Parliament: NMP Janice Koh urges Govt to "unlearn instincts of wanting to draw more OB markers"

The Government should unlearn its instincts of wanting to draw more boundaries for civic discourse, urged arts Nominated Member of Parliament Janice Koh on Thursday. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
The Government should unlearn its instincts of wanting to draw more boundaries for civic discourse, urged arts Nominated Member of Parliament Janice Koh on Thursday. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The Government should unlearn its instincts of wanting to draw more boundaries for civic discourse, urged arts Nominated Member of Parliament Janice Koh on Thursday.

Instead, it should grow the space for public debate and facilitate a civic discourse, which will strengthen Singapore's social cohesion in the long term.

"The Government will have to unlearn those instincts of wanting to draw more OB markers, and learn new ones that emphasise dialogue and engagement," said Ms Koh in Parliament.

This would be a break from its tendency during Singapore's first 50 years as a nation "to discourage the discussion of sensitive issues".

During this time, the Government's strategy was to avoid conflict by "keeping the polar groups away from each other, or keeping the government's critics from poking their noses into the policy arena", she said.

But avoiding sensitive topics or steering clear of out of bound markers does not mean we've moved any closer to understanding an issue, or each other's differences, argued Ms Koh, an arts practitioner.

"In fact, censoring or restricting films, plays or online sites that seek to examine a complex issue in our society simply because some might find the framing of the issue objectionable is tantamount to cutting off the space for constructive civic discourse to take place," she said.

This would have a "chilling effect far beyond the immediate circumstances of the case". Instead, "we need critical lovers and loving critics" for Singapore to thrive, she argued.

This is why the Government will have to practice and impart new skills to facilitate a civic discourse that strengthens our social cohesion in the long term.

In her impassioned speech on what Singapore needs for open debate, Ms Koh also said that Singapore needs to learn that there are no clear right or wrong answers to complex issues, and that debates cannot always be definitively "settled".

Students should also be taught in schools to hone their faculties for empathy and critical thinking, she added, to better equip them for debates.

"If we get it right, we will be a diverse, plural society where mutual respect is built around a Singaporean identity that is strongly felt, but at ease with itself," she said.