Build a culture open to robust discourse

I agree with editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang that as Singapore enters an uncertain future, it is crucial to engage more Singaporeans in public discourse ("Singapore's journey towards a collective consciousness"; June 5).

From personal experience, I have often observed that most Singaporeans tend to be more reserved when discussing more sensitive or contentious sociopolitical issues.

It is with good reason that so much public discussion in our nation is so often framed as a "vocal minority" participating over a "silent majority" - the latter group seems apprehensive to make its views known.

Part of this can perhaps be attributed to culture. The Chinese, Malay and Indian traditions all emphasise reverence of elders and authority figures. Speaking out directly against them, even with good cause, is considered inappropriate.

Our society has come to be structured in much the same way - we are prepared to lionise our national leaders and public figures, but less ready to lambast them even when the situation might call for it.

We may have inadvertently produced students who are less inclined to challenge convention, uncomfortable with considering more than one dimension to each subject matter, and unable to link seemingly discrete issues to the broader context.

In turn, the way public figures have responded to their critics, however justified and well-intentioned, has at times been interpreted as overzealous and punitive.

This further encourages Singaporeans to hold their tongues.

Another important consideration is education.

Our school curricula and national examinations seem to emphasise one correct answer or one standard conceptual framework for each self-contained question or problem archetype.

As a consequence, we may have inadvertently produced students who are less inclined to challenge convention, uncomfortable with considering more than one dimension to each subject matter, and unable to link seemingly discrete issues to the broader context.

On top of lacking confidence, many Singaporeans also believe that they do not possess the eloquence or intellectual flair supposedly needed to participate in discourse.

We must drive home the message that one can still make a convincing point on an important topic even without overly complex arguments or advanced vocabulary.

From there, we can construct a culture that is more at ease with the concept of open expression in a vibrant marketplace of ideas.  

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 03, 2016, with the headline 'Build a culture open to robust discourse'. Print Edition | Subscribe