in our Constitution – protected by an independent judiciary, along with a legal system which is fearless in advocating and protecting these rights.

A Singapore in 20 years, in my view, must be one where the Singaporean is an empowered species – his empowerment protected by the force of law, never to be taken away by any government or power.

That is a Singapore which is worth talking about.

For if we do not grant power back to the people, the people – us, Singaporeans – will forever have to bend over in begging and petitioning the government every now and then for what we want our society to be.

And the danger of this disempowerment is that we the people are at the mercy of faulty and discriminatory policies. These in turn lead to potentially catastrophic consequences for us all – resulting, for example, in depressed wages, crowded public transport, spiraling housing prices, all from one immigration policy which did not come to light until 2 million foreigners were already on our shores.

But I am not naive. No political power will divest control willingly or do so magnanimously.

This is not to say that a national conversation is useless. Instead of criticising it, those of us who care should seize the agenda, put the issues we are concerned about on the table by blogging about it, emailing it to the government ministries and make them public on our blogs, speak to MPs (both opposition and ruling party), organise forums, create a movement.

In short, don’t let the government get away with a superficial, public relations exercise couched as a genuine conversation for change.

There are those of us who want to see genuine change because our country desperately needs it. The government must recognise this as well and be open – genuinely open – to talking about these and even accepting these.

Otherwise, the resulting sentiment, after this one-year of conversation, will be one where more unhappiness and cynicism would have emerged. And this will do no one any good at all.

I, for one, would like to see this NC initiative succeed, truth be told. Not because it will make any political party look good or bad, but because as a citizen of this country, I shudder to think of the consequences for my country if it continued to be led by one party which has shown to be less than capable in many areas in recent times.

But if the conversation is going to trudge meaninglessly along superficial discussions, then no one would want to be part of this – and the government will have to contend with something even bigger come 2016.

For the moment, the national conversation feels like it is indeed going nowhere. And this is not good.