Conversations that resemble an audience between the ruler and the ruled

by Jolovan Wham

Our 4G ministers say they want to listen to the views of the people so as to forge partnerships to make Singapore a better place to live in. Heng Swee Keat talks about organising consultations with civil society with an “open mind” and listening with “respect and humility”.

Once every few years, such consultations are given a different spin: S21’s every Singaporean matters in the late 1990s, the Remaking Singapore committee in the early 2000s etc.

But consultations and partnerships happen on a regular basis even without the political fanfare: social workers, family service centres, arts groups and other voluntary welfare organisations/societies meet with government ministries to give feedback, policy proposals and implement programmes together. A government with an authoritarian character will want its finger in every pie, hence the pervasiveness of such “partnerships”.

The problem is not the lack of partnerships and consultation with civil society; what needs to change is the nature of the relationship, which is a grossly unequal and disempowering one. You are expected to toe the line, or funding and resources will be cut and donors instructed not to support your work. Your role is to support the state and deliver its programmes. Those who don’t adhere to the political blueprint will fall out of favour and you may lose your jobs and positions. Networks of power and influence are so small but influential it is easy to isolate any group which the government and the political establishment do not like. Many organisations and groups know this, and this is why there is a lot of frustration.

Citizen engagement should not just be limited to closed door dialogues where we implore the government to take our concerns seriously, which is what this latest round of conversations will look like. The right to advocate, and mobilise communities without fear of persecution has to be respected in order for this “conversation” to be a genuine one, whether the issue is sensitive for the government or not.

Individuals should not be charged in court or subject to smear campaigns and 6-hour grilling sessions because they have a different point of view or way of doing things. NGOs should not be pressured to abort or tone down their campaigns, reports and letters to the press, which the government has done on numerous occasions. A genuine conversation only comes about when there is respect for democratic space and freedom. Otherwise, these conversations will resemble an audience between the ruler and the ruled.

This first appeared as a post on Jolovan Wham’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission.