Government engagement – the problem is looking for a solution

~ By Howard Lee ~

If there is any reason to take heart that the Singapore government is doing all it can to engage Singaporeans in the wake of General Election 2011, it will have to be the statement by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Giving an early report card of-sorts for the People’s Action Party leadership since May 2011, PM Lee indicated that, “It's not just what the government does, it's also about how the electorate sees its role in the new environment, and how it sees it can contribute and what it thinks its responsibilities towards making the system work in a different way.”

This statement, understated thought it may sound, should have been a clear signal that the PAP has indeed learnt its lesson about consulting citizens and have embarked on an open-door approach to make itself more relevant to the electorate.

Hang on, wait for it. Here it comes: “"Because this is not about what more the government can do – of course the government must do all it can, that is its responsibility. But it's also how we can work together to make Singapore succeed. And that calls for Singaporeans to not just speak out, but also to participate and to feel the responsibility to do their part to make things happen the right way."

PM Lee seems more interested in defining a “new paradigm” for citizen engagement: That the government would consult citizens and take in their ideas and suggestions, but the ultimate purpose of such efforts is to do things the “right way”.

Surely this argument has been made before? In the simplest sense of reading this, by declaring that there is a right way of doing things, PM Lee has automatically pigeon-holed and segmented the two parties of every engagement attempt – the pro-progress ball-players who help to refine the government’s plans (i.e. the right way), and the regressive anti-social trouble-makers who are against the government’s plans, possibly all out to trip it (i.e. the wrong way).

Barely a year, and the new normal, it would seem, has reverted back to the old normal. At this point, I began to wonder if all the blood and tears that have been shed in May 2011 was really worth it.

What I find more worrying is whether the current administration purposefully does a spot of agenda setting – tried and tested, irritating, but not really harmful – or if it genuinely believes that it has attempted to engage citizens in a supposedly new compact – blissful ignorance, and infinitely more dangerous if it really thinks that is the way to go.

What ailed, and by all indications continue to ail, the current administration’s attempts at citizen engagement is that it is too focused on finding a solution, and not on the problem.

From that position, the very best brains in public service – and I mean this sincerely, credit to some of the smartest engineers and strategists hired – would invariably turn up with the “best solution”, involving the lowest cost, minimal disruption to everyday life, and generally one that makes policy makers think, “Why do we need to engage citizens in the first place?”.

Bukit Brown was one such case. Some pro-progress policy brain took a look at a neglected graveyard and thought no one would ever miss it. Surprise, then, when the plans met with a vocal push-back. By then, plans were drawn, and the Ministry for National Development was placed in a situation where it has to “compromise” on its plans. In such an argument, those who call for the conservation of Bukit Brown have already lost the battle of semantics, no matter what comes out of the token citizen engagement process.

Yet it is becoming clear that some citizens are beginning to doubt if the proposed highway would really relieve congestion as planned. Apart from voicing concerns, alternative proposals that try to address the indicated problem of congestion where also raised, and it remains to be seen if MND would be willing to back down from its original (and mildly modified) proposal and take these suggestions seriously, and in good faith of re-looking the problem.

The truth is, citizens often do not see and accept why the problem exists. It is not a denial of reality, but a mere sense that the way the administration has framed the problem is not quite right to begin with.

The case of elderly facilities at void decks is another such example. Clear lines were drawn between the implementers and those who say “not in my backyard” or NIMBY (word of advice: Labelling is a form of generalisation that puts you ahead in the PR game, but gets you nowhere if you want genuine, open engagement between equals). But lost somewhere in the narrative of the daily news is the hint that citizens generally accept a need for elderly facilities, but not necessarily in the way envision, and most definitely not in the best use of void decks. Were these concerns addressed and options explored? Not by the looks of it, particularly not if it is supported by right-wrong narratives, such as from a Member of Parliament that “the void deck is common space and approval need not be sought from the residents”.

We see these examples of focusing on the solution rather than the problem in specific cases where consultation has clearly failed, but also in broader policy moves, particularly in the wake of the Budget, that apparently does not to need consultation since everyone seems to like the idea.

Changes in housing and education policies that give more preference to citizens, for instance, were implemented without fuss and seemingly welcomed by citizens. And no doubt, they do provide short- to medium-term solutions to home ownership and parenting woes. But they are at best temporary band-aids that do not seem to have sight of the problem that they attempt to solve in the first place: The unchecked immigration policy that has led to competition for homes, places in schools, jobs, seats on the train…everything.

Strangely, if the current administration can even see the problem here, they might realise that most Singaporeans are not even against immigration or immigrants, but the seemingly loose criteria that has been used to define and let in “foreign talent”, with no clear indication that the majority have added more jobs to our economy, while anecdotal evidence points out that they are competing with citizens for them, compounded by the absence of clearly defined “citizens first” policies for employers. And throwing in the argument that “we are competing in the global job market anyway” just does not cut it, when there is no supporting evidence to show how many Singaporeans have the opportunity or luxury to compete in the global employment market.

It is not all doom and gloom for the current administration’s best, or worst, efforts at engaging citizens. The development of the KTM land parcels seems to have gotten on to a good start. For once, the government seems to have approached it with a clean slate, giving citizens free play in defining their own ideas about how the land should be used. While development is mandatory, development at all (reasonable) cost is not yet the mantra, and sustainable development has not been ruled out. But if we were to take a look at such efforts since May 2011, such consultative efforts might be the exception rather than the norm.

Indeed, what the PAP needs to do is to go to the root of the problem. Some citizens might be interested in helping to devise solutions, and it is always easy to make a sham out of engagement by finding the right and willing parties. But if this administration is genuine about citizen engagement, it most first take the humble pill and accept that in everything it plans to do – yes, consider everything – it might be looking at things the wrong way to begin with. This sure beats crying foul later, throwing labels like “nay-sayers”, and basically regressing to the old methods of “retrospective consultation”.

It is not about the detriment of delaying progress, but the benefit of having gone back, realise “why haven’t I thought of it like that”, and actually finding the best way, not the right way, to understand and solve a problem.