Walter Sim took part in an SGfuture dialogue on the Singaporean DNA last Tuesday. He gives his first-person account
It felt like an awkward speed dating session.
A bunch of strangers gathering at the Gardens by the Bay at twilight to talk about... life.
On any other day it might have been a romantic walk in the park, but I was one of about 30 participants at a public engagement session under the SGfuture series.
I have never been one to take part in such sessions.
I'm one of those Singaporeans who are in their late 20s, are relatively well-travelled, have a university degree and quite a decent job (or so I would like to think).
I belong to what is arguably the first generation of graduates to have grown up savouring the fruits of the pioneer generation's efforts and the economic policies of the early years.
Don't get me wrong, we love our country and we do not take things for granted, even if we do not overtly express this sentiment beyond the singing of cheesy National Day songs every ninth of August.
But many of my peers feel social media is enough to amplify our voices.
What's the use, then, in devoting precious time to travel downtown and physically take part in conversations with the Government? With their enviable salaries, civil servants really should know how to do their job.
In the spirit of adventure I decided to pitch the idea to take part and write this column, if only to try something new and gain a first-hand experience of this open-door policy that has evidently reaped benefits for the Government in recent years.
How far I've come.
When I reported on the very first SGfuture dialogue session on Nov 29 last year, I found myself agreeing with a fellow journalist from another publication who asked me: "What's going on with young people nowadays. You will take part in such things meh?".
Last Tuesday's session, run by the Ministry of Defence as part of its Total Defence programme this year, was my virgin public dialogue experience as an actual participant.
The session was moderated by social entrepreneur Tong Yee of the Thought Collective, a social enterprise.
He began with a 30-minute speech punctuated by slides with quotes such as: "Total Defence is not a request to die. In fact, it is a plea to live. And live well."
Or consider these: "A hero would die for his country. But he would much rather live for it", and "Fear as an emotion is invaluable. But fear as a culture will cripple us".
It all seemed very idealistic, even preachy.
But in the spirit of things I decided to hunker down and give this whole deal a shot.
The session, titled Singaporean DNA, looked at the traits within Singaporeans, and how to preserve positive ones and eradicate negative ones.
In all honesty, Total Defence - and its five pillars - is a concept that has eluded me since I left junior college.
I'm sure it's not a function of ailing memory: Nine years on I can still freely recite the Singapore Armed Forces' core values.
Some 30 participants took part in my session, with slightly more females than males.
Forty had signed up, with 10 having bailed, evidently deciding they had better things to do on a Tuesday evening.
A good number of the 30 participants were civil servants.
In my group of six - discounting the facilitator and scribe - were three civil servants (one of them an intern waiting to enter university), one JC student, and one who was "a friend of Tong Yee's".
I would like to think this was not exactly representative of the everyday Singapore population.
The awkward introductions at the start reminded me of my university orientation camp, the only thing missing being the icebreaker games.
THINKING ON MY FEET
At least things took a less contrived turn after the discussions got under way. (Note that the mechanics of each SGfuture session are different).
We were further split into pairs within each group. Each of us was given a deck of 65 cards with images on them. We were then asked to choose an image that best corresponds with our answer to questions such as:
What are the values that represent you as a person? What are the values that form the Singaporean identity? What makes Singaporeans angry or resentful, cynical or resigned, or complacent?
We were to explain our reasoning in our pairs - my partner was a civil servant whom I didn't know and will likely not cross paths with ever again.
With zero stakes come no baggage, and through this discussion process I felt something within myself stir.
Short of posting long-form messages on social media, which can be subsequently edited, such conversations make you think on your feet and distill your thoughts coherently.
And the presence of other people - such as the facilitator and scribe - listening in, surprisingly proved to be a non-issue, perhaps due to the understanding that the discussion was never private to begin with.
Nor did they chime in with unnecessary remarks or opinions of their own.
On the question of the Singaporean identity, I chose images of fireworks (to represent its exceptionalism), a question mark (to represent how the nation stands at crossroads), and a sprint (to represent how it remains results-oriented).
My partner did not choose the same images, but we found that we were pretty much on the same page as to the traits that mark Singapore society.
On what makes Singaporeans angry or resentful, I chose an image that represents discrimination, whether against foreign workers or those less well-off.
I went for a cleaner, with the thought that Singapore is a "cleaned city", that is, one that is cleaned thanks to cleaners.
I also chose one of medicine as, in spite of the Government's efforts, healthcare is still said to be expensive for many Singaporeans. And what of the effect on Singapore youth today should the country shift even further to the centre-left in its policies? Will we be happy to foot the bill?
The discussion in pairs led to a group discussion, and I found that being tuned into the contributions of other people also helped me hone my own thoughts.
As the group mulled over the social ills that were highlighted and how to resolve them, the conversation went on to a discussion of the, well, merits of a meritocratic system.
One groupmate said there was no reason to ditch the system because it has served Singapore well over the years.
Another participant added that it was precisely because the nation has progressed that it is now all the more important to adopt a form of "compassionate meritocracy", to give a helping hand to make sure people do not get left behind.
Even with the awareness of Singapore's relatively high social mobility, it led me to ponder: "If it is only the rich who can afford, say, tuition for their children while less well-off students have to juggle part-time work, won't this lead to a society where the rich get richer?"
The group also discussed the need to create more support for social movements to help those who are less able.
It was interesting to put one's views out there at such a forum, and seeing how ideas take shape through each other's contributions.
But I lament the duration of the session - the two hours seemed to pass by too quickly, and were too short to really encapsulate all that can be discussed in such a broad topic.
I also lament the homogeneity of the group - five of the six of us are millennials with similar education backgrounds.
Even though there were interesting perspectives, I had hoped to encounter opinions from more people who are vastly different from myself, whether in age, education background or social status.
It is certainly not the most efficient means for the Government to gather input, but it does come with the power to inspire and enable a sense of ownership over the ideas that emerged during a discussion with strangers.
But has it stirred me enough to actually sign up for future conversations?
Honestly, I do not know.
I guess I would, if I want to network and meet more people.
I do however see more tangible outcomes in actually "doing" - be it volunteer work or taking part in social movements.
In any case, speed dating sessions (which I've never been to, for the record) do not demand that you fall head over heels at first sight.
Everyone starts off as "just friends", and who knows what will happen next?
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2016, with the headline 'Walking the talk'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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