Friday 19 October 2012

Opposition keen to join SG dialogue

By Phua Mei Pin, The Straits Times, 18 Oct 2012

THE opposition is keen to take part in the ongoing national conversation if it is invited, several of its politicians said at a forum yesterday, even as they called for the process to be improved.

For a start, they suggested, the "climate of fear" should be removed, "groupthink" should be eradicated and Singaporeans given better access to information.

"We have always believed in positive engagement in whatever way we can to contribute towards the good of Singapore," said Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong of the Workers' Party.

But, like the other three opposition politicians who spoke at the forum held by the National University of Singapore Students' Political Association, he had several ideas on how the conversation could be better run.

Dubbed a "Top Guns" forum, the two-hour session gave undergraduates a chance to interact with six politicians from the People's Action Party (PAP) and the four main opposition parties.

The other five were: MPs Indranee Rajah and Edwin Tong from the PAP; Ms Hazel Poa from the National Solidarity Party; Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam from the Reform Party; and Dr James Gomez from the Singapore Democratic Party.

While representatives from the two sides of the political divide generally maintained a friendly tone in their exchanges, some of the 150 students nonetheless took the chance to pit the politicians against one another.

"Could (the PAP MPs) give us their assessment of the quality of the opposition in Singapore?" arts undergraduate Denis Edward, 24, asked - before asking the other four if the opposition was ready to form an alternative government.

The PAP MPs were complimentary in their replies. "The quality has gone up several notches," said Mr Tong, while Ms Rajah praised the "Singapore-centric" nature of "an overall better" opposition.

Dr Gomez and Mr Yee said it was up to Singaporeans to decide whether the opposition could form the government, but Ms Poa was more candid, saying: "I don't think we're there yet, but we will get there - in perhaps 10 years."

She added, however, that the opposition faced difficulties such as the lack of access to information when trying to come up with policy alternatives.

The six also took questions on racial fault lines, voting patterns of new citizens and engaging youth. But it was the national conversation that seemed to dominate, with the panellists comparing notes on whether they had been invited to the citizen dialogues.

Of the four opposition figures, only one had: Ms Poa. The PAP's Mr Tong said he, too, did not receive an invite, drawing laughs. Ms Rajah is in the committee overseeing the conversation process.

Dr Gomez pointed out that the national conversation need not be "the only conversation". "I think we can have many conversations at many levels. We can look at more pathways. The main thing is to look for good policy ideas," he said, but warned against having everyone think the same way.

Ms Poa felt a culture of fear was hindering public engagement. "There is a lot of fear, rightly or wrongly, that there will be adverse consequences if you adopt a stance different from the government position. We need to address this concern head on," she said.

The strongest critic was Mr Jeyaretnam, who called it a "national monologue" and likened it to a "stage play in which all the parts have been chosen".

Politely, both PAP MPs quickly objected. Ms Rajah said the conversation was apolitical, while Mr Tong said: "It's what you make of it. If you choose to sit under a stone and not take part in it, then yes, it will be a monologue."


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