05 Oct 2013

In August 2012, I was invited to serve as a committee member of the year-long national-level public engagement exercise called Our Singapore Conversation (OSC). I accepted the invitation partly because I wanted to contribute to a potentially constructive effort to rejuvenate the public sphere, and partly also because I wanted to study, from the inside, the Singapore Government’s ongoing efforts at public engagement. In an article published in the August 2012 issue of Ethos, I had argued that, where public engagement in Singapore was concerned, a gap separated rhetoric and practice.

OSC was the latest in a series of national-level public engagement exercises that began in earnest in the late 1980s. In my research, I have been interested in this transitional period that witnessed subtle but profound changes in developmental Singapore’s strong state as it negotiated and adapted to the opportunities and threats that accompanied economic, social, cultural, technological, and political transformations within a rapidly globalising neoliberal city-state.

Although OSC took pains to explain how the perspectives, aspirations, and ideas of almost 50,000 participants had filtered into the policy process that culminated symbolically in the Prime Minister’s National Day Rally speech, it seemed to me that we needed to understand OSC as more than just a mechanism for collecting and aggregating policy input from a citizenry that had become more able, interested, and motivated to participate in the policy process.

At the Institute of Policy Studies’ Conference on Civil Society held on 11 November 2013, I argued that deliberative democracy can thrive in Singapore if we work consciously towards building an inclusive, representative, and fair civic space that is structurally supported by principles and procedures promoting reasonable dialogue in conditions where citizens and their government can speak without fear and in good faith that others in the dialogue are also seeking outcomes that are good for all. And yet, it had seemed to me that OSC was also more than just an exercise in developing deliberative democracy.

I carefully studied OSC’s predecessors such as The Next Lap in 1991, Singapore 21 in 1999, and Remaking Singapore in 2003. Each of these exercises had a roughly similar form and occurred not long before or after critical general elections and during a period of some economic or political turbulence (turbulence by Singapore’s standards, that is). There was clearly a pattern.

In August 2013, I presented a paper at a conference in Bangkok that described three possible lenses to help explain OSC more deeply. First, OSC may be viewed as a high-profile activity designed to satisfy a more assertive middle-class desire for recognition. This is a familiar liberalisation story about Singapore’s evolution into a global city, where more globally exposed citizens have become equipped with knowledge and experience to participate productively in the policy process and the desire to be recognised as autonomous individuals populating the higher reaches of Maslow’s hierarchy.

Second, OSC may be viewed as a state-led public ritual. Rapid modernisation, urbanisation, globalisation, and liberalisation have all induced alienating tendencies, ontological insecurity, and a loss of community, history, and certainty. As both a global city and a nation-state, Singapore needs national narratives to animate the Singapore identity and provide coherent frameworks of meaning and value to orientate and motivate its citizens and their government towards the achievement of a collectively desirable future. By stimulating widespread, open, and heartfelt dialogue on issues of national importance, OSC was in effect an exercise in collective national storytelling, drawing out tens of thousands of personal stories that intertwined with one another to create a richer and more complex Singapore Story.

Third, OSC may be viewed as a spectacle of nationhood and active citizenship, produced as part of distractive strategies that were, in turn, a part of broader ideological work needed for politically and economically challenging times. One version of this idea is to say that OSC served ideologically to repair a social compact that had weakened over recent years as indicated by widespread dissatisfaction with rising inequality and costs, rapid demographic transformations, and infrastructural strain in a crowded city. Perhaps the most pronounced expression of this dissatisfaction came in the form of the 2011 General Election that yielded the worst result the incumbent had ever achieved since Singapore gained independence.

All in all, it would hardly be a surprise to argue that OSC performed a conservative ideological role. But I would also argue that the exercise was productive of new conditions of possibility for political change.

Compared to previous national-level public engagement exercises, OSC reached out to a significantly larger and more varied group of Singaporeans. The dominance of committee meetings and top-down forums in previous exercises gave way to peer-topeer engagement through creative, less hierarchical, and skillfully facilitated forums that made every effort to stimulate imagination and not to close off discussion, no matter how tempting it might have been to do so. The context of a more diverse and critical citizenry and an active social media environment raised the bar for OSC, since its efforts had to pass the scrutiny of a skeptical public.

For many who participated in its activities, OSC was a practical opportunity to nurture civic and democratic skills through deliberative practices that went some way towards enriching the Singapore Story and strengthening the prospects for a stronger democracy.

Kenneth Paul Tan is an Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and Vice Dean (Academic Affairs)