Monday, 25 March 2013

Our Singapore Conversation dialogues 'have influenced policymaking': Heng Swee Keat

Minister says public engagement exercise prompted initiatives unveiled in Budget
By Rachel Chang, The Sunday Times, 24 Mar 2013

To those who dismiss the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) exercise as a wayang, a talkshop or a sideshow, the minister guiding it, Mr Heng Swee Keat, points to the recently passed Budget as evidence that it is already having an impact on policymaking.

The mass public engagement exercise through citizen dialogues has been under way for five months and has already changed the way policies are being shaped and prompted a slew of initiatives unveiled in the 2013 Budget, said Mr Heng.

From a wage credit scheme to boost pay to the introduction of government-run kindergartens, these were linked by the goal of meeting common aspirations that have emerged from the exercise.

The dialogues have provided no less than a new philosophical underpinning for cross-government efforts, he said.

For example, one of the 12 common aspirations to emerge from the sessions - termed "Citizens' Perspectives" - is to have a society that takes care of its disadvantaged.

It is this goal that links recent policy directions across ministries, "whether it's in education where I spoke about levelling up, or in the specific assistance schemes that the Ministry of Social and Family Development will put up, or in the way that the Ministry of Manpower reviews this wage credit scheme", he said.

His interview with The Sunday Times ranged from the political and social changes emerging from the OSC exercise to how communication of the controversial Population White Paper stacked up - poorly, he freely admitted.

But he was clearly proud of its efforts so far.

The well-received Budget 2013 is the biggest example of how the many conversations so far - with the Government listening in - have already "permeated policymaking".

"There's absolutely no reason to be cynical," he said. "It has shaped the drift of policy and provided a backdrop to the changes we are seeing."

He believes that the format of the exercise - bringing together small groups of people of different backgrounds to thrash out national issues - should be followed for all complex government decisions, except those where speed and confidentiality are necessary.

This style of engagement, as opposed to the traditional practice of mere consultation, has two advantages, he said.

The first is its open-endedness, which allows for a free airing of diverse views. The second is that it puts groups of Singaporeans with differing, and sometimes contradictory, perspectives squarely face to face.

While this may not change their minds, it can help them appreciate other problems, other world views, and the trade-offs among them, he said.

In fact, it would have been useful if the consultation process for the recent Population White Paper, published in January to a firestorm, had dovetailed with the OSC exercise, he said.

He was responding to the view, most recently expressed by PAP MP Denise Phua after the Budget debate, that the White Paper debacle lost the Government goodwill that the national conversation was generating.

Mr Heng said that when he and his team began planning the citizen dialogues last August, after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he wanted Singaporeans to "ask ourselves some fundamental questions", consultation for the White Paper was already six months along.

A decision was made not to combine the two exercises.

Asked how the White Paper's communication could have been better-handled, he said that where things went wrong was the focus on the population projection of 6.9million in 2030.

"I would say that if we had discussed it in terms of what are the fundamental issues about the Singaporean identity, the size of the Singapore core, should we plan infrastructure ahead of demand, how do we restructure the economy to cope with an ageing population, we would have been more focused on the critical issues."

In an OSC dialogue, such issues "come bottom up", he said.

Freelance photographer Shawn Byron Danker, 35, who has attended two sessions, agreed. "The White Paper gave the OSC a black eye," he said. "The OSC was supposed to be about listening, responding, but the White Paper felt like it was bulldozing. If they did it through the OSC, even test-driving the numbers in the small groups, it might not have got such a backlash."

But Mr Heng is reluctant to dwell on questions about how the OSC exercise can regain the ground lost by the Population White Paper, or if the PAP's recent defeat in the Punggol East by-election shows that it faces an uphill battle in stemming a rising anti-government tide.

Rather, he emphasised that the exercise seeks more to bring Singaporeans together, than to bring Singaporeans to the Government.

"It's really not about a better consultation process, but really it is about Singaporeans being able to come together to understand each other," he said.

He worries that as Singapore society matures and viewpoints diversify, the tendency for polarisation grows.

"In some countries, the idea of having people come together to sit at a table to discuss their opposing views is almost impossible," he said. What he hopes the OSC can kick-start is a habit in the population of being able to talk about divisive issues and find a compromise, or agree to disagree.

He is particularly proud of ground-up conversations that are not centrally organised by the OSC, but by other bodies ranging from accounting firms to voluntary welfare organisations.

The Salvation Army held a session last month with those its social services arm helps, such as teenagers from children's homes and families of prison inmates.

The issues these participants brought up - such as having more time to interact with their parents or spouses in jail, or where they would go after they grew too old to stay in a home - were certainly not run-of-the-mill concerns.

It was also the first time that many of them had been asked "What kind of Singapore do you want to see?" said Ms Linda Au Yong, its Singapore director of social and community services.

As for what might come out of the session, she said: "I don't think they left thinking, 'Oh, there will be a solution for us'. They left thinking, 'I have been heard'."

But for other Singaporeans, what has been said in the OSC exercise so far seems to have a familiar ring.

The "citizens' perspectives" - from a society with a sense of belonging, to one with a more fulfilling pace of life - strike some as stating the obvious.

Financial controller Larry Medina, 47, felt most people at his session, attended by about 50, dwelt on the same topics that have been flagged constantly online.

"But it's easy to dismiss the views on the Internet, and they often descend into negativity or criticism," he said.

"I think that the Government is more accepting of views through the OSC and responsive to it because it's their project. I'm sort of amazed at the number of new initiatives that have been rolled out."

Mr Danker said the reaction he heard from some civil society activists when invited to the OSC was: "Why must we go and talk to them?" But to him, the answer is simply "because the Government has asked".

"They've reached out. I won't turn around and slap their hand aside," he said.

Mr Heng is heartened by such views, despite the scepticism and indifference that the exercise faces from various quarters, most notably online.

"I'm encouraged by those who came being cynical and left feeling good. I'm encouraged by those who came wanting to talk about their own issue and left saying, 'I learnt something about other people's perspectives that I wouldn't otherwise have known'."

He is confident that the number of converts will only grow.

"There is a Chinese saying, 'you know the value of a horse over a long journey'. This is a long learning journey, and what we need to do is keep to the sincerity and authenticity of the process.

"If we just keep doing that, then eventually I think people will see that this is a genuine, sincere effort and this is really about the future of Singapore."

Dialogues to delve into specific issues
Our SG Conversation to hold targeted sessions from April to June, in 'deep dive' into topics
By Rachel Chang, The Sunday Times, 24 Mar 2013

The Our Singapore Conversation exercise changes next month, moving from open and wide-ranging discussions to targeted sessions on specific hot topics.

From next month to June, there will be a series of citizen dialogues on specific issues to take what the man in charge, Mr Heng Swee Keat, describes as a "deep dive" into topics like housing, education, health care and jobs.

As promised by several ministers in Parliament during the recent Budget debate, fundamental questions like whether public housing should be an appreciating asset or if the Primary School Leaving Examination should be abolished will get a thorough public review.

Last week, the Ministry of Education announced that its sessions will focus on two topics: stress, and an excessive focus on examinations and grades; and ensuring opportunities, social mobility, and inclusion.

Details have yet to be released by other ministries, but The Sunday Times understands that the housing sessions will be structured according to key questions National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan posed in his parliamentary speech.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Sunday Times, Mr Heng, who is Education Minister, said he envisions two things after the upcoming sessions: a deeper understanding of the issues at stake on the part of Singaporeans and an "action plan" on each hot topic to set out the way forward.

"Some of it may involve the Government changing policies, some of it may involve the private sector taking on certain responsibilities, some of it will involve individuals rethinking what those priorities might be and how they might approach this," he said.

He emphasised that the value of the exercise should not be measured in government policy change alone.

For example, the health-care conversation is "not just a review of the financial framework". "It's also about how we might help Singaporeans and what actions they might take proactively to keep themselves healthy," he said.

He said that channelling these fundamental policy reviews through the Our Singapore Conversation format should be the norm for all complex government decisions, where speed and confidentiality are less important.

This allows for a deeper understanding of the issues at play, he said, and the opportunity for "ground-up" solutions to emerge.

It would have been useful if the consultation process for the Population White Paper had dovetailed more with national conversation process, he said.

The White Paper sparked a widespread outcry when it was released in January, especially over its projected population of 6.9 million.

Mr Heng felt the discussion might have been more focused on the critical issues at stake rather than being dominated by the headline number of 6.9 million.

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