The National Conversation [Review]
The Singapore Conversation
26 January 2013, 9 am-12.30 pm, SMU Administration Building
Try as people might in flowing articles of wit and passion, it is difficult to truly sustain a belief in the notion that one’s voice or vote has any substantive impact on anything at all. This is the case here. 3 and 1/2 hours, lots of frothy discussion, but ultimately a sense of emptiness, much like the feeling after finishing a game of Minesweeper. It is the feeling of achievement without weight.
This is not, I think, a criticism of how the conversation was conducted, which was by and large well thought-out. About 40 participants were split into 6 groups of 6-7 each, with two dozen or so facilitators. After an introductory brief, we split into these small groups and
The session I attended was split into two parts, one in a small group of about 6 participants and 4 facilitators (not ominous enforcer-types, but rather bored people interested in people talking), and the other in a large group of about 50 people. First, we spent an hour and a half in these small groups, making our way through whatever the people in the group brings up, and then in half an hour or so, the groups were combined, and the dialogue was conducted in this larger setting. I did not experience any significant trouble with the usual pitfalls: an unequal conversation dominated by a few strong players, hostile disagreement, or inept facilitators.
However, the experience is largely dependent on the quality of the group. Mine was largely comprised of rather high-flying career types: 3 had jobs with an international focus, and hence were quite vocal on Singapore’s need to stay competitive vis-a-vis the world, another was a high school teacher of Chinese who largely looked quite sleepy, and lastly, we had a rather bubbly student from a polytechnic who has a place at UCL this fall (and in a dramatic twist, who turns out to be one of the members of the Singapore Conversation committee). It turns out that we were pretty much in agreement: we believed in the need to be economically competitive, that a Singapore identity cannot be force-shaped in a theoretical test tube, and that there are elements of the system that could be better designed, such as including more educational through routes. It might have been more interesting if we had a strong proponent of the popular welfare-Singapore alternative view.
We did have that in the big group of course, but in such a big setting, the facilitator did not attempt any synthesis of views, merely the noting of them. This of course made the whole thing seem shallow, but the committee was clear about their limited aim in this “first phase” of the conversation. Policy problem-solvers, hence, would do well to only go for a conversation in a later phase. The facilitator was quite clear that the committee was in no hurry to rush the process.
In summary, it was agreeable enough, and a decent way to spend the morning in an argument clinic, but ultimately, those who have a mind for concrete solutions or well-set conclusions would be disappointed. But in a way, the very impossibility of the notion of a common Singaporean vision should have been apparent from the start. In the same way nobody talks of a London direction or a Tokyo dream, a Singapore vision suggests a sort of journey for the country that all citizens agree to embark on, and a common endpoint that satisfies all parties. An absurd utopian dream! And in a way, the very notion of a common goal for a place presupposes a commitment to the collective that may be quite offensive for some.
I think we are past the point where more introspection about direction and goals will be fruitful. We need to get past and finally discard the metaphor of the collective journey, and instead think about what we are actually doing, that is, designing public policies that will be acceptable to the majority of people. Of course this requires us to talk about the sort of country that we want Singapore to be, but only as the end-point of policy. For example, I think it is strange to talk about growth-oriented policies; instead we should examine the policies behind them and evaluate them as a whole, treating the promotion of growth as a factor in the consideration. By considering what we CAN do instead of what we WANT to do will give us a more rigorous understanding of what will actually happen.
All this means that the Conversation is likely to be of little practical use to the government. Which is fine by them, I suppose: hardly their fault if the public does not have a unified or strong voice in any direction.