What message does the Our Singapore committee send?
The national conversation kicked off in earnest on Saturday with the announcement of who would be on the 26-member panel. And since then, there has been a wide range of reactions to the announcement.
What caught the eye for Netizens was not so much those who made it onto the committee but rather those who didn't. Many voiced disappointment that opposition party members were nowhere to be found on the committee. Others, perhaps spurred by a sloppy reading of reports on the committee by The Online Citizen, were up in arms about how bloggers might be excluded from the national conversation altogether.
For me, a large part of the seeming negativity to what is otherwise an innocuous committee announcement stems from the fact that the line-up does not carry with it a coherent narrative. As one goes down the list of 26 names, it is not quite clear what objectives the organisers had in mind while putting this group together.
Was this a committee set up to be as diverse and representative as possible? Evidently not.
Otherwise, bloggers and opposition members would likely have been involved. The Prime Minister has made special effort to reach out to the online crowd so it would make little sense for a committee trying to be representative to not save a seat at the table for at least one blogger.
The committee's chair, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, in fact, does indicate that representativeness is not the aim of this committee even though they national conversation will include all. I quote from a Straits Times article about the members of the committee:
Asked why "alternative voices" such as bloggers and opposition MPs were not included, he replied: "This is not a partisan exercise."
Rather, the members were chosen for their individual perspectives and experiences, and not as "functional representatives of particular groups or to advocate particular interests".
He added: "Every Singaporean is welcome to provide their views, including members of the opposition, and the committee will be happy to receive their feedback and ideas."
In other words, the committee does not necessarily include recognisable "alternative voices" because it is not meant to be a committee that is represents everyone. Since functional representation is not a factor, it is perhaps natural that some functional groups might find themselves without a corresponding committee member they can directly identify with.
Yet, this claim that they were not going out to be representative is contradicted somewhat by how representative it actually is. If this had been a 10-man committee featuring only Cabinet Ministers, there would be few who would quibble with why so-and-so has been left out. It would already be immediately clear that the committee's role is only administrative.
But while there are no bloggers or Workers' Party MPs, almost every other stone is covered in this committee.
There is a good mix of races, with Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian all covered. There is a good mix of ages with members ranging in age from the teens right up to the 60s. There is also a wide variety of backgrounds. There are students, businessmen, a taxi driver, an actress, media personnel and academics.
It is such a diverse bunch that Nee Soon GRC MP Lim Wee Kiak rightly looked at it and praised it for how representative it was.
He said: "It's good they are trying to represent the entire population, not just professionals or degree holders, and with different age groups including students."
And the presence of so many people with diverse interests does not buttress the argument that members are not there to play the role of representatives of any functional group or special interest. The reality is that they will likely do just that.
Their functional groups and special interests are, after all, what they know. A 19-year-old student is unlikely to come to a table of this calibre and speak generally. He is going to come and offer the perspective of a 19-year -old student. He will voice the concerns of a 19-year-old. Similarly, one does not expect a taxi driver to resist the temptation of raising concerns that taxi drivers face.
And so, if not representativeness, what actually went into selection process? There are also these unanswered questions:
How did we arrive at the number 26? Is it that these people represent the best and brightest of Singapore? Or perhaps they represent the best communicators or they all have certain skills that are critical to facilitating a national conversation? And if they were chosen because of unique ideas and perspectives, how did anyone find out about those ideas and perspectives? Was there a warm-up national conversation that took place with a selected few?
It is unfortunate that how this committee was put together has left a lot of room for speculation over why some people are in and others are out.
One way or another, this is a committee that must now get down to the unenviable task of engaging a nation on the issues that matter. It is a pity that before it can facilitate a single conversation, it has become the topic of one. Still, it is not too late to set some things right.