"The National conversation is a joke." This is something I've heard repeated many times. Both from the hardcore cynics and the self styled commentators who fancy themselves as the champions of democracy and the voices of those who have no voice in Singapore.
The initial press blitz surrounding the exercise did nothing to allay the reservations I felt. The saccharine sweet feeling of peaches and cotton candy that I had seen emerge from the press only served to give me a distinct feeling of this is a diabetic smokescreen: too much emphasis on fluff and cutesy messaging for the sake of appearing inclusive and not enough hard talk on the nitty gritty issues of real life in Singapore.
Where was the grand debate on issues such affordable housing and healthcare? So far we haven't heard any reports of a cancer stricken patient going to any of these sessions asking why do they have to choose between losing everything they have, essentially bankrupting their families and themselves, just so they could have another shot at living.
Where is the frank and candid discussion on the abuses we tend to subject our own people to or the disdain that we casually dole out on the migrant workers who've built up this land. Issues like these shouldn't be shied away from. Instead we are greeted by a very public silence that's felt deafening.
I decided I had to go for at least one session to see if this really was the case. I have to say, I initially went to Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) feeling skeptical as well. We've all seen how the government's previous attempts at engagement through REACH ended up in a proverbial dead end. Call me naive but I had pictured OSC as an honest attempt by our government to try to get out of their comfort zone and learn about the issues that we have been incessantly bitching about since 2006. So far that expectation has been met.
I've been to 2 OSC sessions so far and the ministers and civil servants who were present absolutely did not shrink back from any topics that were posed to them. Be it in a group exchange or a one on one dialogue, no one was shouted down and I could sense that people in the room were really listening and contemplating the issues before them. Even at one particular session when things at certain points turned contentious, the attending politicos did not shy away from the conversation, and neither did they skirt the "uncomfortable" conversation by having their handlers jump in and cut the exchanges short. It was refreshing to see this in the flesh after hearing so many fed up Singaporeans claim that our officials are not listening to us.
Now, this is what I basically learned from the OSCs I've attended. The way the exercise works is that the OSC secretariat crowd sources the attendees for ideas on the issues that Singaporeans care enough about to talk about and possibly see action taken on.
In other words, the people who turn up are considered a representative sample of Singaporean civil society. That is why press reports on OSC seem to only mention that bread and butter issues are being superficially discussed. There're two reasons for that.
1. The exercise is still in phase one, where the secretariat is still collecting and analyzing data. They are gauging the audience on the most pressing issues Singaporeans face and this will in turn become the backbone of phase two. Phase two will be what the OSC critics have been saying OSC should've been in the first place: thematic discussions on issues gleaned from attendees from phase one. Note: any thematic discussion in phase one would be moot anyway because of time constraints that would have prevented any discussions from going too in-depth anyway. This will hopefully change when the exercise hits phase two.
2. Auxiliary issues are being passed over, or at least perceived to be passed over, because the people who represent auxiliary issues such human rights causes or the arts are absent from OSC. OSC is essentially one large focus group in principle. If no one is there to speak for a cause, then that cause is unrepresented and is deprived of its voice.
Ironically, the so called champions of democracy mentioned earlier are also the champions for the very same causes that they themselves claimed aren't being raised during OSC. The sad reality is that some of these individuals have absolutely refused to engage the government in this exercise. They adamantly claim that the government attempts at outreach are just for show and worse still, these so called champions say they do not want to legitimize a government they say they did not vote for by being a part of a government backed exercise. The refusal to engage on the champions' part will turn into a self fulfilling prophecy when OSC moves onto phase two.
I for one refuse to allow this vicious cycle to continue to perpetuate itself. I know that I am but one voice but I will continue to go for as many OSC sessions as I can just to make sure that the causes I personally care about will be raised for the secretariat's notice.
And frankly I am heartened to see that when I do raise the issues I care about at OSC, not only do my fellow attendees listen respectfully, some of them take it to another level by lending their own voices to the issues I speak on. Some of my fellow attendees said that issues such as how we treat our migrant workers and gay community reflect badly on us and that the only way for the paradigm to shift is to talk about it openly, candidly and unabashedly at these sessions so that we may all look at ourselves in the mirror.
OSC's attendees all acknowledge that the government is doing its part by providing a safe platform for us as a society to come and air our grievances. It is now up to all of us to take some of the responsibility and acknowledge that we have our own role to play in our nation building. Change can only come if we finally wake up and understand that democracy is not a static process. It is a participatory one that doesn't end at the ballot box. We have to be the ones to continue bringing about the changes we want to see in our country because our elected representatives can't do it alone. We can start by going to OSC and being the real voice for the people who can't speak for themselves for whatever reason. I will be going for more sessions and I hope to see more of you there.