Govt should seek to engage civil society organisations and groups

Speech by Nominated Member of Parliament,  Janice Koh at the Debate on the President’s Address on 29 May 2014

Thank you, Madam Speaker, for the opportunity to speak on the Motion to thank the President for his Address. Madam, the landscape for governance will be more complex and involve more players in the second half-century of our nation’s life than it has in the first. People increasingly want to participate in public debates and discussions, either as individual commentators or as part of a civil society organisation or a special interest group. It should be their right to do so. Not everyone wants to join a political party to air their views, nor should they have to.

In this context, I welcome the President’s remarks affirming the need for vigorous debates on the challenges facing our nation.

This trend of speaking up, participating, challenging and debate carries risks and opportunities for Singapore.  If we get it right, we will be a diverse, plural society where mutual respect is built around a Singaporean identity that is strongly felt, but at ease with itself.  If we get it wrong, we may become a brittle nation of closed-minded individuals, divided along real or imaginary social fault-lines, where an uneasy semblance of peace has to be enforced by interventionist security agencies.  The Government has a major role to play in mitigating those risks while making the most of the opportunities.  I have two points to make in this regard:

First, and fundamentally, we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that the purpose of a debate is to ‘settle’ an issue.  Sometimes, debates cannot be definitively ‘settled’, and sometimes, coming to a conclusion about an issue is neither an essential outcome of debate, nor even a feasible one.

Madam, we should distinguish between complicated problems and complex issues. Complex social, economic and political issues are not the same as, say, complicated mathematical problems.  Unlike problem sums, there is no clear right or wrong answer to complex issues. As Mr Baey Yam Keng mentioned earlier, we have learnt that Singapore’s declining fertility rate is a multi-faceted and complex issue that baby bonuses alone could not address. The passage of time changes the nature of complex issues, which can neither be resolved easily nor settled in perpetuity.  They can only be managed poorly or well. Often, they are issues that government alone cannot resolve.

In addressing complex issues, we must not just pursue policy results, but also civic results. Civic results are about engagement, empowered communities and active citizenship. Jocelyne Bourgon, the former Secretary to the Canadian Cabinet, has written much about the challenge for government to achieve both public policy and civic results – not one or the other, and not one at the expense of the other. She says, “Public policy results build the credibility of government, civic results increase their legitimacy. Taken together, they provide a foundation of trust.” I therefore share Mr David Ong’s view that trust can be engendered when we are sincere in involving citizens in the policy-making process. But when we frame the purpose of debate as one of ‘settling’ an issue, we become overly focused on the policy result, and on being efficient, and we risk overlooking the importance of involving citizens and communities in the debate.

That being said, I also acknowledge that it is equally important to build our capacity as a people to participate well and constructively in debate. We need the means and tools to engage and to think philosophically, culturally, politically, and so on – the means to look at and make sense of a complex world through different lenses. This capacity needs to be developed from young. Through education, it is vital that our students are able to hone their faculties for empathy and critical thinking, so that they learn from a young age, how to question, dialogue and to appreciate that there is no one right answer in a complex issue. For those who can debate both sides of an argument, they learn to put themselves in the shoes of others. This capacity to care and speak up, not just for yourself, but for the welfare of others, is particularly important in an age where the internet and social media have become extremely powerful tools of communication. Already, we can see see how easily ideas of xenophobia and racism can gain momentum when people put only themselves in the centre and insist on their point of view.

In the short term, debate may be contentious, time-consuming and inconvenient. In the long term, however, society is given the opportunity to consider all sides of the argument, to learn to agree to disagree where necessary, and to listen to each other. Progress is measured not just by the decision of the day and its immediate outcome, but also in terms of whether the group has become more cohesive and grown more resilient towards future challenges. There is an African proverb that captures this succinctly: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Secondly, Madam, if we accept that public discourse is an important means by which a society hears and processes the diverse points of views within it, then we must create more space for that discourse to happen.

Civil society has an important role to play in contributing to robust and vigorous debate in Singapore, and we should open up the space for civil society groups to participate and engage on a more level playing field. A healthy civil society is a repository of expertise and enthusiasm. It expresses the diverse interests of society at large, provides forums for debating matters of concern, and produces and disseminates information so that the public and politicians alike can make an informed contribution to issues that affect the wider interests of society. The position of any given group may not carry the day, but they should not be seen as an inconvenience, or made to feel as if their views were not valid, or that they had no role in shaping the eventual outcome. In this respect, I agree with members Ms Faizah Jamal and Mr Laurence Lien, both of whom have touched on this subject, that civil society organisations are important partners since they bring complexity and a fresh perspective to issues, which they are knowledgeable and care deeply about.

Madam, government should seek to engage with and involve civil society organisations and groups, including and especially those whose perspectives challenge the status quo. Currently, voluntary welfare organisations that are closely affiliated with government, or that provide services and programmes that fall within government’s priorities, are seen as favourable and even given financial support. In contrast, other civil society organisations, like advocacy groups that lobby for policy reform or legislative changes that may not be closely aligned with the State tend to be viewed as problematic, do not receive any State funds, and are often constrained by restrictive laws or financial controls that limit fundraising. This does not foster the kind of platforms needed for rigorous debates that could lead to more robust and better policy and civic results. Civil society has a particular role to play, for example, in taking care of the needs of minority and marginalized groups in Singapore. These groups have a place in promoting the values of equality and human rights in the wider interest of society and Singaporeans.I therefore welcome MOS Desmond Lee’s reassurance that active citizens, civil society and government can be strong partners so long as everyone keeps an open mind. I hope more space can be made to encourage a diverse range of civil society groups to participate on a level playing field.

Let me also make a plug for more space in the arts because art, like debate, approximates reality. Both create circumstances or situations found in the real world, but under artificial, laboratory-like conditions, so that we can examine that world all the more closely. Through scenes, dialogues and monologues in a drama, for instance, the audience has a chance to peek into the inner lives of characters – their doubts and struggles – and recognize them as their own. What is Hamlet doing when he asks, ‘To be or not to be?’ He is debating with himself about the value of life. What are the characters of Kuo Pao Kun, Haresh Sharma, or Eleanor Wong doing on the Singapore stage? They are showing a society having it out with itself – working out how to live with difference, to love against the odds, to find meaning in the rat race.

A society having it out with itself. Madam, that’s what the arts are for, and that’s what debate is for. Neither art nor debate will give us definitive answers – but rein them in, and we’ve got a problem on our hands. Thought and creativity are like water. Whatever obstacles you put up, sooner or later, they will find a way through. Avoiding ‘sensitive’ topics or steering clear of ‘out-of-bound’ markers does not mean we’ve moved any closer to understanding an issue, or each other’s differences. In fact, censoring or restricting films, plays or online sites that seek to examine a complex issue in our society simply because some might find the framing of the issue objectionable is tantamount to cutting off the space for constructive civic discourse to take place, and has a chilling effect far beyond the immediate circumstances of the case.

The Government should therefore rethink its role as a convenor and facilitator of constructive civic discourse. People have diverse affiliations, competing priorities and pressing local concerns and preoccupations. In our first 50 years as a nation, the Government’s instincts were to discourage the discussion of sensitive issues.  Its strategy was one of conflict avoidance.  Keep the polar groups away from each other, or keep the government’s critics from poking their noses into the policy arena.

For Singapore to thrive, however, we need “critical lovers and loving critics”. The Government will have to unlearn those instincts of wanting to draw more OB markers, and learn new ones that emphasise dialogue and engagement, both between groups as well as between government and non-government entities. It will have to practice and impart new skills to facilitate a civic discourse that strengthens our social cohesion in the long term. Perhaps this is somewhat uncharted territory for Singapore, and there may be stumbling blocks along the way.  But it is clearly an opportunity for the Government to exercise leadership in taking the nation towards our best years, which I agree, lie ahead of us. On this note, Madam, I support the motion.


(Image taken from NMP Janice Koh’s facebook)