Stop griping about the national conversation

National Conversation

Scepticism is a better word

It is disheartening to read the reaction on blogs and social media to the national conversation so far. Many online observers are already dismissing this as a meaningless exercise, while others are more keen to nitpick and criticise what the PAP has done in its attempt to engage Singaporeans.

Call me naive but I believe the PAP is genuinely interested in seeking our views as the country reaches a turning point with some hard decisions to make. I can’t see much incentive on them putting on a show just to placate the people; with elections some four years away, there is little political mileage to be gained. It would be much easier for them to continue to legislate as they deem fit and as they have done for so many years. The PM is putting himself on live TV facing potentially tricky questions when he doesn’t really need to. For that you have to give him some credit.

This government has been on autopilot mode with a single-minded objective of wealth creation for the past two decades, but now the noise of discontent has reached a point where it can’t be ignored any more. It is clear there are trade-offs to consider going forward. Should we stop chasing economic growth and look toward economic equality? Is it time to raise taxes to fund welfare spending? Are we prepared for rising costs if we halt the influx of foreign workers?

Singaporeans gripe that nothing will change because the PAP never listens (the irony is now we refuse to talk). For this, we need to draw a distinction between 2 types of change. The first relates to bread and butter issues in our everyday lives such as housing, education, jobs, foreigners, raising kids, cost of living, et cetera. These are more immediate concerns that the majority of the population are keen to address.

For these, the onus is on every one of us to contribute toward the conversation. Now, contributing doesn’t mean you have to go on dialogue sessions or live TV Q&A. You could write to population.sg, to the mainstream media, to the ministers directly on Facebook, or even blog about issues to put them up for discussion. Inaccessibility is no longer an excuse.

Every one of us faces these bread and butter issues, so nobody can claim to have nothing to say. Opinion and suggestions, whether good, impractical or seemingly trivial, contribute to the discussion and help inch us toward a resolution or compromise that hopefully benefits either society as a whole or specific segments that require help.

There are already positive signs that the PAP is listening. Education is now being addressed head-on, for example, with the scrapping of secondary school banding. The national conversation itself came about as a result of increasing calls on the government to rethink its obsession with economic growth that has led to social issues in overpopulation and income disparity.

You could choose to be cynical and lambast the establishment for anything and everything. It may make your blog more popular but that is not going to help our low wage earners or lower the cost of housing and COE. The poor and less fortunate tend to be the ones with the smallest voice, so it is up to those better able to articulate and reason to speak up for them. Even if it doesn’t result in anything, you have tried at least.

The other type of change relates toward ideological reforms such as greater democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, gay acceptance, et cetera. Here, it is easy to mistake Singapore as a first world country such as the US and the European countries. In civil mindset, we are but a rich developing country not unlike the wealthy Middle Eastern nations where women are not allowed to vote. Thus we get frustrated and impatient when we compare our civil laws with those of western first world countries with hundreds of years of civilisation and establishment of society.

Democracy and civil rights were not just parachuted into these countries. Ideological reforms are notoriously long struggles and any form of change is typically gradual. As unthinkable as it is now, slavery was only outlawed in America 60 years after import of slaves were first banned. The apartheid struggle lasted half a century. To this day, the UK and many other countries are still grappling with whether to allow gays the right to marry.

So any sudden and major ideological change of direction from our government is always going to be unlikely. As politicians, there is more to lose than gain from rocking the boat as not all of society might be ready. What occurs to you as a basic right may not appear so to your fellow countryman. That is why it takes time for societies to evolve and mindsets to change. For the activists and campaigners out there, the best thing to do is to carry on raising awareness and nudging our leaders towards that direction. It is difficult without doubt. Some will leave for more liberal lands while others stay for the struggle.

Look at Aung San Suu Kyi. She gave up her family and a stable life in Oxford, England to fight for her country. Those people close to her would probably have said the same things many of us have said, that it was hopeless trying to engage the junta and push for change. But for more than twenty years she persisted. After such a long struggle, there are finally signs of reform in Burma. So when we say the PAP never listens, how long have we been trying to engage them?

Of course, most of us will never be like Aung San Suu Kyi. But it goes back to the part about contributing however little you can. There will always be those who are apathetic, but if you had bothered to write critiques of the government, you are probably one who cares. Your time will be better spent if you speak up for what you care about instead.

The late Steve Jobs once famously said to John Sculley when courting him to join Apple: “Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

Now ask yourself, do you want to gripe about the government for the rest of your life, or do you want to help change your country for the better?