Tuesday, 23 February 2016

SGfuture dialogues: Talking about Singapore's future

Half-time report on the SGfuture dialogues that kicked off in November 2015
By Walter Sim, The Sunday Times, 21 Feb 2016

More than 300,000 Singaporeans have been gazing into the crystal ball at The Future Of Us exhibition. But running alongside it is a talk series that, while on a much smaller scale, has its own "wow" factor for the nation ahead.

This is the SGfuture dialogues, a community engagement exercise. Unlike the "town hall" gatherings of the Our Singapore Conversation series of 2013, this is a more intimate affair. At the sessions attended by up to 100 people, participants are divided into groups of 10 or fewer people and, guided by a facilitator, share ideas on selected topics about creating a better Singapore. Notes are taken and they are put into a report for the host ministry, statutory body or organisation. The sessions, which can be attended by anyone who registers, began on Nov 29 and will run till the middle of the year.

The "wow" element lies in the new emphasis on empowering citizens to be more deeply engaged in society with an eye to SG100.

Ideas that have emerged include a phone app to connect networks of social volunteers, efforts to foster a culture of mentorship, and the creation of more vehicle-free zones to encourage a car-lite society.

Singapore's leaders have said SGfuture is a national platform for Singaporeans to collectively "write the next chapter of the Singapore Story". It wants to bring people together to brainstorm ideas for ground-up projects. And for viable ideas that require the Government to step in, it has pledged to work together with Singaporeans to turn these ideas into reality.

Some 5,000 participants have taken part in more than 60 sessions so far. Many sessions are at an area of The Future Of Us exhibition designated the "Marketplace", referring to the chatter at markets - wet or stock - on issues of the day. Here, the talk is on concrete ideas for the future rather than critiques of government policies. The sessions come under four themes: a cleaner, greener and smarter home; a learning people; a secure and resilient nation; and a caring community.

SGfuture follows up from the hugely successful Our Singapore Conversation initiative of 2013, and is jointly led by Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing and Culture, Community and Youth Minister Grace Fu.

Mr Chan tells The Sunday Times: "It's not just about talking and sharing. It's about talking, sharing and, more importantly, doing things together. We must not underestimate the power of people coming to do things together."

This was the upshot of it all for Mr Marvin Kang, 34, a civil servant who is one of nine people behind The Apprenticeship Collective, a social initiative that has benefited already from the SGfuture sessions. It links secondary school students with volunteer professionals.

"One of my biggest takeaways is realising there are many people thinking about very similar issues," he says. "With quite a lot of people, some of the problems may not be so insurmountable after all."

For this half-time report, The Sunday Times speaks to the two anchor ministers in an exclusive interview, as well as participants and experts.

As Ms Fu says: "We are working towards this spirit of open sharing, engagement and participation becoming an integral part of the Government's approach to partnering citizens for the future. This also means that within the Government, public agencies will need to reorganise themselves to effectively involve and engage Singaporeans."

The SGfuture dialogues: What participants say
By Walter Sim, The Sunday Times, 21 Feb 2016

Junior college student Lynette Teo put on her thinking hat last Tuesday night, not to pore over her textbooks, but to come up with ideas on what makes the Singaporean DNA.

This was the topic of an SGfuture community discussion session at the "Marketplace" area of the Future of Us exhibition at Gardens by the Bay. The exhibition envisions daily living in the year 2030.

The session is one of more than 60 held so far as part of the SGfuture series of dialogues organised by government agencies and non-profit organisations. These sessions to engage the public, which began on Nov 29 and run until mid-year, seek to build on the nationwide Our Singapore Conversation series completed more than two years ago.

Turning up in her Anglo-Chinese Junior College uniform, Ms Teo joined about 30 others in discussing issues such as resilience and exceptionalism, and how society could move towards a compassionate meritocracy and having greater community spirit.

These are issues she does not come across on a daily basis. The 18-year-old candidly tells The Sunday Times she realises she has been living in a "bubble". She adds: "At my age, I've never really been exposed to a lot of things. I hoped the discussion could give me a different light - it's quite uncharted territory as 'the Singaporean DNA' has never been defined before."

She admits that she is not someone who would usually go to such dialogue sessions. But she was "coerced" into joining a previous one, and was surprised to learn that she enjoyed hearing the range of views of people from all walks of life.

"When you force people to sit down in front of strangers to discuss these issues, as unwilling as they may be, you come to a form of understanding. And when you understand, you appreciate things better," says the student.

Also at last Tuesday's session was Mr Sean Lew, 18, who is awaiting to enlist in national service. It was his first time at an SGfuture dialogue, and his interest was sparked by the topic of the nation's identity.

He describes his willingness to speak up as a "natural progression" from having friends from different income groups and education streams at school.

"We are at this juncture where we have placed so much into bureaucracy and systems that we have underplayed the value of human decisions and judgment," says the alumnus of Bukit Panjang Government High and Catholic JC. "I want to believe we can collectively change together and change the system, rather than hold onto the belief that the system is just like that," he says.

Both agree that dialogues are an avenue to help mould ideas and build a meeting of minds. And in the long run, it will cultivate a culture away from the top-down, oft-described "paternalistic" one experienced in the past, to one that is more collaborative.

It may all sound very idealistic, but the Government's buzzword is "co-creation" with its citizens - working with people and supportting constructive, ground-up ideas.

And it is precisely such attitudes - as embodied by Mr Lew and Ms Teo in their willingness to acquire a greater understanding of issues and to share their own ideas - that the Government hopes to encourage in its citizens amid uncertain times. This forms the thrust of the SGfuture dialogue series, which anybody can sign up for. The series is overseen by Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing and Culture, Community and Youth Minister Grace Fu.

It may not seem as large-scale as the year-long Our Singapore Conversation exercise which took place in 2013, but just how important it is can be seen in the emphasis top leaders have placed on it. President Tony Tan Keng Yam, in his head-of-state address to open the 13th Parliament last month, urged citizens to contribute, saying: "The future of Singapore is what we make of it."

He added: "Let us all participate in shaping our common future. In doing so, we will strengthen our bonds and deepen trust with one another."

And Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his New Year's message: "Through the SGfuture conversations, we will all play a part in writing the Singapore Story."

The Government, meanwhile, will look at ways to back SGfuture projects to urge people to get their ideas off the ground and transformed into reality, said Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat.

This could include facilitating tie-ups or pointing groups to funds they can apply for, he added.

But participants must be aware that not every idea will be taken on board. Bank associate Sebastian Tay, 28, notes that while every voice counts, Singaporeans must realise that the Government will not be able to fulfil every request.

"Ultimately the Government is trying to understand us and make some sense of the general direction, consolidate and come up with a better strategy that is seemingly connected with what has been suggested," says Mr Tay, who took part in an engagement session on jobs. "It's about finding a balance point between both sides."

Landscape architect Srilalitha Gopalakrishnan, 38, adds: "Sometimes, people take things very personally. You can't expect everything you want to be done or incorporated."

Marine biologist Siti Maryam Yaakub, 34, sees another perspective - that it is refreshing hearing the opinions of the young. Says Dr Siti, who was at a session on biodiversity: "The common thread among the young is full of hope. It brings in a perspective that is fresh. The rest of us who have been plodding on this path for a while tend to forget the more idealistic notions."


SGfuture sessions are more topical than the Our Singapore Conversation, which dealt with broader themes. The idea is also that participants tap what they see at the Future of Us exhibition for inspiration.

That is why most sessions have been held at the exhibition's "Marketplace" area, although it is not mandatory to attend the showcase.

Topics have ranged from jobs to sports, hawker centres to technology. Participants are split into groups of up to 10 people. Each group has at least one facilitator and a note-taker.

Either the moderator or a panel of experts will kick off with an introduction of the key issues to put everyone on the same page, while the facilitator prods discussion along and highlights new angles to talk about. They also ensure all views are taken into account and that no one hogs the stage.The notes taken are compiled into a report for the host ministry or organisation.

Is it just an echo chamber?
By Walter Sim, The Sunday Times, 21 Feb 2016

One potential problem of the SGfuture dialogues is that the ideas thrown up - whether innovative or disruptive, ingenious or outlandish - come from people with similar interests, if not backgrounds.

While public registration is open via the SGfuture website, organisers of each session also directly invite partners or affiliates to take part.

So there could be an "echo chamber" effect of people repeating each other's views, which is a problem as the silent middle ground has yet to be fully tapped for its views.

One dialogue participant, 28-year-old bank associate Sebastian Tay, also observes that some Singaporeans tend to be more self-focused.

And senior executive Phyllis Hui, 25, who took part in a session on jobs, says that while times have changed, there remains a fear in some quarters of speaking up.

"We need more social citizenry to engage people who are still passive or afraid to speak," says the member of the Labour Movement's youth wing. "Even in smaller groups or coffee shop settings, sweeping statements should also be taken into account. If they are commonplace, they are real sentiments on the ground."

Raffles Hospital intern Shermaine Ng, 19, who volunteers with the National Youth Council, adds that there still appears to be "some psychological barrier" to signing up for the sessions. Yet others may think participating is not worth it as there are no immediate tangible outcomes from taking part.

Dr Ang Kiam Wee, principal of ITE College Central, 50, tells The Sunday Times the format of the series might be inherently bureaucratic. "The conversation has to occur at a more community level, and not be orchestrated by an agency," he says.

"To a large extent when something is orchestrated, it goes back to the Singapore mentality, that the Government already has everything under control. So when we are brought to a conversation the mindset is that the Government already knows what to do, and a lot of things need not be said."

Still, marine biologist Siti Maryam Yaakub, 34, points out that the organisers have taken pains to reach a diverse spectrum.

Participants at her session on biodiversity included architects, planners, teachers and students, and nature volunteers.

"The Government has said it doesn't want to just preach to the choir. Usually at such engagement sessions we run into the same old people, but this time there are quite a number of new faces."

However, she feels less time should be allocated for the panel of experts or moderator to speak at the start of a session, which typically lasts at least half an hour.

Landscape architect Srilalitha Gopalakrishnan, 38, adds: "If you have one group with 10 people, it will take a bit of time for everybody to adequately voice their opinions."

But having experts seed the discussion has its own merits, says participant Mr Fang Koh Look, 48.

The executive chairman at a safety training and telecommunications distribution firm attended a session on Total Defence.

When this reporter points out that many issues flagged by the expert, such as security, community or the terror threat, have already been highlighted by ministers, Mr Fang says: "They may already be in the news, but without more engagement sessions to reach out to the people, they may still not understand what the Government pointed out."

Yet another issue is how topics recur at different forums, hosted by the same organisation but under different names.

Teacher Aysel Ong, 34, who was at the session on keeping Singapore clean, says she has attended "similar platforms" before run by the National Environment Agency.

"There were group discussions and what surfaced there was similar to what was said at the SGfuture dialogue. These problems keep recurring and I don't see much being done yet," she says, although she admits that changing a culture cannot happen overnight.

Dr Siti points out, though: "If it is a conversation that people hold close to their hearts and want to keep talking about, that is a good thing."

Then there are questions over the efficiency of such dialogues in a country of 5.5 million people. Each session, at most, reaches out to 100 people or fewer.

But social entrepreneur Tong Yee, who moderated the session on the Singaporean DNA, says while it is more efficient to gather feedback online, the human touch is crucial. Going online in itself is one-way and has another huge downside: "Online chatter may be bruising because of the anonymity, and so people may speak irresponsibly."


Dr Siti agrees that the SGfuture series is a good approach, to create a sense that the people can "buy in to make things work and reach for the future together" with the Government.

"If people believe what the western media has been saying about Singapore - that it's a top-down authoritarian Singapore Inc. - the fact is that this is a much softer approach, it's more inclusive. This is the kind of future for Singapore."

And who better to be active participants than youth, who will personally experience the country at SG100?

Singapore Management University social sciences student Lee Ci En, 20, says: "Youth are the pioneers of tomorrow. It is very important to know what direction is being taken if they are going to inherit Singapore eventually.

"And taking part is a signal of being rooted to Singapore and of affinity with the nation."

What fresh ideas have emerged?
By Walter Sim, The Sunday Times, 21 Feb 2016

Already, at their half-way point, the SGfuture dialogues have generated ideas aplenty. These range from a campaign to carry out neighbourhood "random acts of kindness" to promote positive psychology, to subsidising young hawkers and to making recycling more accessible.

Some are already in the works, such as a Music For A Cause festival that encourages giving and volunteerism through music.

That was the idea of ex-army regular Joe Tan, 33, who runs social enterprise Love Action Project.

He took part in the first SGfuture engagement session on Nov 29, last year, and was subsequently invited by the National Youth Council to host a session as a springboard for his project.

He tells The Sunday Times: "The demographic was very broad - from secondary school student leaders to business owners. We did that because the event will encompass volunteers, performing artists, sponsors and require government support.

"Parliamentary Secretary (Culture, Community and Youth) Baey Yam Keng was there as well.

"The discussion was really broad, and while this holds the risk of having too diverse conversations, the idea managed to take shape."

Larger-scale ideas that may require more support from the Government include a mobile pop-up theme park that roams neighbourhoods, akin to a pasar malam (night market).

And there have also been suggestions to allow live music at neighbourhood hawker centres to make them more vibrant and transform them into more than just places to eat; and subsidising young hawkers to help more youth pick up the trade.

Some ideas have also stirred debate, like one to stop issuing plastic bags at supermarkets. Teacher Aysel Ong, 34, says: "Some were for promoting the use of recycling bags, but someone else pointed out that if we don't get plastic bags from supermarkets, how do we contain our trash at home?"

At the 18 dialogue sessions under the theme "A Cleaner, Greener and Smarter Home" last month, participants spoke about how better urban design and small lifestyle changes can contribute to a more sustainable future.

Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong tells The Sunday Times that participants discussed how homes could be better designed, with features to make recycling more accessible and intuitive.

Young people attending also chimed in with ideas on how to make use of technology and mobile applications to create green solutions.

He says: "Some of the suggestions are practical and easily doable. So we don't always have to chase down 'big ideas'. Small changes implemented well can have a significant impact over time."

Tapping the strengths of citizens 'a natural evolution'
By Walter Sim, The Sunday Times, 21 Feb 2016

Singapore's move towards greater citizenship engagement is a "very natural evolution", says Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing on the SGfuture dialogues.

In the early years of nation-building, top-down decisiveness was crucial to set things in motion quickly, Mr Chan, one of the two ministers leading the SGfuture engagement series, tells The Sunday Times in an interview. The initiative's other co-chair is Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu.

But today, with the country more stable and a broader talent base from across different sectors in society, the system has to "naturally evolve" into one which taps the strengths of its citizens, he says.

"Our challenge now is in harnessing these diverse perspectives from a broad swathe of people who can come together for the common goal of building a better Singapore."

Mr Chan adds that the power of conversation lies in giving citizens the opportunity to make a difference and contribute to the direction Singapore is heading.

Although the series is due to end in the middle of the year, "we shouldn't see it as an exercise of a few months", he says."We should also not try to measure it in terms of output or products, because the real success is not just the products but also the process, through which people feel that sense of ownership and engagement."

There are two ways citizens can identify with their country, Mr Chan notes. It could be purely "transactional" for the top-down benefits they get, or "participatory" which is, by far, more powerful.

And this goes beyond just sharing ideas with the Government: one larger benefit is in building understanding and common ground among different groups of Singaporeans, he says. This was also evident from the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) exercise.

The SGfuture series, in which about 5,000 people have taken part so far, is set against a vastly different climate. The OSC occurred during a time when there was discontent over policies such as housing, immigration and transport. Today, Singapore is basking in the afterglow of its Golden Jubilee celebrations, and readying for a choppy, uncertain road ahead.

It is against this backdrop that citizens can contribute their ideas to chart the nation's future for the next 50 years. Mr Chan says: "For many young people, the chances are they will still be around at SG100 and they're asking themselves what kind of country they want to see." He adds: "If we can harness that and harness that well, it can be a powerful way to build the next lap of Singapore's development. It's encouraging."


Mr Chan, who is also labour chief, notes that unlike Singapore's early years, it can no longer look abroad for solutions or models. Being at the forefront means creating models that Singapore needs to evolve on its own - and the SGfuture engagement series is probably "quite unique".

"It is the mobilisation of the entire nation towards not just a common vision, but an action plan where everyone can contribute."

And no idea is too small. "Some people start off collaborating on very localised projects - how to take care of the elderly or the latchkey kids in a certain precinct," he says. "All these small little things add up to a mountain."

Ms Fu, meanwhile, tells The Sunday Times that a suggestion from a December session to establish a weekly "Giving Day" when staff in a company contribute spare change to a charity of their choice, can likewise create ripples if more firms come on board.

In the grand scheme of things, the Government is an enabler and a catalyst: it propels people to come together and it provides the resources to fulfil ideas, Mr Chan says.

"We try to bring people from different backgrounds, people who we previously may not have engaged before or brought into the network. It is through such serendipitous interface that you find new ideas and new ways of doing things," he says.

It is in this spirit that Mr Chan, who is deputy chairman of the People's Association (PA), challenges his colleagues to "actively go and get people who are not in known networks to come and participate" in the PA-run SGfuture sessions.

Ms Fu, for her part, says that she has observed groups of strangers coming together to spearhead upcoming SGfuture sessions and collaborate on projects. The relevant agencies will work with participants on these ideas, and for those that are in the works, the agencies will also help link up participants.

Even after the SGfuture engagement series ends, Ms Fu says efforts to build a culture of open sharing, engagement and participation as "an integral part of the Government's approach to partnering citizens for the future" will never end. "This also means that within the Government, public agencies will need to reorganise ourselves in order to effectively involve and engage Singaporeans," she adds.

This might mean even more dialogue sessions. Already ongoing is one on a Founders' Memorial. The Committee on the Future Economy is also consulting the public.

Asked if all this might lead to dialogue fatigue, Mr Chan says different groups of people attend various sessions based on their areas of interest, and there are various platforms to cater to these interests.

"I don't think the individual will have any fatigue. It's really like a menu of options that is made available to him."

After the dialogues: The road ahead
By Walter Sim, The Sunday Times, 21 Feb 2016

As conversation ideas become reality, one of the next stages in the process might be to name those who gave these lightbulb moments.

So say political watchers who believe giving credit where credit is due will show the Government's sincerity in listening to its citizens.

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser says that where possible, "the Government will need to feed forward and acknowledge good ideas, perhaps even name names of individuals or organisations".

Associate Professor Tan, who has previously served as research consultant to government feedback unit Reach, adds: "Where it has changed course or adopted an idea as a result of feedback, it should say so, and acknowledge the contribution of those who have a part to play in it where possible.

"Where it has decided not to go with a popular suggestion, it should explain the basis of its decisions and the trade-offs it has considered."

In this Internet era, gathering ideas through sit-down face-to-face conversations may seem less efficient, but there is huge value-add in the human touch.

As Prof Tan observes, it is not only a platform to facilitate discussion, debate and exchange of views and ideas. It also allows "people to give their ideas a reality check, and perhaps more importantly to inculcate some degree of active citizenry in the process".

This should be done in a more extensive way - even after the SGfuture dialogue series ends in the middle of the year, adds political observer Eugene Tan, who teaches law at the Singapore Management University.

The former Nominated Member of Parliament believes firmly that there is "no alternative to more and better engagement".

This should be done at a variety of levels - from local grassroots to nationwide - and with different settings - whether formal business or the informal kopitiam, he says.

Doing so will help win over the doubting Thomases or the broad middle ground of passive citizens who may think such engagement exercises are but one big "wayang" or act of pretence, he adds.

And even "small-tent conversations" can contribute to public buy-in on a policy or the building of a consensus on a contentious topic.

Such sessions serve to throw up different perspectives and foster a spirit of compromise as people will have to agree to disagree in the face of opposing thoughts.

Participants stand to gain too. Beyond the chance to influence policy and share their ideas, it is a platform to network and meet other like-minded people, if not politicians.

SMU's Prof Tan says: "Engendering a newfound respect for citizen engagement can close the gap between Singaporeans' growing acceptance of the norm of political participation amid a low level of actual participation."

Beyond acting as a bridge between the Government and the people, there is also value in such conversations in helping to "normalise citizen discourse with one another", he adds.

"There is tremendous opportunity for a paradigm shift for Singaporeans to develop the habit and virtue of speaking with, rather than to, each other and engaging robustly on key issues of the day."

Upcoming sessions

Rekindling the "kampung spirit", the future of ageing, rethinking our streets as spaces for the people, and jobs of the future.

These are among the topics of several SGfuture discussions that will take place over the next two weeks at the Marketplace at the Future Of Us exhibition, and other locations around town.

Those interested in sharing their thoughts can visit www.sg/sgfuture to contribute their ideas, or to sign up for the sessions.

50 years ago, our trailblazing pioneers overcame the odds to build our nation. Now it’s up to us to carry on their...
Posted by Our SG on Thursday, February 11, 2016

Walking the talk: What it is like to take part in a SGfuture dialogue
Walter Sim took part in an SGfuture dialogue on the Singaporean DNA last Tuesday. He gives his first-person account
By Walter Sim, The Sunday Times, 21 Feb 2016

It felt like an awkward speed dating session.

A bunch of strangers gathering at the Gardens by the Bay at twilight to talk about... life.

On any other day it might have been a romantic walk in the park, but I was one of about 30 participants at a public engagement session under the SGfuture series.

I have never been one to take part in such sessions.

I'm one of those Singaporeans who are in their late 20s, are relatively well-travelled, have a university degree and quite a decent job (or so I would like to think).

I belong to what is arguably the first generation of graduates to have grown up savouring the fruits of the pioneer generation's efforts and the economic policies of the early years.

Don't get me wrong, we love our country and we do not take things for granted, even if we do not overtly express this sentiment beyond the singing of cheesy National Day songs every ninth of August.

But many of my peers feel social media is enough to amplify our voices.

What's the use, then, in devoting precious time to travel downtown and physically take part in conversations with the Government? With their enviable salaries, civil servants really should know how to do their job.

In the spirit of adventure I decided to pitch the idea to take part and write this column, if only to try something new and gain a first-hand experience of this open-door policy that has evidently reaped benefits for the Government in recent years.

How far I've come.

When I reported on the very first SGfuture dialogue session on Nov 29 last year, I found myself agreeing with a fellow journalist from another publication who asked me: "What's going on with young people nowadays. You will take part in such things meh?".

Last Tuesday's session, run by the Ministry of Defence as part of its Total Defence programme this year, was my virgin public dialogue experience as an actual participant.

The session was moderated by social entrepreneur Tong Yee of the Thought Collective, a social enterprise.

He began with a 30-minute speech punctuated by slides with quotes such as: "Total Defence is not a request to die. In fact, it is a plea to live. And live well."

Or consider these: "A hero would die for his country. But he would much rather live for it", and "Fear as an emotion is invaluable. But fear as a culture will cripple us".

It all seemed very idealistic, even preachy.

But in the spirit of things I decided to hunker down and give this whole deal a shot.

The session, titled Singaporean DNA, looked at the traits within Singaporeans, and how to preserve positive ones and eradicate negative ones.

In all honesty, Total Defence - and its five pillars - is a concept that has eluded me since I left junior college.

I'm sure it's not a function of ailing memory: Nine years on I can still freely recite the Singapore Armed Forces' core values.

Some 30 participants took part in my session, with slightly more females than males.

Forty had signed up, with 10 having bailed, evidently deciding they had better things to do on a Tuesday evening.

A good number of the 30 participants were civil servants.

In my group of six - discounting the facilitator and scribe - were three civil servants (one of them an intern waiting to enter university), one JC student, and one who was "a friend of Tong Yee's".

I would like to think this was not exactly representative of the everyday Singapore population.

The awkward introductions at the start reminded me of my university orientation camp, the only thing missing being the icebreaker games.


At least things took a less contrived turn after the discussions got under way. (Note that the mechanics of each SGfuture session are different).

We were further split into pairs within each group. Each of us was given a deck of 65 cards with images on them. We were then asked to choose an image that best corresponds with our answer to questions such as:

What are the values that represent you as a person? What are the values that form the Singaporean identity? What makes Singaporeans angry or resentful, cynical or resigned, or complacent?

We were to explain our reasoning in our pairs - my partner was a civil servant whom I didn't know and will likely not cross paths with ever again.

With zero stakes come no baggage, and through this discussion process I felt something within myself stir.

Short of posting long-form messages on social media, which can be subsequently edited, such conversations make you think on your feet and distill your thoughts coherently.

And the presence of other people - such as the facilitator and scribe - listening in, surprisingly proved to be a non-issue, perhaps due to the understanding that the discussion was never private to begin with.

Nor did they chime in with unnecessary remarks or opinions of their own.

On the question of the Singaporean identity, I chose images of fireworks (to represent its exceptionalism), a question mark (to represent how the nation stands at crossroads), and a sprint (to represent how it remains results-oriented).

My partner did not choose the same images, but we found that we were pretty much on the same page as to the traits that mark Singapore society.

On what makes Singaporeans angry or resentful, I chose an image that represents discrimination, whether against foreign workers or those less well-off.

I went for a cleaner, with the thought that Singapore is a "cleaned city", that is, one that is cleaned thanks to cleaners.

I also chose one of medicine as, in spite of the Government's efforts, healthcare is still said to be expensive for many Singaporeans. And what of the effect on Singapore youth today should the country shift even further to the centre-left in its policies? Will we be happy to foot the bill?

The discussion in pairs led to a group discussion, and I found that being tuned into the contributions of other people also helped me hone my own thoughts.

As the group mulled over the social ills that were highlighted and how to resolve them, the conversation went on to a discussion of the, well, merits of a meritocratic system.

One groupmate said there was no reason to ditch the system because it has served Singapore well over the years.

Another participant added that it was precisely because the nation has progressed that it is now all the more important to adopt a form of "compassionate meritocracy", to give a helping hand to make sure people do not get left behind.

Even with the awareness of Singapore's relatively high social mobility, it led me to ponder: "If it is only the rich who can afford, say, tuition for their children while less well-off students have to juggle part-time work, won't this lead to a society where the rich get richer?"

The group also discussed the need to create more support for social movements to help those who are less able.

It was interesting to put one's views out there at such a forum, and seeing how ideas take shape through each other's contributions.

But I lament the duration of the session - the two hours seemed to pass by too quickly, and were too short to really encapsulate all that can be discussed in such a broad topic.

I also lament the homogeneity of the group - five of the six of us are millennials with similar education backgrounds.

Even though there were interesting perspectives, I had hoped to encounter opinions from more people who are vastly different from myself, whether in age, education background or social status.

It is certainly not the most efficient means for the Government to gather input, but it does come with the power to inspire and enable a sense of ownership over the ideas that emerged during a discussion with strangers.

But has it stirred me enough to actually sign up for future conversations?

Honestly, I do not know.

I guess I would, if I want to network and meet more people.

I do however see more tangible outcomes in actually "doing" - be it volunteer work or taking part in social movements.

In any case, speed dating sessions (which I've never been to, for the record) do not demand that you fall head over heels at first sight.

Everyone starts off as "just friends", and who knows what will happen next?

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