Talking about Singapore's future: Half-time report on the SGfuture dialogues

While The Future Of Us exhibition (above) presents possible scenarios of life in Singapore years from now, the SGfuture dialogues seek to empower Singaporeans to be more deeply engaged in society with an eye to SG100.
While The Future Of Us exhibition (above) presents possible scenarios of life in Singapore years from now, the SGfuture dialogues seek to empower Singaporeans to be more deeply engaged in society with an eye to SG100.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

On Pages B2-4, Insight gives a half- time report on the SGfuture dialogues that kicked off in November

More than 300,000 Singaporeans have been gazing into the crystal ball at The Future Of Us exhibition. But running alongside it is a talk series that, while on a much smaller scale, has its own "wow" factor for the nation ahead.

This is the SGfuture dialogues, a community engagement exercise. Unlike the "town hall" gatherings of the Our Singapore Conversation series of 2013, this is a more intimate affair. At the sessions attended by up to 100 people, participants are divided into groups of 10 or fewer people and, guided by a facilitator, share ideas on selected topics about creating a better Singapore. Notes are taken and they are put into a report for the host ministry, statutory body or organisation. The sessions, which can be attended by anyone who registers, began on Nov 29 and will run till the middle of the year.

The "wow" element lies in the new emphasis on empowering citizens to be more deeply engaged in society with an eye to SG100.

Ideas that have emerged include a phone app to connect networks of social volunteers, efforts to foster a culture of mentorship, and the creation of more vehicle-free zones to encourage a car-lite society.

Singapore's leaders have said SGfuture is a national platform for Singaporeans to collectively "write the next chapter of the Singapore Story". It wants to bring people together to brainstorm ideas for ground-up projects. And for viable ideas that require the Government to step in, it has pledged to work together with Singaporeans to turn these ideas into reality.

Some 5,000 participants have taken part in more than 60 sessions so far. Many sessions are at an area of The Future Of Us exhibition designated the "Marketplace", referring to the chatter at markets - wet or stock - on issues of the day. Here, the talk is on concrete ideas for the future rather than critiques of government policies. The sessions come under four themes: a cleaner, greener and smarter home; a learning people; a secure and resilient nation; and a caring community.

SGfuture follows up from the hugely successful Our Singapore Conversation initiative of 2013, and is jointly led by Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing and Culture, Community and Youth Minister Grace Fu.

Mr Chan tells The Sunday Times: "It's not just about talking and sharing. It's about talking, sharing and, more importantly, doing things together. We must not underestimate the power of people coming to do things together."

This was the upshot of it all for Mr Marvin Kang, 34, a civil servant who is one of nine people behind The Apprenticeship Collective, a social initiative that has benefited already from the SGfuture sessions. It links secondary school students with volunteer professionals.

"One of my biggest takeaways is realising there are many people thinking about very similar issues," he says. "With quite a lot of people, some of the problems may not be so insurmountable after all."

For this half-time report, The Sunday Times speaks to the two anchor ministers in an exclusive interview, as well as participants and experts.

As Ms Fu says: "We are working towards this spirit of open sharing, engagement and participation becoming an integral part of the Government's approach to partnering citizens for the future. This also means that within the Government, public agencies will need to reorganise themselves to effectively involve and engage Singaporeans."

The SGfuture dialogues: What participants say 

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli (centre) attending a discussion on water at the Future of Us exhibition at Gardens by the Bay on Jan 24. Such SGfuture sessions are more topical than the Our Singapore Conversation held in 2013, which dealt with broader themes. Participants are also encouraged to talk about what they saw at the exhibition. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Junior college student Lynette Teo put on her thinking hat last Tuesday night, not to pore over her textbooks, but to come up with ideas on what makes the Singaporean DNA.

This was the topic of an SGfuture community discussion session at the "Marketplace" area of the Future of Us exhibition at Gardens by the Bay. The exhibition envisions daily living in the year 2030.

The session is one of more than 60 held so far as part of the SGfuture series of dialogues organised by government agencies and non-profit organisations. These sessions to engage the public, which began on Nov 29 and run until mid-year, seek to build on the nationwide Our Singapore Conversation series completed more than two years ago.


Is it just an echo chamber?

The Thought Collective's Tong Yee speaking at an SGfuture dialogue session on Tuesday. 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.


What fresh ideas have emerged?

Social entrepreneur Joe Tan’s altruistic music festival idea is already in the works.

Already, at their half-way point, the SGfuture dialogues have generated ideas aplenty. These range from a campaign to carry out neighbourhood "random acts of kindness" to promote positive psychology, to subsidising young hawkers and to making recycling more accessible.

Some are already in the works, such as a Music For A Cause festival that encourages giving and volunteerism through music.

That was the idea of ex-army regular Joe Tan, 33, who runs social enterprise Love Action Project.


Tapping the strengths of citizens 'a natural evolution' 

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing (in red shirt, behind woman in yellow) at a session on Future Of Our Community in December, that was organised by the People’s Association (PA). Mr Chan is also PA deputy chairman. PHOTO: COURTESY OF PEOPLE’S ASSOCIATION

Singapore's move towards greater citizenship engagement is a "very natural evolution", says Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing on the SGfuture dialogues.

In the early years of nation-building, top-down decisiveness was crucial to set things in motion quickly, Mr Chan, one of the two ministers leading the SGfuture engagement series, tells The Sunday Times in an interview. The initiative's other co-chair is Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu.

But today, with the country more stable and a broader talent base from across different sectors in society, the system has to "naturally evolve" into one which taps the strengths of its citizens, he says.


After the dialogues: The road ahead

A dialogue session taking place at The Marketplace of the Future Of Us exhibition at Gardens By The Bay on Feb 16, 2016. ST PHOTO: ST LIM SIN THAI

As conversation ideas become reality, one of the next stages in the process might be to name those who gave these lightbulb moments.

So say political watchers who believe giving credit where credit is due will show the Government's sincerity in listening to its citizens.

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser says that where possible, "the Government will need to feed forward and acknowledge good ideas, perhaps even name names of individuals or organisations".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2016, with the headline 'TALKING ABOUT S'PORE'S FUTURE'. Print Edition | Subscribe