Making the National Conversation national

The government has initiated the National Conversation. It’s a nation-wide exercise that hopes to get Singaporeans thinking about the next 20 years. The committee on the national conversation states it will seek opinions through Facebook and its website, organise citizens’ dialogues and organise focus group discussions.

I want to be optimistic about this. The government — and by extension the People’s Action Party — is attempting to engage people on issues of national importance. The National Conversation is trying to expand the realm of dialogue, moving away from the government’s preferred closed-door sessions and towards public consultation. It seems as though it is trying to move away from top-down politics and towards a more consultative model.

But I’m a realist. The opening of this article by Walter Jayandran described the last time something similar was held. To wit, nothing significant came out of the affair. Further, the government does not have a good track record in listening to public voices on policy matters. Just to name one example, the public did not want casinos in Singapore, but the government went ahead to approve them anyway. Sometimes it seems as if public consultative exercises are simply to create the illusion of democracy, while the government goes ahead with its plans.

It’s easy to say that the government is being autocratic. In a sense, it is. But it is also true that the government could have done much, much worse. Instead, Singapore today is a global city. The government prides itself on being able to make the hard choices in the face of popular opinion. That is an admirable trait — assuming the ‘hard choices’ are also the right choices.

The main problem, I think, is that the government sees itself as the arbiter of national dialogue, and the political style of the People’s Action Party the baseline by which such dialogue can be conducted.  The PAP is itself a partisan body, but with the government branding itself ‘non-partisan’, the only form of partisanship the government accepts is to be a part of the PAP. In doing so, the government is able to justify marginalising and ignoring people it disagrees with to itself, its supporters, and society.

Too often it does. Opposition parties have historically made very little headway in local politics, and the government is quick to denounce opposition leaders who try to be heard — most notable Dr Chee Soon Juan. Bloggers and dissidents used to be routinely dismissed if they were spouting unorthodox views, and they still face difficulties when trying to engage the government. Anybody who even appears to have come close to breaking the law will be treated harshly by the judiciary in criminal cases and lawsuits. Policies that restrict freedom of speech are still kept vague, presumably because it gives the state maximum leeway to clamp down on inconvenient voices. When people start asking hard questions on issues from public transport to public housing, it’s only a matter of time before the government issues a press release and declares it’s time to ‘move on’.

On one hand, I don’t think public policy should be decided by demagogues and populists. I do agree that policy discussions should be respectful and based on facts and reason. On the other, this is not an excuse to dismiss people whose views the government doesn’t agree with. If the government wants a discussion that is respectful and based on facts and reason, it has to see the discussion through and resolve everybody’s concerns. It cannot simply attach a worthless label, repeat its point of view, say it’s time to ‘move on’, and pretend that people actually believe it.

An inclusive conversation isn’t defined by the government. It is defined by everybody. Government officials on Facebook need to stop deleting comments asking hard questions and instead address them fully and frankly. Even saying ‘this is a complex issue; I respect your views and will bring them up’ is a better answer than simply deleting them. The government needs to talk to its ideological counterparts in the opposition parties. It needs to talk to civil society members who spent their lives thinking about societal problems and how to solve them. It needs to talk to opinion leaders. It needs to do so  publicly, on the same scale and with the same transparency as its dialogue with the public. It cannot, and must not, marginalise and ignore credible voices.

If the government wants discussions based on fact and reason, it needs to make facts available so people can use reason to discuss issues. That means a Freedom of Information Act open to anyone to invoke. The government should not simply make facts available when it is convenient to do so; it needs to allow regular citizens access to information if it really wants a useful conversation.

To have a national conversation, the government needs to have an actual conversation. It has to discard its strong-arm tactics and engage its opponents in public dialogue. It needs to make information available so people can usefully contribute to the conversation. It needs to deal with everyone — opposition, citizen, dissident, blogger — with respect.

In short, it has to live up to its word.

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