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Another conversation? Hold that cynicism

And at the end of five days of parliamentary speeches, we are going to have…another conversation? I suppose we should wait for the details on how this coming conversation will be conducted before being consumed by cynicism.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, originator of the first conversation, said this second one will reach different age groups, such as millennials, Gen X, Baby Boomers and Pioneers and different segments such as unionists, grassroots leaders and volunteer groups. I don’t suppose it will be much different in its conversation coverage, that is, it would include anyone and everyone. In fact, that 2012/13 exercise included 47,000 Singaporeans from over 40 private and non-profit organisations in over 660 dialogues. I think many might have forgotten we later had the smaller SGFuture dialogues a few years later, on imagining a Singapore in 50 years.

The eye-rolling has already started.

My eyeballs went up into my brain until I recalled that the Our Singapore Conversation wasn’t a bad exercise. Really. And it did culminate in tangible policy changes especially in housing, transport and healthcare. Rules allowing more singles to live in public housing, the change of PSLE format and the introduction of Medishield Life are some notable examples. The pity is that the G is quite bad at referencing the policies to what the people had said in the Our Singapore Conversation. Hence, the eye-rolling now about the prospect of another No action, Talk only exercise.

I covered that OSC exercise quite extensively and gave the final report a thumbs-up. Among other things, it included views which would ordinarily be confined to what has been described as the vocal minority, such as: “As citizens, we sometimes feel that the government could trust us more. At the end of the day, we may not always agree with the government’s decisions. But we would like to have more information to make an informed assessment and to arrive at conclusions of our own.’’

There were several calls for engagement and inclusivity, a compassionate meritocracy and how the nature of governance needed “updating’’, along with the “talents’’ and “temperaments’’ involved.  Singaporeans let it all hang out.

Will another conversation lead to more of the same sentiment? Or is the 4G leadership more concerned with the process of forging bonds through engagement, rather than its tangible results?

Looking back over events of the past two years or so, I have come round to thinking that such engagement would be good for the 4G leaders and the people. This is because recent events have rocked my Singaporean core (I can speak for myself only).

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Here are some worries that run through my Gen X head:

  1. Effectiveness of the G: The recent public transport woes, while being addressed, has led to the perception that the G and its companies aren’t as efficient and top-class as they are made out to be. This, despite constant exhortations that Singapore should pursue excellence and exceptionalism.
  2. Vulnerability of the G: The FamiLEE saga has shaken sentiments about the leadership of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who has been accused by his own siblings of being, among other things, power hungry. He has chosen not to sue for defamation, which makes him an open target in elections.
  3. Temperament of the G: The recent Select Committee hearings on fake news proposals showed a G that tended not just to demolish arguments, but also to belittle people – a 1G practice.
  4. Opacity of the G: Information is still hard to come by, especially with the re-surfacing of the use of the Official Secrets Act and the way contempt of court laws are being selectively applied. And I still don’t understand why parliamentary proceedings can’t be broadcast live.
  5. Paucity of the G: This has to do with the talent induction process, with the parachuting of ex-military men into key positions. It gives rise to worries about the the small talent pool Singapore has and how big a part group-think plays in policy-making.
  6. Heavy-handedness of the G: This is my biggest beef – pushing through a race-based reserved presidency in Singapore. I will add though that the G could only do this because people were sleeping while the discussions were going on.

Now, the G is filled with intelligent people, and will have a counter-argument to every point made above.

  1. There are numerous indices which tout Singapore’s efficiency and so forth as Number 1. On balance, this is a good G.
  2. Parliament has no problems with PM Lee Hsien Loong’s leadership, even if his siblings do.
  3. The G has a policy of robust replies to counter views that it believes to be wrong.
  4. Secrets are secrets, and contempt of court laws aren’t applied willy-nilly. The rule of the law must be upheld – to the letter.
  5. Judge not a man by his background but what he can bring to the table.
  6. An activist race policy is needed to maintain multi-racial harmony.

In any case, my list above will be viewed as out-of-touch with the sentiments of the so-called silent majority. They will be concerned with bread-and-butter issues, whether they will get a flat, have a job and have enough savings to retire on. This means that the G must make sure the Industry Transformation Maps are executed properly to create higher-paying jobs, calibrate taxes to bankroll future social spending, and have an immigrant policy that will top up – and not overwhelm – the Singapore.

In other words, delivering material goods and a higher standard of living are most important to the people.  This is true for my parents’ generation because they started from a low base, and even for my generation – but I would worry if the next generation only cares about scaling the material ladder when they are already living in plenty.

Signs are that the young people want a bigger say in how this country moves ahead.  This idealism should not be dampened. I don’t think that they want a G which talks down to them, and uses “trust’’ as a euphemism for “we know best’’. Nor would they be convinced by the constant public profiling of the G with its numerous G-commissioned surveys which almost always support the G position. There is such a thing as “too good to be true’’. But hey, that’s not the business of this Gen X-er. Let the millennials dictate the dialogue.

For myself, I would like to put my list behind me and open my mind to what the 4G leadership wants to achieve for Singapore. I welcome the next series of conversations because it will give a sense of what the young leaders stand for and how much of a break from the past we can expect.  Methinks we should all get behind the 4G leadership in starting a new relationship between the governed and the government

From reading the speeches, it is clear that the issue of social inequality and mobility will take centre stage. It is a big bone to chew on because it would involve every aspect of our lives – from how to give our less well-off children a good start to creating more spaces for social interaction.

I would hold Mr Heng to this promise in his speech: “The fourth generation leadership will listen with humility and respect. We will consider all views with an open mind, and adjust our course accordingly. We will communicate the thinking behind our decisions clearly. We will bring Singaporeans together and give everyone a role to turn good ideas into concrete action.’’

Let the conversation begin.



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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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