Wednesday 12 December 2012

S'pore Conversation - the road ahead

By Asad Latif, Published The Straits Times, 11 Dec 2012

THE national dialogue took an interesting turn on Dec1 when it started to examine themes that had emerged since the process had begun in October.

I attended a session of Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) recently at *Scape Orchard, which had 45 people from all walks of life. Participants were handed a sheet of paper with boxes that mentioned some of the ideas which had surfaced.

These ranged from the need for a kampung spirit, dignified ageing and a more fulfilling life; to calls for an affordable Singapore, strong families and better care for the less fortunate; to the desire for a country that is enriched by diverse definitions of success, where the Government does less and society does more, and which has a strong Singaporean core.

We were asked which of the ideas resonated most with us and what values underpinned those ideas. We were invited to add our own ideas to the list in the blank boxes on the page.

That piece of paper suggests a shift in process as the OSC moves from its first phase - open-ended and generally unstructured discussion - to its second phase next year, when the dialogue will focus on specific areas with policy implications.

The idea of a national conversation, mooted by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day message this year, seeks to keep Singapore improving in a fast-changing world by asking Singaporeans to think about their future, contribute their ideas and work together. Education Minister Heng Swee Keat heads the committee facilitating the conversation.

The issues thrown up by the national dialogue are clustering around themes that would help define Singapore two decades from now. Our session marked a point of transition.

The gradual structuring of the dialogue around emergent themes should prevent the OSC from becoming an extended Meet-the-People Session, where constituents petition their parliamentarians to seek redress for personal grievances. While this is an entirely legitimate activity, the point of a national dialogue is different. It is to visualise a common future made up of overlapping interests and contributions rather than to ponder passing issues no matter how personally pressing they might be.

Method is all-important here. Looking ahead, the OSC needs to develop a dialogue format that could produce the most meaningful outcomes.

The first step is to recall the nature of a dialogue. Georgia State University points out on its website that "the dialogue format is different from debate or discussion in that dialogue attempts to broaden students' perspectives and have them look for shared meaning in experiences".

What is true of students is true of others as well.

How exactly the process could work is suggested by an American organisation, the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory. It identifies three useful formats for public deliberation: the forum/study circle, the focus group, and the citizens' jury.

A forum/study circle, which can have anything between five and 200 members, is meant to engage participants in deciding how they will act on a problem.

A focus group, consisting of 10 to 15 people, seeks to understand how diverse segments of a community think about complex issues. These diverse groups must have representative members taking part in discussions so that distinct strands of opinion are reflected faithfully in the parleys.

A citizens' jury, consisting of 12 to 24 members, brings together a group of people who are representative of the community to examine a complex issue and pronounce a reasonable, well-developed and thoughtful solution.

The OSC is perhaps at the forum stage now, when seminal issues are being identified. If the three-stage format outlined above is found useful, the citizens' dialogue will need to move towards the focus and jury stages - not in one-off sessions, of course, but over several gatherings - by framing choices and then exploring policies.

In order to be useful, the dialogue must link issues and solutions through actual choices. Choices involve trade-offs because no solution can be cost-free. Thus, in later sessions, it would help if participants were to receive reading material in advance. This information, heavily factual, could act as a springboard for realistic discussion.

In order to be credible, the process should be evolutionary. That is, the agenda should not be framed in advance, options should not be foreclosed, and outcomes should not be foretold.

But whatever the particular format chosen for the dialogue process, the purpose remains the same. A key need is to build trust. In emphasising trust, organisations such as the League of Women Voters of the United States go to the heart of the purpose of a public dialogue.

"If you want citizens to develop trust across community divides or find common ground on contentious issues, you need to give them opportunities to form relationships with people who are different from themselves," the league says. "Give them time to share experiences, concerns, and values before they begin talking about policy options and action plans."

The Dec1 session edged towards this goal. Its mood was captured by what might be called the mainstreaming of the anecdotal. The participants drew on their personal experiences but only to the extent that they shed light on shared problems. Their expectations of the future were not for themselves necessarily but for Singaporeans at large.

For example, an anguished participant recounted how her daughter had barely "survived" the education system. The mother hoped for a primary school system that would be less defined by the exacting emphasis on certain core subjects and offer more choices to a child whose abilities might lie outside those subjects. Her own daughter would not benefit from the change, but others' children could.

Her passion for the future of others gave her pain the authenticity of a shared reality. I, for one, felt less inclined to talk about myself and more eager to contribute something to the voices of others.

By matching process and purpose, the national conversation will help to bring us closer.

The writer, a former Straits Times journalist, is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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