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IN HIS 2012 National Day Rally speech, PM Lee introduced Our Singapore Conversation (OSC)- an exercise- to “define what sort of country we want and how we can achieve it”. Since PM Lee mooted the idea of a national conversation last year, close to 50,000 Singaporeans have participated in numerous sessions conducted by various grassroots organisations and ministries.
On 8th August 2013, the chairman of the OSC Committee, Minister Heng Swee Keat officially released “Reflections”- a review- of the year-long exercise. PM Lee also announced a slew of significant policy shifts based on the inputs from the OSC during this year’s National Day Rally.
Any analysis of OSC, would be incomplete without examining it through political lenses given the backdrop of broader political changes which likely precipitated it.
After all, the OSC came on the heels of a sharp slide in the PAP’s share of the popular vote. PAP’s vote share of 60.1% in 2011 was the lowest since the General Election in 1991. The weak performance was largely attributed to the affective divide between the government and the people. There was an increasing sense that concerns on the ground weren’t understood well by the government.
Also, the opposition’s argument that it could serve as an alternative voice of the people to shape better policies had a lot of suasion. These sentiments buoyed WP to be the first opposition party to capture a GRC in Singapore’s electoral history.
As this year-long exercise wraps up, it is now an opportune moment to reflect on the politics of the OSC.
The Political Dividends for the PAP
THE OSC allowed the government to develop a more thorough picture of Singaporean’s sentiments and in the process address the chasm between the party and people. Participants of OSC sessions included not just staunch PAP supporters but also the “silent majority” and strident critics. The open-ended nature of the sessions enabled participants to share their sentiments openly. Many vented their frustrations, ventilated their concerns and voiced their ideas.
Key concerns which surfaced through the OSC, such as the high cost of living and frenetic pace of life were affirmed by many- including the government- before. But with the OSC, the government was better able to understand the human dimension of these problems better.
In addition, the OSC enabled the government to be in a stronger position to shape public discourse. In recent years, public discourse has been largely spilling over to the online world and the overall tone has been borderline-negative. No one party-not even the government- can dictate public discourse, but with the OSC the it was in a better position to influence it- holding the magnifying glass on key issues and serving as a conduit for people to air their thoughts.
The OSC- which allowed the executive branch to connect directly with the public rather than through elected representatives- also subtly proved that it was unnecessary for opposition political parties to be in the parliament for alternative views of the public to be reflected to the government. The process of connecting with ground directly helped fortify the significant policy recalibrations with legitimacy.
How the opposition lost the plot
AS THE OSC got into full swing and the PAP was clawing back ceded grounds, what was the opposition’s response?
It was expected and politically wise of the opposition parties to sit out of the OSC . Taking part in the OSC might have been seen as them playing to PAP’s game.
But opposition parties had other plausible strategic options which they didn’t explore. For instance, the opposition parties could have publicly highlighted the limitations of the OSC such as lack of proportionate representation among the participants. A parallel process might have also been started and issues identified could have been highlighted in the parliament by WP. All these responses would have enabled the opposition parties to further their case that they are the authentic, alternative voice of the people.
But as Singaporeans engaged in conversation among themselves and with the Government, the opposition was silent- much to its detriment. The weakness of the opposition in Singapore came to full light through its ill-thought reticence.
Recasting the OSC for the future
MANY who took part in the OSC sessions remarked that they would like to see the spirit of active public engagement sustained. Doing so makes political sense for the PAP too.
Maintaining a direct channel with the public, would complement the government’s efforts to keep in touch with the ground. The citizenry is frothing with strong emotions with regards to numerous national issues. It is unlikely these sentiments would wither ; instead they would be circulating around in the online world or in private conversations. Maintaining a direct line with the people, affords the government more influence in public discourse. If the government decides to dial down on public engagement, it would make it more prone to vacillating public sentiments.
While the government has been working on keeping touch with the ground through grassroots networks and channels such as REACH, these methods have been less successful than the OSC.
Most REACH sessions are one off dialogues and development of ideas is limited; the level of engagement is low too.
Grassroots volunteers often are disproportionately PAP supporters and aren’t representative of Singapore; this causes the echo chamber effect where positive PAP views are amplified and contrary sentiments are drowned out leading to distorted signals to the cabinet.
Revamped methods of engagement must seek to attract Singaporeans from all walks of life and sustain deep levels of engagement.
To this end, Community Centres could take the lead by organizing monthly discussions on national issues. To avoid the perception that these sessions are just talk sessions, MPs could turn up to show their support. Collating the input from these sessions, the government could address key concerns raised through these sessions in a quarterly fashion.
THE OSC was a deft political move. It allowed the PAP to gain a sense of the ground and demonstrate its ability to singularly reflect the sentiments of the public in the policy-making process, without parliamentary opposition.
As we move ahead, the pluralistic nature of our society would only get further accentuated. The success of PAP will be contingent on convincing these scattered groups that the channel for their views to be represented is the PAP and not another party.
Ultimately, the PAP must more than keep its ears open; it must listen sincerely and act accordingly. While not all requests can be acceded, it needs to explain why so to ensure people don't become disenfranchised with the engagement process. Keeping open lines with the public and modifying its policies to placate the ground would enable the PAP to be in a dominant position in the medium term.
Whether the OSC was just a one-off exercise or if it has presaged a new era of more engaging politics in Singapore, remains to be seen. If it is the latter, it would once more show the political foresight of the PAP.