How do we conduct a national conversation?

By Yogesh Hirdaramani

An opinion-gathering exercise aimed at young people in Singapore has kickstarted a series of forums looking at a range of social issues. GovInsider spoke with one of the organisers to learn more about how such an exchange of views is hoped to contribute to social development.

In late June, Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong announced that the country's next generation of leaders will be engaging Singaporeans in a year-long exercise to update what the government describes as the country’s “social compact”, entitled Forward Singapore.

As part of this exercise, the country’s national coordinating body for youth affairs, the National Youth Council, has partnered with the Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth (MCCY) and Global Shapers Singapore Hub, a grassroots network of young people, to launch a series of conversations about topics such as the environment, inclusivity and innovation. The first session, held on 23 July, explored social equity and balancing the needs of different communities.

Changing times

Minister of State for MCCY Alvin Tan opened the session by remarking on the “seismic generational shift” that Singaporeans now face as a result of Covid-19, the climate crisis, and rapid advances in technology.

As a result, there is a need to build a new social compact, or a new consensus, on policy matters such as fiscal and environmental sustainability, he said. He noted that this compact will need to be able to work across generational divides, from ensuring affordable healthcare for the elderly to accessible public housing for those coming of age.

Dr Ng Kok Hoe, a Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Case Study Unit at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, suggested that it may be time to move away from a market-based model of welfare towards a universal model of welfare aimed at meeting everybody’s needs.

For example, current targeted policies such as rental housing for those from poorer backgrounds may reinforce prejudices against them. He suggested building on projects such as the Pioneer Generation Package, a series of healthcare and social support schemes for elderly Singaporeans. He explained that the package was accessible to everyone and as a result, it was widely used. Similar projects, he said, would help create a more resilient society.

Professor Walter Theseira, an Associate Professor of Economics at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, also highlighted a need to rethink current policy frameworks. He said the nation’s concerns had shifted since the post-independence period, where unemployment was a key structural issue. Now, he said, Singapore may actually have too many jobs for too few people. He said that as contexts shift, Singapore should not be afraid to slaughter “sacred cows” and rethink policy from scratch.

Active citizenship

A key theme throughout the panel and the question-and-answer session was the idea of “active citizenship” – people’s involvement in community organisation and grassroots initiatives of all kinds.

Marlisa Rosli, Chief Executive Officer of the Majulah Community, a non-profit organisation that aims to mentor and support youth projects, said it was important for civil society to work with the government and the public and to encourage youth participation.

She noted that currently, young people may feel that they lack the opportunity or the courage to question policy “without backlash”. They may also lack access to policymakers.

Part of this may come from introducing civic education at a younger age, and encouraging students to ask leftfield or confronting questions from a young age, she said, which would help them to understand that everybody should be able to have a say in their community.

Professor Theseira noted that social media may perpetuate polarisation, and that perhaps there should be a centralised platform on which citizens could debate national concerns. Such a platform could encourage more policy contestation and experimentation.

During the Q&A session, audience members asked questions about whether Singapore is genuinely meritocratic, and whether growing wealth inequality may run counter to considerations of basic fairness.

The panellists broadly agreed that meritocracy continues to be a worthwhile ideal to which to aspire, making the provision of better support to lower-income families a higher priority. Rosli also highlighted that less well-off members of society may be less likely to share their viewpoints.

In his closing remarks, minister Alvin Tan encouraged the audience to continue advocating for their pet causes, such as sustainability and mental health.

Words and deeds

But what are the factors that contribute to a robust conversation? Tan Kuan Hian, Vice-Curator of Global Shapers Singapore and the moderator of the session, explained what he saw as the value of national dialogues.

He said the key priorities for the National Youth Dialogues would be to expose young people to decision-makers’ perspectives and provide them with the opportunity to express their views to leaders in the public sector. These sessions would also provide young people with opportunities to meet like-minded individuals and to understand what resources and grants are available from the National Youth Council. Some of those grants include the Youth Action Challenge and the Young ChangeMakers grant to support youth projects.

But what purposes do these conversations serve? Are such sessions just empty words?

To that, Tan said it may not be wise to expect world-changing results from a single panel. Rather, consistent investment in public engagement sessions like these can help to open people’s mindsets up to new ideas.

“Each dialogue is part of a broader ecosystem or foundation which any thriving society should have about what it wants to be,” he says. He further notes that for policymakers attending these sessions, they can get a better understanding of what citizens care about, and which issues seem to emerge across multiple sessions.

At the very beginning of the event, minister Alvin Tan asked, “Do we really need another conversation or movement?” Beyond the immediate concerns of the day, perhaps these continued public engagement sessions can be critical in supporting an enduring culture of civic participation beyond the electoral process.