By Choo Zheng Xi/Consultant Editor

It was a jarringly dissonant quote, presented on page 8 of the Sunday Times by reporter Goh Chin Lian quoting Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat on the “Our Singapore Committee”:

“"Asked why "alternative voices" such as bloggers and opposition MPs were not included, he replied: "this is not a partisan exercise""

The quote, in the manner it was presented, predictably rang alarm bells in the blogosphere.

Anyone reading that ST article would be led to believe that the Minister’s intention was to exclude bloggers and opposition MPs because they are perceived as “partisan”.

As several commenters on TOC’s Facebook page pointed out, this would be precisely the wrong way of kicking off the National conversation: such a move would be perceived as explicitly partisan. One commenter noted: “he sounded so PARTISAN, oh the irony”. Another commenter said in disappointment: “40% of Singaporeans don’t matter it seems”.

Blogger Kirsten Han put it succinctly:

“I don’t get it. If we really wanted the whole thing to be non-partisan, wouldn’t that be more reason to include bloggers and opposition MPs (read: people who are likely to be critical of status quo)? The inclusion of opposition MPs would show that the committee is truly representative of Singaporeans across the political spectrum. Surely that’s desirable?”

Similarly outraged, I dropped Acting Minister of Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin a Facebook note (he’s known to be very responsive online) and expressed my disappointment with Heng Swee Keat’s statement.

I told the Minister:

“A national conversation has to take into account shaping the political landscape, which is an important part of civic participation and a sense of belonging, so it's unhelpful to exclude "partisan" voices: I thought the new normal was that we recognized all political actors, whether PAP or not were working for the good of the country.”

I also said:

“I certainly don't consider myself or my fellow bloggers as "partisan" and if we don't break out of the perception cycle that blogger = pro-opposition then that will forever remain the case, which is unfortunate.”

Funnily enough, when Tan Chuan-Jin replied a few hours later, it became apparent to me that the Government actually intends the opposite of the meaning that was conveyed in the Straits Times article.

What Heng Swee Keat really meant

Tan Chuan-Jin replied:

“Swee Kiat (sic) does not mean that you guys are partisan. He literally means that it is not a partisan exercise and various parties would be included at the various platforms. Opposition as well.” (emphasis added).

In a follow-up to his message, he continued:

“In fact, many of us feel very strongly about including a wide range of voices and have been discussing the people whom we can and should meet.

It is not possible to converse about our future if we are blinkered. As far as the civil society space is concerned, we will gather their points from their stated positions, their posts and conversations with us online and off line, we'd also meet a range of them in person though we can't meet all.”

Personally, I found Chuan-Jin’s response reassuring, and am happy to withhold judgment until the process of the National conversation pans out further.

I’m also hopeful that this conversation can take place as a dialogue between equals, with both partners open to being convinced of the other’s point of view.

While dialogue partners do not necessarily have to agree on the substance of the conversations they’re having, it certainly helps to know that your dialogue partners are conversing in good faith.

Which brings me to what I think is the most important takeaway I hope bloggers and policy-makers can draw from the little engagement above.

The entire misunderstanding was created by a poorly contextualized quote in the mainstream media, and was clarified within the day on online media.

The manner in which news is created and perceived is no longer static and controllable, and misperceptions can go viral within a matter of hours.

However, while there are now exponentially more opportunities for controversy, there are just as many openings for speedy clarification if the medium of the internet is genuinely engaged for the purposes of meaningful dialogue.

Chuan-Jin has been admirably active in having some honest conversations online, and it’s my hope that other members of the People’s Action Party and the opposition do too.

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