By M Palaniyapan
Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) wasn’t the government’s first attempt to engage the ground and get feedback. The Feedback Unit was set up in 1985 for the same purpose. It was later revamped as REACH in 2006.
But the OSC was clearly different from these exercises. The intensity of public engagement in the OSC was never seen in the previous initiatives. In a year, about 50,000 Singaporeans took part in numerous face-to-face meetings. The conclusion of the OSC was marked with PM Lee announcing notable policy shifts in health, education and housing issues.
As this year-long exercise wraps up, it is now an opportune moment to reflect on the politics of the OSC: Who were the winners? Who were the losers? Strategically, what went right and what didn’t? And what next?
The poliical 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 party and people.
One explanation for the government’s poor gauge of the public sentiment was its heavy reliance on grassroots volunteers, who disproportionately sided with the PAP. This caused an echo chamber effect where pro-PAP views were amplified and contrary sentiments were drowned out leading to distorted signals to the cabinet.
With the OSC, the government was able to engage deeply with Singaporeans from a diverse range of backgrounds. Participants of OSC sessions included not just staunch PAP supporters but also those from 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 — like in previous feedback sessions. But with the OSC, the government was better able to understand the human dimension of these problems.
In addition, the OSC put the government 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 entity, can dictate public discourse, but with the OSC the government 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 the ground directly helped fortify the significant policy recalibrations with legitimacy.
What about the opposition?
As the OSC got into full swing and the PAP was clawing back ceded ground, the opposition’s influence was rather limited.
The WP’s strategy of focusing on constituency-specific issues rather than national issues might have been fairly successful in garnering votes. But to apply the same strategy in response to the OSC and remain in the background might not work in its favour.
The PAP made it very clear that some significant policy shifts were to come and the OSC was going to play a critical role in shaping them. Thus it was evident that the OSC was an important plank in PAP’s political strategy. For the opposition to not give a counter-response was the equivalent of walking away from the goalpost as the rival team stepped up to take the penalty shot.
To be clear, 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 the 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; this might prove to be a tactical miscalculation on its part.
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 that these sentiments would wither; instead they would be circulating 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 channels such as REACH, these methods haven’t been effective.
The main reason for this is the uncertainty among citizens about whether their feedback would be taken seriously in the policy-making process. The level of the government’s commitment to channels like REACH appears weak. The chairperson of REACH is currently Amy Khor, a senior minister of state, not a full cabinet minister.
Apart from that, REACH hasn’t been engaging either. Most REACH sessions are one off dialogues and development of ideas is limited.
These issues were somewhat addressed in the OSC. With Heng Swee Keat, a Cabinet Minister, helming the initiative and the PM himself laying it out during his widely-watched National Day Rally, the exercise gained significant traction. Also, there was a definite timeline and policy announcements were promised after the exercise was complete; this signalled the importance of citizen’s input in the policy recalibration process.
Also, unlike REACH which heavily relies on its online forums to conduct discussions, in OSC there was greater emphasis on face-to-face discussions which tend to be more engaging.
For revamped methods of engagement to be successful they must demonstrate the government’s commitment 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 quick reaction to the GE 2011 and the souring national mood. It allowed the PAP to gain a sense of the ground and side-step the opposition in going direct to the citizens
It also threw the relevance of grassroots organisations, which were once critical to sensing the public mood, into question.
Engagement of citizens is a work-in-progress. Despite the government’s assurance that the OSC spirit of active consultation would be sustained, there is the more difficult task of convincing the unconvinced that the Lee Hsien Loong government is listening and, more importantly, acting. Maybe the next conversation can be on the sacred cows that need to be re-examined, even culled.
The writer is a young Singaporean passionate about Singapore politics.