Remaking S’pore: Let’s be realistic — ST ILLUSTRATION: LUIS MISTADES
FANS of the National Basketball Association will remember the year 1999, when a little-known team called the San Antonio Spurs won its first-ever championship.
It came after the season was shortened to almost half its usual length, because of a labour dispute between team owners and the players.
As a result, NBA historians put an asterisk next to the year 1999, as a reminder that the title was won under easier circumstances because of the fewer games that were played.
For years it drove the Spurs players on, because they wanted to prove that they could get that title again, in the right way.
In 2003, the Spurs won their second title – and this time there was no asterisk.
What does the NBA have to do with Singapore’s national conversation on its future?
The year 2003 is, coincidentally, also the year when the Remaking Singapore report was released.
Looking back at the 104-page document, the exercise that promised to look at all policies and programmes did indeed do so.
The report came after 65 consultation sessions with more than 10,000 Singaporeans here and overseas over 16 months, and even weathered the Sars crisis.
It produced 74 proposals and mapped out a broad and heartwarming vision for Singapore’s future, one that spoke of different paths to success and centred on Singaporeans who are self-driven and with high aspirations.
Yet, it also left some disappointed because a few long-standing, contentious issues such as defamation law, media liberalisation and electoral boundaries were quietly set aside in an annex under a section entitled “proposals without consensus”.
When all had been said and done, there was a nagging feeling that while there was consensus to move Singapore forward towards a shared vision, it had – like the 1999 San Antonio Spurs victory – been reached in arguably easier circumstances.
The really difficult issues had been put aside. It was consensus with an asterisk.
It is understandable, therefore, that even though few details are known about how the next national conversation will take place, there is already growing scepticism among some Singaporeans about the latest attempt to re-remake the nation for the future.
I do not think consensus means agreeing on every detail. Consensus requires a process of engagement, the sharing of views, a give-and-take and a compromise from many sides, before an agreement is finally arrived at.
But what Singaporeans may be seeking is a consensus that is clearer and more meaningful, perhaps more than those that previous rounds of consultation have yielded.
The challenge for the Government is to prove that this process is not a matter of paying lip service to engagement, and that it can actually lead the change that Singaporeans want and believe in.
This is important because the stakes are higher than before.
The nation is maturing, and expectations of the Government have changed and risen.
At the same time, the current Government is trying to rebuild a relationship of trust with Singaporeans, one that has been frayed by housing and transport problems, and tensions over immigration and rising income inequality.
It has promised transformation and better engagement with the people. And in that process it has already surprised many by slaughtering one sacred cow: the overhauling of ministerial salaries.
In doing so, however, it has inadvertently raised expectations that bigger sacred cows may be next in line – and I fear the focus will be on that alone.
When Senior Minister of State for Education Lawrence Wong, who will be on this committee, said “there should not be OB markers or sacred cows”, it likely raised the expectations that a sacred cow must be slain, that the Government must make a significant policy change after the exercise is completed.
But will it and can it? And should it even?
Establishing the parameters and limits of the discussion from the get-go could help make this national conversation more fruitful than previous ones.
The goal of this process should not be radical change alone, but to enhance the understanding between government and people.
If the Government is not prepared to cull any more of its livestock, a better approach might be to eschew sweeping and lofty statements that promise much, and instead come straight out to say what this coming national conversation cannot deliver.
Narrow the parameters, and set the bar lower. Temper the politics of hope with a heavy dose of Singapore realism.
The Government may end up doing so. But if it does not, then the process could well end in disappointment, and the political cost might be high.
Holding a national conversation between the Government and the people at this time is a big gamble, but the potential rewards are also rich, as long as expectations are clearly managed from the start.
My hope is that young Singaporeans and old will participate in this, and emerge feeling energised to build a strong and proud Singapore for the future.
I also hope the conversations will yield fresh ideas, or reaffirm existing ones about how to deal with challenges the country will face, because there will be many.
This time, I hope there will be consensus built – without a need for an asterisk.