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.
Turning up in her Anglo-Chinese Junior College uniform, Ms Teo joined about 30 others in discussing issues such as resilience and exceptionalism, and how society could move towards a compassionate meritocracy and having greater community spirit.
These are issues she does not come across on a daily basis. The 18-year-old candidly tells The Sunday Times she realises she has been living in a "bubble". She adds: "At my age, I've never really been exposed to a lot of things. I hoped the discussion could give me a different light - it's quite uncharted territory as 'the Singaporean DNA' has never been defined before."
She admits that she is not someone who would usually go to such dialogue sessions. But she was "coerced" into joining a previous one, and was surprised to learn that she enjoyed hearing the range of views of people from all walks of life.
"When you force people to sit down in front of strangers to discuss these issues, as unwilling as they may be, you come to a form of understanding. And when you understand, you appreciate things better," says the student.
Also at last Tuesday's session was Mr Sean Lew, 18, who is awaiting to enlist in national service. It was his first time at an SGfuture dialogue, and his interest was sparked by the topic of the nation's identity.
He describes his willingness to speak up as a "natural progression" from having friends from different income groups and education streams at school.
"We are at this juncture where we have placed so much into bureaucracy and systems that we have underplayed the value of human decisions and judgment," says the alumnus of Bukit Panjang Government High and Catholic JC. "I want to believe we can collectively change together and change the system, rather than hold onto the belief that the system is just like that," he says.
Both agree that dialogues are an avenue to help mould ideas and build a meeting of minds. And in the long run, it will cultivate a culture away from the top-down, oft-described "paternalistic" one experienced in the past, to one that is more collaborative.
It may all sound very idealistic, but the Government's buzzword is "co-creation" with its citizens - working with people and supportting constructive, ground-up ideas.
And it is precisely such attitudes - as embodied by Mr Lew and Ms Teo in their willingness to acquire a greater understanding of issues and to share their own ideas - that the Government hopes to encourage in its citizens amid uncertain times. This forms the thrust of the SGfuture dialogue series, which anybody can sign up for. The series is overseen by Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing and Culture, Community and Youth Minister Grace Fu.
It may not seem as large-scale as the year-long Our Singapore Conversation exercise which took place in 2013, but just how important it is can be seen in the emphasis top leaders have placed on it. President Tony Tan Keng Yam, in his head-of-state address to open the 13th Parliament last month, urged citizens to contribute, saying: "The future of Singapore is what we make of it."
He added: "Let us all participate in shaping our common future. In doing so, we will strengthen our bonds and deepen trust with one another."
And Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his New Year's message: "Through the SGfuture conversations, we will all play a part in writing the Singapore Story."
The Government, meanwhile, will look at ways to back SGfuture projects to urge people to get their ideas off the ground and transformed into reality, said Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat.
This could include facilitating tie-ups or pointing groups to funds they can apply for, he added.
But participants must be aware that not every idea will be taken on board. Bank associate Sebastian Tay, 28, notes that while every voice counts, Singaporeans must realise that the Government will not be able to fulfil every request.
"Ultimately the Government is trying to understand us and make some sense of the general direction, consolidate and come up with a better strategy that is seemingly connected with what has been suggested," says Mr Tay, who took part in an engagement session on jobs. "It's about finding a balance point between both sides."
Landscape architect Srilalitha Gopalakrishnan, 38, adds: "Sometimes, people take things very personally. You can't expect everything you want to be done or incorporated."
Marine biologist Siti Maryam Yaakub, 34, sees another perspective - that it is refreshing hearing the opinions of the young. Says Dr Siti, who was at a session on biodiversity: "The common thread among the young is full of hope. It brings in a perspective that is fresh. The rest of us who have been plodding on this path for a while tend to forget the more idealistic notions."
HOW IT WORKS
SGfuture sessions are more topical than the Our Singapore Conversation, which dealt with broader themes. The idea is also that participants tap what they see at the Future of Us exhibition for inspiration.
That is why most sessions have been held at the exhibition's "Marketplace" area, although it is not mandatory to attend the showcase.
Topics have ranged from jobs to sports, hawker centres to technology. Participants are split into groups of up to 10 people. Each group has at least one facilitator and a note-taker.
Either the moderator or a panel of experts will kick off with an introduction of the key issues to put everyone on the same page, while the facilitator prods discussion along and highlights new angles to talk about. They also ensure all views are taken into account and that no one hogs the stage.The notes taken are compiled into a report for the host ministry or organisation.