The view from the backseat of a national conversation
On Friday morning, I was one of 50 Singaporeans who got up early to have a conversation with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
The two-hour long session - edited down to under an hour for broadcast later that night - was the first official event of the mass exercise known as Our Singapore Conversation.
In case we forgot, the word “conversation” was repeated ad nauseum in the moments leading up to the taping.
It’s not a question-and-answer dialogue. Please share your experiences, suggestions and views, we were told by the producers.
As a journalist, I instinctively brushed this off; I had no intention of sharing my personal opinions on anything - the questions I had prepared, with input from colleagues and peers, included ones like “why are Opposition MPs not allowed to be grassroots advisors?” and “Who will succeed you as PM?”
It’s a good thing that the moderator ignored my persistent hand throughout the session, then. Because the 49 other Singaporeans weren’t there to grill the Prime Minister and the other politicians on stage, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Indranee Rajah, and Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Intan Azura Mokhtar.
They really came to have a conversation. From anecdotes of work projects, recounted moments of parental heartbreak, to innovative proposals on how to raise taxes, these Singaporeans were really there to, well, talk.
Almost all of them started off with (perhaps overly-detailed) introductions of themselves and their circumstances. They gave their opinions on the issues they raised before asking PM what he thought (some left that last bit out entirely). And they disagreed with him and one another, often and openly.
It is the first time I have attended a forum where the “ordinary people” combined spoke an equal amount, or possibly more than, the VIPs.
Singaporeans, it dawned on me, really have a lot to get off their chest. This should cheer PM Lee, Mr Heng and their team - this is precisely why they had launched the exercise to begin with.
But it also struck me that if this is the SG Conversation, then we are in for a long, unwieldy journey of navel-gazing, narcissism and nit-picking.
I’m not saying that an ordinary Singaporean’s views on, say, their kid’s tuition teachers, or their neighbourhood’s community projects, or the amount of paperwork they have to do to adopt a child, are not valuable. They are - to their loved ones.
And it would be uncharitable to say that these viewpoints were completely self-regarding. Many drew national lessons, or seemed to believe that national lessons should be drawn, from their own experiences.
But the problem is that someone has to amalgamate, discern, collate and analyse. Let a thousand flowers bloom - but man, will this gardening job be intense.
There was also a deep division of views on fundamental social questions. The most gripping moment of the morning came from a crossfire between participants who believed that single parents and those not in traditional family units should not be penalised for having children, and those who were convicted that only two people joined in matrimony should start and raise families.
One lady, a single mother, boldly declared: “I would like to have another child, and I earn a good income and have a supportive family structure. But honestly, I have no intention of getting married.”
Why could she not buy a flat from the Housing Board? Why were the subsidies and benefits that married parents get denied to her and her children?
But she was quickly countered by a man who said that he would make sure his two daughters start families the “right way”.
PM Lee asked for a quick poll on the question, and we picked up our fancy gadgets. To the question “Should unmarried couples be encouraged to have children?”, the results were 46 per cent Yes, 54 per cent No.
Of course, 50 is a small sample size, and there was probably a disproportionate number of “liberal intelligentsia” types in the group. But the outcome was closer than expected, and revealed just how quickly certain groups of Singaporeans want to move, while others see no reason to budge.
If the morning’s session was any indication, and if other Singaporeans continue to respond in this balls-to-the-wall way to Mr Heng’s call, then the SG Conversation will be a difficult, consuming one. It will expose deep fractures that we, in another era, would have preferred to paper over.
Thinking over the morning’s session, I suppose I could be discouraged by this. Or, I could be cheered by its possibilities.
Perhaps we all start off navel-gazing, and once forced to engage with someone else’s personalised perspective, learn to step outside ourselves. Perhaps in coming face-to-face with people who have chosen different paths, we see human beings where once were only cautionary tales, or statistics. Perhaps in finally getting the chance to unload, we, at some point, start listening.
At this stage, the only thing I know for sure if that wherever this conversation is headed, Singaporeans can’t wait to get going.