Talking about Singapore's future: LET'S TALK ABOUT...

Is it just an echo chamber?

The Thought Collective's Tong Yee speaking at an SGfuture dialogue session on Tuesday. Mr Lee Ci En believes that it is important for youth to be involved in charting the country's direction. Mr Sebastian Tay feels that some participants are overly p
The Thought Collective's Tong Yee speaking at an SGfuture dialogue session on Tuesday. PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
The Thought Collective's Tong Yee speaking at an SGfuture dialogue session on Tuesday. Mr Lee Ci En believes that it is important for youth to be involved in charting the country's direction. Mr Sebastian Tay feels that some participants are overly p
Mr Sebastian Tay feels that some participants are overly preoccupied with personal concerns.PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
The Thought Collective's Tong Yee speaking at an SGfuture dialogue session on Tuesday. Mr Lee Ci En believes that it is important for youth to be involved in charting the country's direction. Mr Sebastian Tay feels that some participants are overly p
Ms Srilalitha Gopalakrishnan thinks that participants need to be given more time to voice their views sufficiently.PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
The Thought Collective's Tong Yee speaking at an SGfuture dialogue session on Tuesday. Mr Lee Ci En believes that it is important for youth to be involved in charting the country's direction. Mr Sebastian Tay feels that some participants are overly p
Mr Fang Koh Look thinks that having experts speak during engagement sessions helps to simplify issues for people.PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
The Thought Collective's Tong Yee speaking at an SGfuture dialogue session on Tuesday. Mr Lee Ci En believes that it is important for youth to be involved in charting the country's direction. Mr Sebastian Tay feels that some participants are overly p
Mr Lee Ci En believes that it is important for youth to be involved in charting the country’s direction.PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

One potential problem of the SGfuture dialogues is that the ideas thrown up - whether innovative or disruptive, ingenious or outlandish - come from people with similar interests, if not backgrounds.

While public registration is open via the SGfuture website (see box), organisers of each session also directly invite partners or affiliates to take part.

So there could be an "echo chamber" effect of people repeating each other's views, which is a problem as the silent middle ground has yet to be fully tapped for its views.

One dialogue participant, 28-year-old bank associate Sebastian Tay, also observes that some Singaporeans tend to be more self-focused.

And senior executive Phyllis Hui, 25, who took part in a session on jobs, says that while times have changed, there remains a fear in some quarters of speaking up.

"We need more social citizenry to engage people who are still passive or afraid to speak," says the member of the Labour Movement's youth wing. "Even in smaller groups or coffee shop settings, sweeping statements should also be taken into account. If they are commonplace, they are real sentiments on the ground."

Raffles Hospital intern Shermaine Ng, 19, who volunteers with the National Youth Council, adds that there still appears to be "some psychological barrier" to signing up for the sessions. Yet others may think participating is not worth it as there are no immediate tangible outcomes from taking part.

Dr Ang Kiam Wee, principal of ITE College Central, 50, tells The Sunday Times the format of the series might be inherently bureaucratic. "The conversation has to occur at a more community level, and not be orchestrated by an agency," he says.

"To a large extent when something is orchestrated, it goes back to the Singapore mentality, that the Government already has everything under control. So when we are brought to a conversation the mindset is that the Government already knows what to do, and a lot of things need not be said."

Still, marine biologist Siti Maryam Yaakub, 34, points out that the organisers have taken pains to reach a diverse spectrum.

Participants at her session on biodiversity included architects, planners, teachers and students, and nature volunteers.

"The Government has said it doesn't want to just preach to the choir. Usually at such engagement sessions we run into the same old people, but this time there are quite a number of new faces."

However, she feels less time should be allocated for the panel of experts or moderator to speak at the start of a session, which typically lasts at least half an hour.

Landscape architect Srilalitha Gopalakrishnan, 38, adds: "If you have one group with 10 people, it will take a bit of time for everybody to adequately voice their opinions."

But having experts seed the discussion has its own merits, says participant Mr Fang Koh Look, 48.

The executive chairman at a safety training and telecommunications distribution firm attended a session on Total Defence.

When this reporter points out that many issues flagged by the expert, such as security, community or the terror threat, have already been highlighted by ministers, Mr Fang says: "They may already be in the news, but without more engagement sessions to reach out to the people, they may still not understand what the Government pointed out."

Yet another issue is how topics recur at different forums, hosted by the same organisation but under different names.

Teacher Aysel Ong, 34, who was at the session on keeping Singapore clean, says she has attended "similar platforms" before run by the National Environment Agency.

"There were group discussions and what surfaced there was similar to what was said at the SGfuture dialogue. These problems keep recurring and I don't see much being done yet," she says, although she admits that changing a culture cannot happen overnight.

Dr Siti points out, though: "If it is a conversation that people hold close to their hearts and want to keep talking about, that is a good thing."

Then there are questions over the efficiency of such dialogues in a country of 5.5 million people. Each session, at most, reaches out to 100 people or fewer.

But social entrepreneur Tong Yee, who moderated the session on the Singaporean DNA, says while it is more efficient to gather feedback online, the human touch is crucial. Going online in itself is one-way and has another huge downside: "Online chatter may be bruising because of the anonymity, and so people may speak irresponsibly." THE WAY FORWARD Dr Siti agrees that the SGfuture series is a good approach, to create a sense that the people can "buy in to make things work and reach for the future together" with the Government.

"If people believe what the western media has been saying about Singapore - that it's a top-down authoritarian Singapore Inc. - the fact is that this is a much softer approach, it's more inclusive. This is the kind of future for Singapore."

And who better to be active participants than youth, who will personally experience the country at SG100?

Singapore Management University social sciences student Lee Ci En, 20, says: "Youth are the pioneers of tomorrow. It is very important to know what direction is being taken if they are going to inherit Singapore eventually.

"And taking part is a signal of being rooted to Singapore and of affinity with the nation."

Walter Sim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2016, with the headline 'Is it just an echo chamber?'. Print Edition | Subscribe