Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Setting a new pace for the nation

By Jeremy Au Yong, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2013

THE National Day address and National Day Rally speeches in August are traditionally a time for some nationwide introspection, as the Prime Minister takes stock of the year past and sets a direction for the year ahead.

Last year though, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took that process to a different level.

In his National Day address, he raised some fundamental questions that he said were critical for the country's next phase of development.

"What future do we see for Singapore? What kind of home do we want for our children? I believe all of us want to be proud to be Singaporeans, and to live in a successful country that meets our aspirations. What does this mean?"

In so doing, PM Lee set the ball rolling for what was to be the largest public consultation exercise ever done here.

The exercise, subsequently given the name Our Singapore Conversation (OSC), would take in the views of almost 5,000 Singaporeans in just its first phase. During this phase, people would be invited to participate in a series of focus groups where open-ended discussions would take place about the key challenges Singapore faced.

Thousands more would be engaged through social media and conversations run by organisations such as the People's Association and business chambers.

The core effort would be led by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, together with a group of younger ministers and a team made up of people selected from a variety of fields.

A bumpy beginning

OUR Singapore Conversation is now into its sixth month. Yet, it remains for some a somewhat divisive issue.

Many who have participated have emerged from the sessions to expound the value that they have gleaned from the process.

But there is a group that remains sceptical about the exercise.

At the beginning, a minor furore broke out online about the make-up of the committee that would facilitate the conversation. Many cried foul at the lack of any opposition figures among the 26 chosen.

Mr Heng said that the selection of committee members was "not a partisan exercise", and that the views of opposition members would be welcome during the process. A number of opposition politicians were subsequently invited to the sessions. Some like National Solidarity Party chief Hazel Poa attended, while others chose to sit it out.

Beyond the committee, there were also those who were critical about the open-ended format, saying that a lack of focus would hamper the ability of the conversation to produce concrete outcomes. Cynics pointed to the limited efficacy of previous attempts at a national conversation.

Yet, Mr Heng and the committee had stressed continually that the conversation was not focused on producing policy recommendations or finding sacred cows to slay.

PM Lee said in September last year that the OSC should not be a "culling session".

"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," he said.

New era of consultation

PERHAPS the most obvious impact of the national conversation so far came during the two-week Budget debate last month.

Speeches made by several ministers, while laying out the direction for their ministries, were notable for sections that called for Singaporeans to talk about the long-term direction that policies should take.

For instance, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong wanted a conversation about a review of health-care financing, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan wanted views on the future of housing policy, and Mr Heng himself invited Singaporeans to talk about how education policy would change.

In fact, sessions on education have already begun as part of the second phase of the OSC, and participants are grappling with questions of stress and the excessive focus on examinations, as well as social mobility and inclusion.

Even in ministries that did not directly invoke the OSC, ministers still sought consultation. Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen called on the public to give ideas on how to improve national service. He set up two working groups that will canvass views from a wide cross-section of society.

The emphasis on consultation and engagement marks a departure from the usual top-down, prescriptive style of governance. Even when there was consultation in the 1980s and 1990s, efforts tended to focus on getting feedback on policies proposed, not on consulting people on the direction to take.

A maturing electorate demands more engagement and more accountability, meaning that leaders are increasingly less able to decide on policy in isolation.

And the change in style is not just down to an evolving electorate. The nature of policy options that Singapore faces is also shifting.

The low-hanging fruits policy-wise have been plucked and there are precious few decisions now that result in clear win-win scenarios.

Combined with an electorate that holds increasingly disparate views, the nature of policymaking today is often a case of balancing trade-offs.

PM Lee put it this way in a recent interview: "The society is in a different phase now. We are not a teenager; we are maybe a bit more than a young adult - the rate at which you can grow is different. The sort of anxieties and issues which arise will be different. And we have to be able to address those."

For Mr Heng, even consultation may no longer be enough. He prefers the format of the OSC where Singaporeans get to engage one other instead of just providing feedback to the Government.

He said that the conversation allows a free airing of diverse views and brings groups of Singaporeans with differing views together.

Wherever possible, he hopes for all complex government decisions to involve some sort of conversation and for Singaporeans to make the open discourse of difficult issues a habit.

In that sense, he hopes the OSC process will live on long after it is officially closed.

A brief history of national conversations
By Jeremy Au Yong, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2013

THE Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) is by no means the first time Singapore has embarked on a national public consultation exercise.

There have been at least three previous exercises since 1991. None of these though was as large in scope or as ambitious as the ongoing OSC.

The first notable public consultation exercise here was called The Next Lap. It was led by a Cabinet sub-committee called the Long Term National Development Committee and headed by then Acting Minister for Information George Yeo.

They produced a 160-page book that mapped out broad plans to make Singapore a nation of distinction. The recommendations ultimately led to, among other things, schools going to a single session, the setting up of Edusave and the establishment of the country's third university, the Singapore Management University.

Five years later, in 1996, came the next exercise known as Singapore 21.

Singapore 21 was an action plan to take the country into the 21st century. The project was an idea first mooted by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.

A committee chaired by then Minister for Education and Second Minister for Defence Teo Chee Hean conducted more than a year of discussions with about 6,000 Singaporeans from all walks of life. The findings were then distilled into a report released in 1999.

Some of the issues raised then remain relevant today.

For instance, Singaporeans spoke about wanting to live less stressful lives while retaining their drive and also about balancing the need to attract talent with the need to look after Singaporeans.

The public consultation in 2002, Remaking Singapore, would also deal with some similar themes, such as an over-emphasis on materialism in society.

The committee was chaired by then Minister of State (National Development) Vivian Balakrishnan.

The process threw up some contentious suggestions that were dismissed, like allowing the jobless to withdraw some of their CPF funds.

Eventually, of the 74 proposals it made, 60 received the Government's nod in 2004.

Among the most popular: The introduction of a five-day work week.

This is the third of 12 primers on various current affairs issues, which will be published in the run-up to The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz.

No comments:

Post a Comment