Monday 12 August 2013

Policy changes coming up after Our Singapore Conversation: Heng Swee Keat

Housing, health care and education are top issues that concern citizens
By Rachel Chang, The Sunday Times, 11 Aug 2013

Key concerns raised by 47,000 people who took part in the Our Singapore Conversation exercise will see a substantive government response, says the man who drove the year-long series of citizen dialogues, Mr Heng Swee Keat.

Expect policy changes centring on housing, health care and education - issues that cropped up time and again at more than 660 sessions where citizens discussed the future Singapore they wanted to see.

Mr Heng did not give away the details, saying these will come in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally speech next Sunday.

Pressed by reporters he met last Tuesday, Mr Heng, the Education Minister, only gave away that one announcement would concern a change to the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).

Many parents criticised the high-stakes examination for placing unnecessary stress on children because it decides which secondary school they will attend. But others felt the PSLE played a role in encouraging excellence and building fortitude in children.

A PSLE review, as part of an overall relook into the education system, started last year.

In housing, a common theme throughout the exercise was whether the Housing Board flat is a home or an asset. A survey showed six in 10 wanted their flats to be homes first, then assets.

In health care, they looked for assurance that there would be access to quality health care, particularly for vulnerable groups.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said the suggestions are being sieved through. He told The Sunday Times: "We hope to share with Singaporeans soon how we can make our health-care system a better one for all."

Mr Heng, who was tasked by PM Lee to steer the Our Singapore Conversation exercise at last year's National Day Rally, said: "Tune in to NDR and maybe you will feel that (the exercise) has been quite impactful."

Already, there have been some tangibles, such as free museum entry for Singaporeans, an idea that came up from dialogue participants' desire to strengthen national identity.

Mr Heng said the conversations have also thrown up five core aspirations which will serve as a guide for government policy from now on. They are:
- "Opportunities" in a competitive economy;
- "Assurance" that housing and affordable health care will always be within reach;
- "Purpose" in lives that celebrate achievements beyond the economic, and that value shared memories and heritage spaces;
- "Spirit" in communities that organise ground-up initiatives and take care of their most disadvantaged; and
- "Trust" between the Government and the people, as well as among Singaporeans.

Beyond policy outcomes, Mr Heng felt the exercise succeeded in bringing together diverse groups of Singaporeans with competing desires.

Committee member and theatre practitioner Kuo Jian Hong, 46, noted that learning to accept the "messiness and chaos" of disagreement between different groups in a mature society was a necessary skill that the exercise has helped grow.

The Our Singapore Conversation conclusions were also informed by a survey of 4,000 people, conducted to reach the "quiet majority" who may not have shown up for the citizen dialogues.

The full results will only be released next month, but overall, the top three concerns across income levels were public health care, public housing and job security.

Asked if they preferred infrastructural development or the preservation of green and heritage spaces, more respondents plumped for the latter.

How does a nation of several million citizens create a better future for everyone? Well, we must first agree on the...
Posted by Heng Swee Keat on Saturday, August 10, 2013

Efforts to get views of diverse groups
Latest exercise vastly different from previous sessions to engage the people
By Rachel Chang, The Sunday Times, 11 Aug 2013

The Government was just one participant in the national conversation, said Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) committee members and chairman Heng Swee Keat, as they pointed to efforts to reach out to Singaporeans from all walks of life.

This made the process remarkably different from past engagement exercises, with marginalised voices being drawn out, and diverse groups coming together.

Of the 47,000 who attended OSC dialogues, 4,000 went to sessions organised by community associations and voluntary welfare organisations, and participants included taxi drivers, the families of prisoners and the disabled.

For theatre practitioner and committee member Kuo Jian Hong, 46, the inclusion of "people and voices in places that are not obvious" was important.

Another committee member, Singapore Management University law professor Mahdev Mohan, 34, said that the format of small group discussion, as opposed to a townhall style where people face a policymaker, put people at ease and allowed them to speak freely.

Ministers were only peripherally involved in the sessions.

If they were present, they roved from group to group and listened in on discussions.

Entrepreneur Stanley Chia, 26, said that "in townhalls, only a few vocal ones stand up and ask questions". "So it was radically different in that sense."

That the OSC became the place where scientists met artists, or the young and the old interacted, impressed Singapore Muslim Women's Association board member Noorul Fatha As'art, 35.

"We tend to be (in) silos in our respective communities," she said, adding that the OSC has taught "respectful disagreement".

Mr Heng, who is also Education Minister, said he hopes that the habit of deep and respectful conversation continues.

At a press conference last Tuesday to mark the end of the national conversation and the launch of its newsletter, Reflections, he also repeatedly urged Singaporeans to refrain from judging the exercise by how much impact it had on policymaking.

It did not want to imitate previous engagement exercises like 2003's Remaking Singapore, he said.

That concluded with a list of policy recommendations like the five-day work week.

This time, the committee has distilled five core aspirations from the extensive discussions, and these will guide policymaking in future.

Mr Heng added that rather than discrete pieces of legislation, the OSC's policy imprint has been broad and intangible, shaping the real-time drift of policymaking.

For example, a pilot of five Ministry of Education kindergartens, designed for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, was announced in February after OSC sessions showed him "how children from low-income family have difficulties in catching up".

The Reflections newsletter has taken pains to illustrate this, with two timelines running parallel to each other.

One marks the milestones of the OSC process, which comprised more than 660 dialogues; the other lays out policy changes that have occurred through the year as a result, such as new Housing Board flats for singles, and the free off-peak MRT travel pilot.

"Policymaking is not something where you stop mid-stream and say, well, since we are going to have the conversation, nothing gets done and therefore let's finish the conversation, then let's debate what should be done," Mr Heng said. "It is an ongoing, iterative process."

Some 60,000 copies of Reflections will be distributed to the public.

The newsletter is also available online at

Responses to reflections


"We've been very afraid to say as Singaporeans 'I do not agree with you, but however, let's look for something common that we can work on together'.

I think this OSC has managed to provide a platform... for us to begin this process of learning together as a country how to disagree respectfully and yet at the same time, gain through all these different ideas."

- Dr Noorul Fatha As'art, 35, assistant director at the Ministry of Health's Non-Communicable Diseases Branch


"One of the things that struck me is how we always think Singaporeans are really good at complaining and people that came to a lot of these conversations will start with complaining - which is great, get it off your chest. But it always goes to 'So, okay, you have an issue with this. What do you think we should do?' It's that pro-activeness. And I was very touched by some of the ideas and passion that were articulated by especially the young people that came to the conversation."

- Ms Kuo Jian Hong, 46, artistic director of The Theatre Practice


"Looking at the final report, the first thing that hits me is how different this is from a typical policy-oriented report and that's a good thing. It's a diversity of colour, texture, nuance and spirit.

I think that's what's been captured so far."

- Assistant Professor Mahdev Mohan, 34, law academic at Singapore Management University


'We realised that policy changes are very difficult and it's not an easy process. And what OSC presented was a very organic way for us to engage citizens, and I am very encouraged by where our country is going. I believe that we are growing as a society and a lot of youths want to be involved.'

- Mr Stanley Chia, 26, managing director of an educational enterprise

Spirit of listening and speaking up continues

The following is an extract from Our Singapore Conversation committee chairman Heng Swee Keat's foreword in its newsletter, Reflections, which marked the end of the one-year exercise
The Sunday Times, 11 Aug 2013

What future do we want? How do we get there?

These questions kept me up for many nights after the Prime Minister asked me last August to start a national conversation with fellow Singaporeans.

All around us, I see the world growing more complex, with challenges coming fast and furious, and our needs growing ever more diverse. How, in such a world, can any one group of people have the answers to everything?

If we are to work together towards a future Singapore that stirs our passion and pride, we must get everyone involved.

That's why we decided to have Our Singapore Conversation (OSC). We aimed to reach out to as many Singaporeans as possible, from all walks of life. We also felt it was important to take the time to understand each other's perspectives and aspirations.

So we did our best to make this truly OUR conversation. If people wanted to talk in dialects, in their coffee shop, on any issue they cared about, we did our best to help that happen.

I don't mind sharing that I was nervous initially about such an open-ended style. After all, most of us were more familiar with very specific questions and hard deadlines.

Some threw cold water by asking, "Why spend all this time talking about things like what we hope for or what we value?", or "Why don't you deal with immediate issues rather than our future?" I think of it like this: If we are going to know how to make good policies, or decide on the hard policy trade-offs to come, we must first understand thoroughly Singaporeans' own hopes for the future. As these hopes are deep and diverse, sometimes even in conflict with each other, we must give ourselves the chance to hear each other out. Just as importantly, Singaporeans will gain from hearing from one another.

Not everyone was comfortable with the OSC's diversity at first. At the first public dialogue, a 15-year-old student asked me if he could change his conversation group. He said, "I want to be in a group with younger people." I asked him to stay in his group because the whole point was to talk to people with different perspectives. After the conversation, the student thanked me because the elderly members in his group had helped him see things in ways that he had never considered before.

Experiences such as this added to my resolve. I told our OSC team that if the OSC process could help Singaporeans to hear each other out, especially when their aspirations differ, then we would have achieved something valuable.

Our Singapore Conversation does not end here. The spirit of speaking up constructively and hearing each other out sincerely and respectfully continues, just as making Singapore our best home is a continuing work in progress.

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