Monday, 15 July 2019

Singapore Together: Redefining the national conversation

Is the latest citizen engagement exercise just another national conversation? Insight looks at why it's set to be different this time.
By Grace Ho, The Sunday Times, 14 Jul 2019

In 1991, then Acting Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo likened the state to a large banyan tree whose reach was so extensive, few other organisms could take root: "The problem now is that under the banyan tree very little else can grow. When state institutions are too pervasive, civic institutions cannot thrive. It's necessary to prune the banyan trees so other plants can grow."

But now it's 2019 and other plants have indeed grown. In fact, there is a variety of civic group "species" ranging from nature and heritage, to gender equality and animal rights.

What's more, the banyan tree of the Government itself has lost some of its "bark". Branches and roots are more intertwined within the ecosystem of all Singapore people.

Rather than standing apart, this outreach has included getting an on-the-ground take from Singaporeans in the form of feedback.

There have been national dialogues including The Next Lap (1991), Singapore 21 (1999), Remaking Singapore (2002), SGfuture (2015) and the biggest, Our Singapore Conversation (OSC).

Unprecedented in scale and reach, OSC was held a year after the watershed 2011 General Election, where the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) garnered its lowest vote share since independence.

And Singapore is now getting set for the latest citizen-state engagement, Singapore Together.

In announcing Singapore Together last month at the REACH-CNA Building Our Future Singapore Together dialogue, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said that he and other ministers would work with Singaporeans to design and implement solutions across a wider range of issues and policy areas. These include environmental sustainability, housing, youth and social mobility.

Sceptics might wonder, though, if this is just going to be another national conversation under a different name.

But, as Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) Associate Professor Kenneth Paul Tan points out: "It is hard to avoid how closely public engagement initiatives have been linked to critical economic, political or electoral events in the nation's life."

The critical event looming is, of course, the segue to 4G leadership, which Mr Heng is poised to helm.

Insight looks at how this particular outreach is poised to be a sea change in these exercises, why there is a need for new ways to create policy and build trust amid Singapore's changing electorate, and what an expanded "democracy of deeds" - a theme in Mr Heng's outline - could look like.


Mr Heng touched on four themes: resilience, a city of possibilities, a society with more opportunities for all, and a caring, gracious, kind and cohesive community and strengthening Singaporeans' identity.

True, these themes are not new. But experts The Sunday Times spoke to explain that they have a new context.

With global economic and political disruption, and divided public sentiment on issues like LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights, environmental sustainability and social inequality, it makes sense to reaffirm, recalibrate and refresh, they say.

"These are not simple problems and take time to address. So as long as we keep the fire burning, it can be an opportunity to engender more creativity in solving them," says Prof Tan.

Nature Society (Singapore) president Shawn Lum agrees. "It is realistic and pragmatic to get conversations started early, achieve the best possible outcomes and reduce avoidable and damaging, energy-sapping debates. It also keeps up with societal changes, new hopes and aspirations."

Indeed, even those who support the PAP may not agree with all its policies, points out political observer and former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin.

Another factor is that a new generation of Singaporeans is learning and engaging with the world differently, something Mr Heng would have been familiar with during his time as education minister.

"The curriculum today is designed with more pathways and choices, encouraging students to have ownership of their learning," says Nanyang Technological University provost and vice-president (academic) Ling San.

Technology-enhanced learning, innovation labs, internships and overseas exchanges bring about a mindset change on how to tackle common challenges.

Collaboration and contestation are now par for the course. "Students have to fine-tune and sharpen their ideas and solutions through discussion and debate. This may in turn raise the public's expectations for more meaningful engagement and participation, and to be able to influence government policies and services beyond formal consultations," adds Prof Ling.

Then there is the context of the Government moving from consultation to collaboration.

In co-creating solutions with Singaporeans, Mr Heng has signalled a distinct shift from consultation to a more devolved and empowering model of governance.

Everyone can roll up his or her sleeves and take action, instead of waiting for government permission on each and every issue.

"It may seem to some like splitting hairs but the quality of problem-solving is different," says Institute of Policy Studies deputy director for research Gillian Koh. "This engagement and collaboration can range from policy formulation right down to practical intervention on the ground, close to where the needs as well as resources are."

What is almost certain is that the scale and reach of OSC will not be replicated. In place is engagement that is precise and tailored to specific needs and conditions.

Also, it will not be as open-ended as OSC. Singapore Management University law professor and former NMP Eugene Tan is certain that while Singaporeans will be invited to share their vision for Singapore, there could be specific recommendations to achieve desired policy outcomes in the four areas Mr Heng mentioned.

There is also Mr Heng's own track record of partnering with the community - first as a young police officer and, later, his leadership of the OSC committee and the Committee on the Future Economy since entering government in 2011.

In his speech last month, Mr Heng said the Government will find new ways to tap citizens' ideas and perspectives, citing how a task force formed to uplift disadvantaged students is already working with community support groups to do so.

Moving forward, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo will launch a citizens' panel to look at ways to improve work-life harmony, while in housing, for instance, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong and his team will work more closely with residents to shape their living environment and build a stronger sense of community.

Mr Heng has emphasised that it will be the work of a generation, and Singaporeans should not expect partnerships to proliferate in every policy domain.

Still, the initiative signifies the 4G leaders demonstrating a level of comfort with different voices.

As Second Minister for Finance and Education Indranee Rajah wrote in a recent column in Tamil Murasu and tabla!: "Our public service must be prepared to be challenged and to accept and adopt suggestions that are better than our own.

"It will also mean continuing to engage Singaporeans, including those who might disagree with us so long as they are not pursuing divisive agendas."


But with the next general election due by April 2021, is Singapore Together a sincere attempt to reach out, or a cynical means to sense and pre-empt public sentiment?

In a speech to the Economic Society of Singapore in 2013, Mr Heng said OSC was a process of building adaptive capacity and trust, so that the public would support one another and make sacrifices for the mutual good.

By adaptive capacity, he was referring to the ability to clarify one's values, to learn to compromise and to change the way we think and interact with others.

One can conceive the latest effort as stemming from the same need to build adaptive capacity and trust.

But trust demands empathy, sensitivity and understanding - ingredients that some Singaporeans felt were missing in MP Lee Bee Wah's Budget speech this year, when her use of the Hokkien phrase "si gui kia" likening Singaporeans to ungrateful children triggered a firestorm of criticism.

LKYSPP's Prof Tan compares the Government's communication style to "mansplaining", observing: "There's a sense that the Government is still quite didactic in terms of telling people what to think. Like a parent who feels hurt when the child does not honour what he's done, its first impulse is to correct the child's mistaken views.

"People seldom have the chance to speak in public. When they do, it is not always with finesse. Can we have a certain generosity in the way we engage and get behind the anger, the shrill voice to find out the truth, even if we dislike hearing it?"

To truly bring out different voices, he thinks the selection of culturally sensitive and engaging facilitators is critical.

Technocrats will need to draw on the skills and talents of artists and theatre practitioners, whose work is fundamentally about imagination and engaging audiences different from themselves, he says.

To build trust, transparency is also key, said executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) Corinna Lim. Citizens should have as much access to relevant information as possible to be part of the nation-building project, she adds.

To prevent cynicism, frequent and sustained communication beyond the electoral cycle is vital, says Mr Zulkifli. "We seem to have lost the ability to translate Singapore's existential vulnerabilities to the younger generation. It is important for them to understand how we got here, what trade-offs others made, and what trade-offs the next generation has to make," he adds.


The public service does not lack channels for engagement. These are enshrined in Cabinet decision-making, policy drafting and legislation, right down to individual performance appraisals.

But two issues stand in the way of it being an intrinsic part of public servants' work. First, not all are given, or confident that they have been given, the mandate to experiment and manage ground-up concerns in the most efficient and effective manner.

Second, government agencies naturally want to identify and work with stakeholders they know, deem relevant, and who are, of course, willing and available.

With this conventional source material, some might think that Singapore Together has its work cut out if it is to think out of the box. Can it be more than a well-designed collection of discrete sector-specific engagement exercises? If not, observes LKYSPP's Prof Tan, it may produce outcomes not terribly dissimilar to what ministries have started through their work plans.

Housing, for instance, cuts across social and environment issues and vice versa. Will there be mechanisms for cross-sector dialogue, input and adjustments along the way?

Another risk is that the public may assume that all its concerns will be directly translated into policy instruments. To prevent this, says Prof Tan, a distinction must be made between envisioning and policy production, otherwise this could engender further scepticism and disengagement.

The elephant in the room is representation.

Are voluntary welfare organisations and grassroots associations considered more acceptable than activist civil society groups advocating specific interests?

If interest groups have more opportunities to bring about change, will issues such as the environment and social inequality be deemed more constructive than contentious issues like LGBT rights?

When the OSC committee was formed in 2012, observers expressed disappointment with the lack of opposition party members and alternative voices.

Then Education Minister Heng explained that the members were chosen for their individual perspectives and experiences, and not as "functional representatives of particular groups or to advocate particular interests".

Mr Zulkifli emphasises that the elected Government represents all Singaporeans, including those who have not voted for it. "That ideologically has to be the difference going forward in this process," he says.

But even if one hopes this is the case for Singapore Together, political considerations cut both ways.

"Even if one wishes to include the opposition, why would they want to, in a sense, give credit and be co-opted into the narrative?" asks LKYSPP's Prof Tan.

And when parties come from diametrically opposing positions, getting off the starting block is a challenge, never mind reaching the finish line.

Singapore Democratic Party secretary-general Chee Soon Juan tells Insight: "A democracy of deeds is a continuing exercise in word games... no amount of spin and clever use of words can camouflage the PAP's insistence of one-party rule." He was referring to the term used by DPM Heng, who said that partnership is more than contributing feedback, suggestions or ideas, and also about following through and making things happen.


Economist Mariana Mazzucato has written of mission-oriented governance, where a nation identifies certain grand challenges as priorities.

There are also missions that tackle specific problems, such as reducing carbon emissions by a given percentage over a specific period. These missions require different sectors - food, transport, energy and education - to work together to bring about change.

A Singapore Together supported by an expanded "democracy of deeds", a term first used by founding leader S. Rajaratnam, echoes this need for both a shared vision as well as a decentralised network for action.

At the programme and policy level, the Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) that Mr Heng introduced are instructive.

Built on the understanding that a one-size-fits-all approach is too blunt, the ITMs are less about picking winners, and more about enhancing institutions' and individuals' capabilities.

Although a government agency assumes responsibility for each ITM, resources are made available for each of the 23 industries, their leaders and representative bodies to customise solutions to drive transformation at the company, industry and economy-wide levels.

It is still unclear how this will be expanded to other spheres of life.

To carry out Singapore Together will require whole-of-nation, not just whole-of-government or industry efforts - as SMU's Prof Tan says, a redefinition of the role of the state vis-a-vis the individual and family.

For Dr Lum, a combination of Singapore Together with the flexibility to spot new ideas is ideal. "The answer might not come from a committee or a discussion group, but from someone with a wild idea that might in the end be quite workable.

"Or maybe the wacky idea won't work for Singapore but could work perfectly well somewhere else - will we be able to spot that idea and help make it a reality for the benefit of the global community?"


Even amid Singapore's various existential limitations, it still cannot always be sprinting in a marathon.

But, asks SMU's Prof Tan, how then can Singapore come up with a race plan so that everyone not just completes the race, but does so with society still intact?

To achieve this, perhaps what Singaporeans hope for is a Government that is not just purposeful, but also empathetic, empowering and inspiring.

Dr Koh says: "Our political culture has tended to be 'look, these are the things that need fixing'. Singaporeans want to know the Government has an exciting vision they want to be a part of."

If done well, it is not hard to see how Singapore Together harks back to the roots of the PAP as a movement of like-minded activists by the people, for the people.

SMU's Prof Tan notes that action is foundational to Singapore Together and emphasises the ruling party's middle name.

"If it can put these things together - ideas, passion and action, resulting in a Government that works not just for the people, but with the people - one can speak of Singapore Together as a movement."

Singaporeans, too, must play their part. Mr Zulkifli puts it succinctly: "You can disagree with the Government, but you cannot be disinterested in Singapore."

From Feedback Unit to Our Singapore Conversation: A look at citizen engagement exercises
By Grace Ho, The Sunday Times, 14 Jul 2019

Political observer and former Nominated MP (NMP) Zulkifli Baharudin notes: "In the early years, elections were almost a referendum on the popularity of the People's Action Party. There was no question the PAP would be in government."

This started to change in the 1984 General Election, when opposition members were elected to Parliament for the first time. In 1985, Singapore experienced its first post-independence economic recession. There was a need to communicate to the public why the Government had to review policies, and how this would affect them.

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who was then Deputy Prime Minister, set up the Feedback Unit in 1985 for Singaporeans to share their views on policies. Four years later, a Cabinet sub-committee was convened to plan for Singapore's long-term development under The Next Lap.

After Mr Goh became prime minister in 1990, these efforts - coupled with the setting up of the Non-Constituency MP and NMP schemes and government parliamentary committees - came to define him as a more consultative leader than his predecessor Lee Kuan Yew.

Singapore 21 (S21) and Remaking Singapore were announced in 1997 and 2001 respectively, also election years.

Shifting the focus from material progress to people, S21 engaged 6,000 Singaporeans across over 80 forums and put forth five ideals for the national vision: every Singaporean matters, strong families, opportunities for all, the Singapore heartbeat, and active citizenship.

In the wake of the crash and terror attacks on the United States on Sept 11, 2001, the Remaking Singapore Committee complemented the work of the Economic Review Committee to review strategies for 21st-century Singapore.


By the time Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was then Deputy Prime Minister, gave his speech at the Harvard Club in 2004, the tone had been set for a more open and inclusive style of leadership. Mr Lee said "one important task of the Government will be to promote further civic participation, and continue to progressively widen the limit of openness".

But it is 2012's Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) that looms largest in public memory. Unprecedented in its scope and ambition, the year-long exercise covered over 600 dialogues and almost 50,000 Singaporeans from a wide cross-section of society.

No doubt some national soul-searching was prompted by the bruising 2011 election results, where the PAP won with its lowest vote share of 60.1 per cent since Singapore's independence in 1965.

OSC marked a radical departure in the way the Government engaged its citizens.

Institute of Policy Studies deputy director for research Gillian Koh says: "Up till then, the Government had set the agenda for the consultation, picked the persons who would drive the process, and asked themselves the questions they wanted answers to. OSC allowed anyone interested to come to the table and share their points of view."

Three key policy shifts resulted from OSC - housing (income ceiling changes), healthcare (MediShield Life), and education (PSLE scoring system). More crucially, OSC set about rebuilding trust between the state and its citizens.

Said then Education Minister Heng Swee Keat at the annual dinner of the Economic Society of Singapore in 2013: "The OSC is part of the process of building adaptive capacity, allowing Singaporeans to engage one another on issues close to our hearts, see how the perfect solution may not suit another, and learn to compromise so as to shape the Singapore they hope to see in the future. The OSC process is critical in building trust."

Singapore Together: What three civil society representatives say
As the Government embarks on its latest citizen engagement exercise - Singapore Together - Insight talks to three civil society representatives on what they feel are important, from transparency to openness to new ideas
By Grace Ho, The Sunday Times, 14 Jul 2019

Wildlife expert Subaraj Rajathurai, 56, is the director and founder of Strix Wildlife Consultancy. A member of the Nature Society (Singapore) since the 1980s, he worked on a proposal back then to save the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, which had been slated for redevelopment.

Passion in action

Some of us from the Nature Society spent eight months writing a proposal on Sungei Buloh, and submitted it to everyone including the president and prime minister. (The society was the first civil society group to successfully lobby the Government for a change of plans).

As for the Chek Jawa wetlands, you can say that it was saved by the public - it was difficult for the authorities not to notice the hundreds of Singaporeans visiting it on weekends.

We started from a point when biodiversity and conversation were an afterthought, to it being considered at the planning level. Now, you cannot undertake a planning development without an environmental impact assessment.

The trade-offs

We weighed the options. Since the Government was looking at active sewage works and industrial use in Lorong Halus, housing development in Senoko, and agro-tech for Sungei Buloh, we thought that a proposal for Sungei Buloh stood a better chance. In the 1980s, there were more pressing needs like water and housing.

The Nature Society tried to preserve areas like Lorong Halus and Sungei Mandai and was turned down, as the Government wanted to retain the options of development and reclamation. For Sungei Buloh, we got about a quarter of the land we asked for, but it was still a tremendous achievement and milestone.

Working with the Government

Then Minister for National Development S. Dhanabalan did not mince his words if you proposed something that did not make sense, but he was willing to listen if you made a proper case.

Despite the fact that it was a difficult period for Singapore and we could not conserve much, Mr Dhanabalan managed to get Sungei Buloh protected. Parcels of land were even added to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew was personally involved in "greening" the city, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has taken a strong interest in the environment. When I started 38 years ago, the decision-makers did not want to listen to us, but today they are actively seeking dialogue.

Hopes for the future

As we reach the limits of development and move closer to wildlife areas, there will be an increase in human-wildlife conflict. Climate change is also a major issue.

Will the environment be as important under the fourth-generation leadership? I worry about that. I hope that Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat can continue the consultative era that Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong started, and which continues under PM Lee.

It is important to come up with, and incorporate, fresh ideas. It would be good to have a few more dialogue sessions with Mr Heng, so we can discuss with him and find out his approach and opinions.

SG100 is about our young people. They have to decide what kind of Singapore they want to live in.

Ms Corinna Lim, 54, executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), is a former lawyer. She helped to draft the Family Violence Bill tabled by then Nominated MP Kanwaljit Soin in 1995. It was not supported, but its key proposals were later included in amendments to the Women's Charter.

Passion in action

In recent years, we have had continuous engagement with the Government on almost all the major issues we are working on - harassment, sexual assault, single parents, lower-income families.

Voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) are a treasure trove of information and know intimately what is happening in people's lives. We hope that the Government will encourage VWOs to go beyond service delivery, to share their perspectives on, and be involved in, solving systemic issues.

Working with the Government

The Government at all levels is more accessible and more keen to engage than 10 years ago. In the past, it was more common to get zero response to our requests to meet on issues.

We are usually able to arrange meetings with them to discuss our research and to share perspectives.

Where we can identify common areas, we or our partners have been able to collaborate with it to come up with solutions.

Attitudes vary; some ministers and civil servants are more open to collaborating.

So the 4G team giving the signal to be even more open and to engage is good, and we hope that it will in fact take the lead in doing this. Hopes for the future Concrete steps can be taken in several areas.


Transparency is key to building trust. For citizens to be part of the nation-building project, they should have as much access to relevant information as possible. We would love to see more proactive releases of trends and data initiated by each ministry.


The Government could start with streaming at least those topics that are of wide public interest, for example, the Committee of Supply debate on ageing and caregiving.


Singapore has become more diverse in terms of family structures and household types, such as single-parent households and transnational families. Our policies must take into account this diversity and be updated to support people who most need help and fall outside mainstream family structures.

A successful Singapore must be successful for each and every one of us. Self-reliance is a virtue that all Singaporeans subscribe to.

Thus, we should move away from a system of welfare that is suspicious of people who have to rely on it, and instead make it easier for people who need help to get help more easily and on a more timely basis.


We reiterate our recommendation on free childcare for those with household income of less than $2,500. There is plenty of research to show the positive effects of early childhood education and development.

If we truly believe that we need a village to raise a child, then we must not predicate a child's access to childcare to the family's ability to work, because it's everyone's responsibility to educate the child, and not just the family's.


A democracy of deeds is an extension of democracy of ideas, and we hope the Government welcomes both ideas and actions.

Even when we have wildly differing views, we should not presume that any individual or organisation has a personal agenda, and is not committed to the overall betterment of all Singaporeans.

Mr Dedric Wong De Li, 32, general manager and assistant conductor of Ding Yi Music Company, is a member of the SG Youth Action Plan panel. The five-year plan is a platform for Singapore's young people to shape their vision for the country and develop plans for youth, community organisations, businesses and the Government to realise this vision together.

Passion in action

Passion is important in bringing Singapore to another level of excellence. Singapore has nurtured many talented people and successful companies, and it would be great if we can join hands with the Government.

I see it as the "kampung spirit" generated by citizens, where people with various abilities and strengths come together with a common passion to build a better Singapore.

Working with the Government

As a Youth Action Plan panellist, I have to be neutral and attend conversations with youth as much as possible, so that I can bring relevant concerns back to the committee for discussion. Therefore, I always hope to get sincere and in-depth conversations.

For this to be effective, it has to be a two-way process of communication. Citizens have to be willing to voice truthful, relevant and effective concerns; while the Government has to listen to, and reflect on, these concerns and worries.

A second important factor is trust. Citizens must trust the sincerity of the Government's intentions when it is seeking feedback or engaging them. If we take a laid-back attitude and feel that this is just another government exercise with no outcomes, then this engagement will not move forward.

Hopes for the future

Listening to the voices of citizens is very important. While there are already many channels of communication, we can explore more online channels where citizens are able to voice their concerns.

Such channels may be more effective and help to bring across the message better. Also, more explanation from the Government on various policies would be helpful.

As a musician and artist, many policies and issues may not be directly relatable to me. But as citizens, we should be concerned about Singapore's development and, as much as possible, contribute to the country's growth.

This affects not only us but also future generations.

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