Opposition parties appear to be keeping away from the government’s call to have a national conversation about Singapore’s future, mentioned during the Prime Minister’s National Day Rally speech last month.
This is even as the online community raised questions on the team members leading this initiative, after a committee for the national conversation was announced by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat over the weekend. The main grouse is that there are not enough government critics, opposition members and “alternative voices” in the committee.
Seven People's Action Party members are among the 26-member committee, such as Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, and Senior Minister of State for Education Lawrence Wong.
Today newspaper reported that Reform Party’s Secretary-General Kenneth Jeyaretnam said it is "not taking part in a state-managed exercise" as he demanded for "freedom of expression".
Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Lina Chiam, who spoke to Today newspaper, said the Singapore People's Party (SPP) was "deeply disappointed" that the committee only included PAP politicians. She is the chairman of the party.
She also noted that there is a need for alternative voices on the committee, such as those from bloggers. "Otherwise, Singaporeans will regard this as yet another publicity stunt by the Government (and) not regard it as a sincere or genuine conversation, let alone a national one. Given these circumstances, the SPP will be deliberating whether we even have a role to play in this or not.”
On its website, the Singapore Democratic Party told Channel NewsAsia in an unpublished interview that the government is “using this exercise to manage their discontent instead of making a sincere effort of reforming the political system and allowing Singaporeans a genuine say in how the country is run”. It added that “the biggest challenge for this dialogue is how to pretend to have a conversation with only one side talking”.
However, Member of Parliament for Jurong GRC Desmond Lee said in a Channel NewsAsia report: "Opposition voices, like voices in the community, have to step up. They have to take part constructively as part of a global national conversation.”
"NOT A PARTISAN EXERCISE"
Education Minister Heng Swee Keat told reporters that the initiative "is not a partisan exercise" and that the committee cannot represent the whole of Singapore. “Members are not chosen on the basis of functional representation," he said.
He added that "every Singaporean is welcome to provide their views, including members of the opposition, and the committee will be happy to receive their feedback and ideas".
Ata press conference over the weekend, he had introduced the committee, which also includes academics, students and ordinary Singaporeans.
- Mr Chia Yong Yong, president of the Singapore Society for the Disabled
- Mr Ismail Hussein, head of the Islamic Banking Unit of Maybank Singapore
- Mr Patrick Teo, a taxi driver
- Ms Kuo Jian Hong, daughter of the late theatre pioneer Kuo Pao Kun
- Mr Benett Theseira, president of the Singapore Eurasians Association
The oldest member of the committee is actress Lim Ru Ping, 61, and the youngest is polytechnic student Teng Zi Ying, Channel NewsAsia reported.
Online users have been voicing their opinions on the mix of voices in the committee.
One Facebook user “Peter Li” asked Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin on his Facebook page why there are no Members of Parliament from the opposition on the team.
Mr Tan replied: “We do intend to engage a wide range of Singaporeans… this is just the initial step. We'd still need to look at more focused areas and we will involve more in the committee at that stage.”
He also stressed that they are looking at the “silent majority” as well: “Importantly, we should not neglect the rest of society and groups who may not always speak up much, especially in the social media space.”
The process of the national conversation is not looked upon as being effective by some. There will be about 30 dialogue sessions being planned, each involving 50 to 150 people, in different languages and dialects.
The exercise is expected to take at least one year. Singapore writer Gwee Li Sui said on his Facebook profile: “The problem with a 1-year-long ‘National Conversation’ is, by the time the year is up, the findings will be outdated.”
Recognising the challenges for this initiative, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said one of these would be managing the expectations, Channel NewsAsia reported.
The initiative is also different from the government's previous tries at engaging Singaporeans. Speaking to Singapore reporters in Vladivostok, Russia where he attended the APEC leaders' meeting, he said: "The last one was Remaking Singapore, which was 10 years ago. I think our situation has changed, our society has changed (since then).
He said it is about Singaporeans and the government looking at our problems “afresh in a new situation, with a new generation, with a new perspective".