Monday 15 October 2012

Our Singapore Conversation Kicks Off First Citizens’ Dialogue

A Singapore ranked No.1 in happiness?
Participants at Our SG Conversation share their visions and hopes for the future
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 14 Oct 2012

Should Singapore aim to be the happiest country in the world?

Some of the 60 participants at the first citizens' dialogue of Our Singapore Conversation thought so. When asked to dream up headlines of Singapore in 10 years' time, two groups came up with "No. 1 in happiness" and a third with "surpasses 80 per cent" in a "global fulfilment" index.

The 60 who took the plunge and showed up early yesterday morning at The Pod, a room encircled by floor-to-ceiling windows on the 16th floor of the National Library, included housewives, lawyers, taxi drivers, entrepreneurs, students, social activists and retirees.

Their visions of the Singapore they want to see in the future reflected deep-seated desires for a more caring, compassionate and generous society, one that defines success not just by academic achievements and material wealth.

Participants hoped for a President's Scholar who stood out for something other than his grades - perhaps even an Institute of Technical Education graduate. They also looked forward to a country whose national icon is "not just a casino".

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who is spearheading Our SG Conversation, a mass public engagement exercise to envision Singapore's future, said he wanted to understand what drives citizens' hopes and aspirations.

The desire to revamp criteria for selecting President's Scholars "has important implications for how we raise our children, and what success means". He said such a discussion was relevant to an ongoing debate on the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), which many parents want abolished because it stresses out their children. They believe it determines not just what secondary school their child gets into, but also what junior college and university and their future jobs.

But it is how parents define success and their expectations of their children that raise the stakes, Mr Heng said, not the exam.

"People are different. Would we as parents accept it if our kids want to be photographers or artists or chefs?" he asked. If not, then abolishing the PSLE would not change much, he said.

For most of the four-hour session though, Mr Heng and Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin took a back seat. They roved around the room listening in on the six groups' discussions, barely noticed by participants.

At session's end, Mr Heng observed that Singaporeans seem competitive and achievement-orientated by nature, as "we love to be No.1, even in happiness".

"We're not content to be happy; we want to be the happiest country in the world," he said.

He wondered if having just abolished schools' banding, he should now introduce a ranking system for "happiest school in the country".

"My concern could be that we have 367 schools and if I have one happiest school in Singapore, I would have 366 unhappy schools," he said to laughter.

Mr Heng also observed that while it is good to want to be the best one can be, "if we take it that we must rank and measure everything we do, then we may actually be quite unhappy with ourselves".

The focus on feel-good topics like happiness left some participants dissatisfied - they wanted a more hard-hitting exchange on what ails Singapore.

But others like Mr Jeff Cheong, 36, managing director of an advertising agency, said it was a morning well spent in "great conversation".

Ball starts rolling for citizens' dialogue
Part of Our SG Conversation, the dialogue series sets out to draw public opinion on varied issues
By Lydia Lim, The Straits Times, 14 Oct 2012

At this early stage of Our Singapore Conversation, minister-in-charge Heng Swee Keat is having to field questions on where it is all going.

He has no clear answers yet, though he is sure education will be one of the themes he, his team and Singaporeans will want to drill more deeply into, in the second stage of the process that starts next year.

Yesterday, Mr Heng, who is also Education Minister, told 60 participants at the first citizens' dialogue: "One thing I can promise you is that we will certainly have an education track."

He went on to joke about why Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong might have chosen him for the job of chief facilitator for a conversation on Singapore's future.

"I sometimes wonder whether the PM asked me to chair this because all problems originate with education, and all solutions," Mr Heng said to laughter.

"I have seldom gone to a dinner conversation or a cocktail where someone did not complain about something and say, 'You see Mr Heng, that's because your schools are not doing a good job'," he added.

Still, it is useful to think of the children entering Primary 1 this year, he said, and how to prepare them for the world 20 years from now, which will be very different from today's.

In wrapping up yesterday's four-hour dialogue at the National Library, Mr Heng explained the two stages of Our SG Conversation.

The first stage will comprise about 30 citizen dialogues, the first of which took place yesterday.

The public can sign up to join these sessions. Members of the Singapore Conversation committee and its secretariat will also nominate people to take part.

These free-flowing dialogues will be run by specially trained facilitators from the public and private sectors. They are an opportunity for people to share their stories about Singapore as home, exchange ideas on all kinds of issues, and range far and wide in their discussions.

Yesterday, Mr Heng acknowledged the discomfort of some with these sessions' unstructured nature.

"Some of you have asked, 'You've kept the Singapore Conversation so open that anyone can talk about anything and are we therefore going anywhere?'"

"Those are very fair questions and the reason we decided to keep it open, exploratory, is that my colleagues and I would like to see this as a process by which different ideas can surface, for which we can get a better feel for what it is that matters most to Singaporeans. At the same time, it is also a process for Singaporeans to talk among ourselves, a great opportunity to speak up but more importantly, to hear each other," he said.

During this first stage, he asked Singaporeans to suspend for a few months their "good trait" of always seeking clarity about where they are headed and wanting not just talk, but action.

The first stage will likely end next February or March. Thereafter, Mr Heng and his team will distil the key themes that emerged from these open-ended discussions and take the conversation into its second stage, when groups will gather to discuss in greater detail specific issues, such as education.

The aim will then be to work out "what we can do together, as a government, a community, families and individuals" in these areas.

Some participants are energised, others sceptical
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 14 Oct 2012

Awfully Chocolate group owner Lyn Lee, 39, brought the report from the last consultation exercise she was a part of to Our Singapore Conversation yesterday.

The Economic Strategies Committee in 2009 had disappointed her because it felt to her during the discussions that the powers that be already knew what they wanted to do.

It was also an example, she explained to her small group yesterday, of the reams of committees' reports there already are on pressing national issues.

"Things that are being said today have actually been said before," said the feisty mother of three. "My group talked about more values and less stress in the education system, and this has been on the Ministry of Education's website in a committee report since 2009, but the system has only got worse, not better. I'm not interested in reports; I'm interested in real change."

Could this new project - billed as the broadest, most extensive consultation exercise yet - be any different, she wondered out loud.

Ms Lee's ambivalence was not uncommon among the 60 participants at the National Library Building. They were among the first citizens to be invited to Our SG Conversation, but many were unsure of its purpose.

"I think the effort is sincere," said Nanyang Technological University student Jordan Tan, 23. "But I think it's quite clear what the dominant issues and problems are, with or without this conversation."

The 60 participants were drawn primarily from three sources: Some had written in to Our SG Conversation website expressing interest in participating, some were nominated by one of the 26 committee members, and a third group was invited through universities and the People's Association.

Three opposition politicians had also been invited to this first of 30 citizens' dialogues. But Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim, its MP for Hougang Png Eng Huat, and National Solidarity Party secretary-general Hazel Poa were unable to attend. All three, and other opposition politicians, said the secretariat, will be invited to another session.

The four-hour session was unstructured and free-flowing, with participants encouraged to raise any issue they wanted. First, they were told to share with a partner something about Singapore's past and present which they loved - or detested. Then, the groups were asked to brainstorm headlines to describe a future they wanted Singapore to have.

Scenarios which emerged ranged from the Maintenance of Parents Act becoming obsolete as empowered senior citizens no longer needed it, to one where "Singaporean" is defined as a race.

A dynamic, informal atmosphere prevailed. Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin turned up in jeans and sneakers, and went around the groups taking pictures with his iPhone.

But the significance of the occasion, the first official session of the mammoth exercise announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in this year's National Day Message, was clear from the number of bigwigs in the room.

These included senior civil servants Benny Lim and Janadas Devan.

The verdict from the participants after the session was mixed. Several, like Jeff Cheong, 36, a managing director of an advertising agency, were energised by the experience. "Initially, I was quite sceptical, but as we all started sharing our stories, we all connected with one another," he said. "It's exciting to be with a bunch of hot-blooded Singaporeans expressing their hopes and ideas for our home."

Polytechnic student Muhammad Hatib, 23, said: "The discussion was meaningful and I learnt new things listening to the views of people I met for the first time."

But others, like master's student Hazirah Mohamad, 24, felt that the discussion only "scratched the surface of what Singapore is about".

She was disappointed that hard issues, like a minimum wage or the death penalty, were not debated.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who is in charge of the dialogues, later said there would be more in-depth discussions later on in the process, adding that "the work has just begun".

Our SG Conversation -Petunia Lee

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