By Howard Lee
Was Our Singapore Conversations a big hoax? Since the days of the Feedback Unit, those more critical of the government’s interest to listen to the people would doubt that such feedback sessions actually get fed into some policy.
The black hole – and for the conspiracy theorists, something else more sinister – was never far from imagination.
As such, it is hardly a surprise that the recently released OSC Reflections report, in the wake of one year of chit-chats, took pains to assure readers that the 660 dialogues and 4,000 door-to-door surveys did not take place in vain. But in a fairly elaborate chart (page 44 of the report) that tried to outline where the ideas went, there was still no clear view of precisely how citizens’ views would feed back into the policy route. All we have is a promise at the bottom that it would.
Indeed, if there is one thing that can be said about OSC Reflections, it would be that it barely represents a policy document. More accurately, it is a massive 48-page text-heavy brochure for how well OSC was supposedly conducted.
Perhaps it is early days yet to see the effects of OSC filtering down into our daily lives, but surely broad policy direction’s is not too much to ask for, instead of the five "core aspirations" that we currently read in the OSC Reflections document.
Interestingly enough, among the five aspirations, trust was listed last. Perhaps it was saving the best for last, but that does not even come close to the issue. Trust between citizens and the government is paramount to everything else in the paper, including the other aspirations.
The real proof of trust, however, has to be found in the daily grind of our policy experience in everyday life, or what we read in our news sources. Perhaps the Prime Minister will make more of of joining the dots from OSC to policy directions in his National Day speech.
For what is the point of talking if we do not see tangible actions emanating from these diverse and supposedly all-involving conversations, actions represented in policies that make our lives better?
The current prognosis, however, is not in the government's favour, since the biggest policy blunder so far was an issue that irked Singaporeans the most, leading to two protests that saw record turnouts at Hong Lim Park – that of the Population White Paper.
TOC has highlighted in February, when the Paper was debated, that the key recommendations of the White Paper does not seem to have taken into account the key concerns and proposals made by Singaporeans during feedback sessions held earlier by the National Population and Talent Division.
The echo from this black hole resounds until today.
The White Paper is arguably the single most important document about Singapore’s directions/ targets/ ballpark-for-planning-purposes-thing on population issues. In addition, this is one issue that affects almost every aspect of Singapore society and our lived experience as citizens. That it has failed to include the views that citizens have painstakingly put together is nothing short of shocking, and the massive outcry made most deserving.
What then of next steps? For sure, OSC or whatever other name and form our policy makers choose to make of it, has to continue. Indeed, Minister Heng Swee Keat said it right – the Reflections paper is not the end. For that matter, OSC need not have started, so long as the government takes the views of Singaporeans seriously at every opportunity it gets, and then follow up on these views, or clearly explain why they cannot work.
The example of the White Paper clearly proves that we cannot take for granted that consultation is by default progress. It is the right and duty of every citizen, not just those who have participated in the exhausting consultation process, to monitor the progress of consultation-becoming-policy.
We need to be assured that the efforts made by citizens towards nation-building did not go to waste. Without this assurance, there can be no trust between the governed and the government, and all other "aspirations" will become moot.
The burden of building that trust rests on the government, whether it likes it or not. For too long, it has chipped away at the bank account of trust. It is now time to initiate new deposits. No doubt, citizens will be more inclined to pitch in their fair share when they see their interests have not been squandered.
The five core aspirations listed in OSC reflections were Opportunities, Purpose, Assurance, Spirit, and Trust.
The aspiration of Trust was defined as:
“Singaporeans want to contribute towards building our common future. This requires deepening trust among Singaporeans and between the government and citizens. We value open and sincere engagement, and believe civic-minded Singaporeans should be welcomed to engage meaningfully with policy makers and with one another. The OSC process has also helped foster understanding of the interests and cares of different groups of Singaporeans, and an appreciation of the importance of compromise and give-and-take.
As a society, we need to:
- Encourage constructive and meaningful citizen engagement on policies that impact our society, and nurture leaders who can connect with Singaporeans from all walks of life.
- Strengthen trust and accountability between the government and people. The government should share the reasons behind policies and create or enhance spaces for on-going interactions, outreach and data-sharing.
- Promote mutual understanding between different groups of Singaporeans who may have different views of the issues we care about, so that we can stay together and move ahead as a community through compromise and give-and-take.”