Opinion

After Our Singapore Conversation: The Futures of Governance

Two analysts from the Public Service Division reflect on Our Singapore Conversation’s radical implications for the nation and its public policy enterprise.

Date Posted

15 Jun 2014

Issue

Issue 13, 14 May 2014

Our Singapore Conversation (OSC)1 is formally over, with the publication and release of Reflections of Our Singapore Conversation in August 2013. Reflections is markedly different from the proposal-laden technocratic reports produced by previous national engagements such as The Next Lap, Singapore 21 and Remaking Singapore. Minister Heng Swee Keat, in his Chairman’s Foreword, takes pains to emphasise that Reflections “does not look quite like the usual official report”. Elsewhere, the publication reiterates that OSC is “not a policy document that outlines government responses to Singaporeans’ contributions to OSC.”2

That Reflections should highlight this in order to manage the expectations, not only of the Singaporean public but also of the policy establishment, speaks to the uncharted territory that Singapore finds itself in with OSC. This unfamiliarity, even discomfiture, stems from three factors. One, that the OSC concept is driven by the still-developing idea of “co-creation”: a partnership between those who govern and those who are governed. Public policy conducted through the participatory foresight praxis becomes very much a collective enterprise, and less so the elite-driven phenomenon it typically is. Two, insofar as it is a dialogue, an often messy and dynamic process of articulations, negotiations, compromises, persuasions and concessions, it suggests that OSC may be valued more as a process, rather than the outcomes that it generates. Indeed, recall that OSC was designed “with no specific preset topics or areas for discussion ... to provide as much open space as possible for Singaporeans to voice their opinions.”3

Finally, and most importantly, the very term “conversation” suggests the power of speech acts, of “talking” the future into existence.4 In the context of Singaporean public discourse, OSC has seen a discernible shift in focus from threats to aspirations, resulting in a new vocabulary built on terms such as “narrative”, “myth”, “values”, “identity” and so forth.5 To borrow from Joseph Campbell, the late authority on mythology, myths speak to us in terms we cannot deny; they are the stories, even lies, that we tell in order to justify ourselves to ourselves. The language of these myths constitutes a person’s “final vocabulary” as defined by the philosopher Richard Rorty:

It is “final” in the sense that if doubt is cast on the worth of these words, their user has no noncircular argumentative recourse. Those words are as far as he can go with language; beyond them there is only helpless passivity or a resort to violence.6

OSC, at a deeper level, was therefore an effort to rediscover and redefine a “final vocabulary” for the nation.

For policymakers, both the process and outcome of OSC are potentially disconcerting, particularly if it is to be taken as a model for the public policy enterprise in future. Public officials function in accordance with causality understood in linear, mechanistic terms; typically, they search for points at which leverage can be applied in order to cause change throughout a system. Such a definition of causality — in terms of uni-directional, linear determinism — —has tended to resonate very well with policymakers in general, and those in Singapore particularly, for whom “policy lever” is a key term in the working vocabulary. The problematising, complex and emergent nature of participatory futures calls this stability into question. It does so by moving away from the assumption of linear cause-and-effect — and the quest for neat, deterministic solutions to problems — towards an emphasis (and celebration) of the subjectivity and messiness that characterise social reality. Participatory foresight exercises such as OSC create space for alternative futures that are the outcome not of objective determinism, but of subjective multi-causality.

In a sense, Singapore has come full circle, albeit having done things back-to-front. Singapore’s strategic foresight enterprise had its roots in the military-security milieu, in which the question of the day was: “How do we secure ‘us’?”7 It is only belatedly that Singapore, both the Government and the governed, has begun to address the more fundamental question of “Who is ‘us’?” through the praxis of participatory futures. Bell points out that members of groups — societies, organisations, and nations — find meaning and purpose in their charter or founding myths, which form the basis for their societal identity and values. He further argues that the “charter myths of a particular group or society [are] a standard by which to evaluate the desirability of alternative images of the future”.8

There is an irony in realising that charting the way(s) ahead for Singapore rests on revisiting its charter myths. In one sense, OSC has turned out to be an attempt to address “where we are going” by way of “who we are and where we come from”. This is clearly demonstrated in how participants reminisced about the “kampong spirit” (literally, “village spirit”, referring to the spirit of community), whether real or imagined, of yesteryear. OSC participants have expressed sentiments that hint at a wistful longing for the past:

I pray that our country will be more caring towards the old and have the kampong spirit to help each other.

Nobody appears to really care for one another’s wellbeing as well. There is a loss of kampong spirit, that sense of neighbourliness.9

Thus, the road to the future appears to run through the past.

Past, present and future are inextricably intertwined. The past continues to cast its shadow on an ephemeral present. Furthermore, far from being immutable, the ever-present past is subject to constant revisions and reinterpretations; the past — or rather, its significance — can be changed. Similarly, our present assumptions and images of the future shape our current actions, which in turn produce the future “present”. The growing importance of aspirations and the new modality of both state and society co-creating desirable futures suggests that Singapore’s foresight policies, far from being the straightforward application of tools and techniques, will have to be guided by the Aristotelian trinity of logos (the “how” of things), ethos (the questions of values and ethics), and pathos (how well we identify with each other). After all, participatory foresight is at heart an attempt to articulate and attain “the good life” — a fundamental philosophical question.

Reflections, Refractions and Diffractions

Mr Heng’s foreword to Reflections concludes on an optimistic note:

Our Singapore Conversation does not end here. The spirit of speaking up constructively and hearing each other out sincerely and respectfully continues, just as making Singapore our best home is a continuing work in progress.

It is hoped that the myriad conversations will continue. Indeed, in his critique of OSC within Reflections, Kenneth Paul Tan, a local academic and an OSC committee member, writes:

Instituting the habit of public participation and nurturing the skills to do this well are, in my view, a more important contribution of OSC than recording the aspirations that will feature in the final report.

In a similar fashion, the OSC Secretariat held the view that Singaporeans are developing “conversational muscles” and that they are not afraid to use them. Has OSC, in providing the valve by which Singaporeans’ existential angst and anxiety about the future might be released, led to an irreversible refraction of Singaporean society into a spectrum of distinct colours, competing values and diverging aspirations?

The OSC process may simply have exposed our notions of identity, history, and values as the contested narratives that they are, prone to unravelling. It remains unclear if these growing instabilities and emerging challenges, borne simultaneously of contestation between and co-creation by state and society, will result in a diffraction of established and familiar policy paradigms. The postmodern thinker Foucault defines “heterotopia” as “capable of juxtaposing in a single real space several spaces, several sites that are themselves incompatible.”10

Has post-OSC Singapore become a proto-heterotopia, an ambiguous place in which Singaporeans are forced to continually ask “What world is this and what do I do in it?” Or, indeed, have these tensions always been part of Singapore’s existential challenge? Now that would be worthy of a conversation of its own.

OSC, Singapore and the Postmodern Condition

The rationale, design, conduct and experience of OSC recalls Max Weber’s vision of an age marked by a contestation of ideas, in which no one single idea attains the monopoly status of a “grand narrative”.1 It is no coincidence that emergence, contestation and messiness — trends evident in both the experience of OSC and the social climate in which it took place — have manifested at particularly this advanced stage in Singapore’s economic and urban development. Postmodernism — informed by plurality and difference, with a suspicion or even hostility towards the notion that there are universal and eternal truths — has been argued to be an advanced phenomenon of the “city”:

Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form around you. Decide what it is, and your own identity will be revealed, like a map fixed by triangulation. Cities, unlike villages, and small towns, are plastic by nature. We mould them in our images: they, in their turn, shape us by the resistance they offer when we try to impose our personal form on them. In this sense, it seems to me that living in the city is an art, and we need the vocabulary of art, of style, to describe the peculiar relation between man and material that exists in the continual creative play of urban living. The city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate in maps and statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture.2

Read More

This article was adapted from a fuller paper presented at the International Foresight Academy Seminar at ZHAW Technopark, in Winterthur, Zurich, 16–19 September 2013.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr Adrian W. J. Kuah is Lead Strategist at the Centre of Strategic Futures, Strategic Policy Office, in the Public Service Division. He is also an Adjunct Research Fellow of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

Lim Seok Hui Analyst in the Strategic Planning and Research Cluster in the Public Service Division. She was previously Executive in the “Our Singapore Programme” Office, also in the Public Service Division.


NOTES

  1. Initiated in August 2012, Our Singapore Conversation was a year-long national conversation effort, characterised by broad-based, free-ranging dialogue, between the Government and citizens, and among citizens from all walks of life, on every aspect of the Singaporean condition. An OSC Committee, chaired by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, led it. See: http://www.reach.gov.sg/Microsite/osc/index.html
  2. Reflections of Our Singapore Conversation, p. 2. http://www.reach.gov.sg/Portals/0/Microsite/osc/OSC_Reflection.pdf
  3. Our SG Conversation website http://www.oursgconversation.sg, accessed September 5, 2013
  4. For a fuller discussion, see http://www.zhaw.ch/fileadmin/user_upload/engineering/_Institute_und_Zentren/INE/veranstaltungen/Papers_IFA/Kuah_Adrian.pdf
  5. Adrian W. J. Kuah, “Facing up to Identity, Myths and Politics in S’pore,” Today, 6 March 2013, accessed September 5, 2013, http://www.todayonline.com/print/78261
  6. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1989): 89.
  7. Adrian W. J. Kuah, “Foresight (and) Policy: Thinking about Singapore’s Future(s)”, in Social Space 2013/14 (Singapore: Lien Centre for Social Innovation, Singapore Management University, 2013): 106.
  8. Wendell Bell, Foundations of Futures Studies: Values, Objectivity, and the Good Society. Human Science for a New Era, Volume 2 (New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2003b): 141–2.
  9. Quotes from OSC Participants, taken from OSC newsletter Perspectives Arising From Our SG Conversation, p. 17. http:www.reach.gov.sg/portals/0/microsite/osc/osc_newsletter.pdf
  10. Michel Foucault, (translated by Jay Miskoweic) “Of Other Spaces”, Diacritics 16 (1986): 26.

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