“Citizen Engagement in a Diverse Society”
His Excellency Wang Yongqing
Secretary-General, Political and Legal Affairs Committee of the CPC Central Committee, People’s Republic of China
His Excellency Chen Xunqiu
Secretary-General, Central Committee Office for Comprehensive Social Management General Office, People’s Republic of China
His Excellency Huang Ming
Vice Minister, Ministry of Public Security, People’s Republic of China
Ladies and Gentlemen
A very good morning. First, let me extend a warm welcome to Mr. Wang Yongqing, and our Chinese friends. Thank you for your strong support of the 3rd Singapore – China Social Governance Forum. We are happy to host the third edition of this Forum, which signifies our continued and shared resolve in building harmonious societies in our two countries. This Forum is invaluable, in that it provides us with the regular opportunity to exchange perspectives, and to hear each other’s experiences.
It is timely that we have focused our attention through our theme of “Governance in a Diverse Society”. Both Singapore and China increasingly grapple with diversity as we continue to develop and our societies evolve. In his opening speech, Deputy Prime Minister Teo shared on four different dimensions of diversity present in the Singaporean society, some of which are also present in the Chinese society. While these dimensions of diversity post challenges to social governance, they can also lend us a competitive advantage if managed well.
For us, managing diversity had required that we shift gears; that we engage our people more actively, and that we better communicate the differences in opinions and policy trade-offs. These are important efforts that we have been undertaking to safeguard harmony in our diverse society, and also to reap potential benefits from diversity. Therefore, allow me to kick off our discussions today, by sharing with you some of our thoughts and efforts on citizen engagement.
Understanding differences is a necessary first step
We saw the value in listening and gathering feedback as early as 30 years back. We created the Feedback Unit in 1985. However, it was only until about a decade ago that we started to reach out and engage our people more actively as more Singaporeans were already taking an active interest in issues around them.
At the same time, we also wanted to better understand the range and prevalence of perspectives and differences that exist, to appreciate any potential implications, before we decided on whether and how to manage any emerging area of differences. Our approach, represented simply was first, to know, or be aware, then, to understand or to appreciate, before we respond).
However, we recognise that we cannot just look at our typical descriptive statistics or official data we collect – on race, religion, country of birth, education or income – to understand the emerging dimensions of diversity. The correlation of people’s values, preferences and expectations with one’s identity may not be well established. Multiple dimensions of identity also add to the complexity.
We realise that for these emerging dimensions of diversity, it is often easier for us to engage the people directly to find out their views or perspectives, than for us to try and discern the relationships from data.
Engagement is the expedient and effective way to understand differences
Public engagement and consultation is therefore also a very pragmatic and a very necessary development for us.
As we built up our engagement efforts, we learnt that engagement is not just a two-way street. It can also be a marketplace, where multiple parties converse. By engaging the right participants, we can quickly develop an awareness of the differences that exist around a particular issue. More importantly, these conversations also raise awareness of the same differences in the other parties taking part in the conversation.
We hope that as people respond to our efforts, they can also adopt a corresponding approach as they join in discussions on specific issues or policy matters, which is first to know or to be aware, then to understand or appreciate, before reacting. Therefore, as we engage, we increasingly share the principles and considerations guiding our policies. We hope that participants in the conversations can see the diversity of views, and recognise that as part of the social contract we have, not all individual preferences can be satisfied.
To maximise opportunities for people to participate in conversations, and also for us to disseminate information, our strategy is to create multiple avenues where conversations can take place, through social media, and also through traditional means. Let me elaborate.
Engaging online for a greater reach
Today, REACH, the successor to the Feedback Unit, is joined by a good number of Government agencies, in having online presences. Agencies have blogs, and are on various social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube. In the same vein, to lend a personal touch to engagement, some of our leaders, including myself, have also taken up online presences.
With today’s technology, conversations happen online whether or not we are there. To engage effectively and reach out to more people, we have to go to where the chatter is and to also create our own online conversations. These conversations and avenues allow us to offer balancing viewpoints and information. And unlike physical offices, these online avenues can remain accessible 24/7 to interested members of the public over the Internet. Such ‘on-demand’ availability and presence is important and also useful, as we have seen during the periods we experienced the trans-boundary haze over the past few years, when Singaporeans turned to our online avenues to get timely updates and advisories on the haze situation.
With the myriad of alternative content and websites out there, we are very conscious of the stiff competition our online avenues face for the attention of the people. We are also conscious that, unfortunately, there will also be misleading information on Government efforts. When this happens, we will need to leverage on our online channels to clear the shroud and swiftly dispel confusion to contain the spread of mistruths.
In addition to individual agencies’ sites, Factually on Gov.sg, is an attempt for us to offer information to proactively address the mistruths that are out there. For example, just earlier this month, Factually helped to clarify that an elder woman stopped receiving ComCare public assistance as she actually had substantial monies in her Central Provident Fund account, as well as a paid up flat, and not simply because she was diagnosed with terminal cancer as implied by an online article.
As we adopt online channels for engagement, we will need to monitor closely and respond resolutely to websites or avenues with malicious intent that can destabilise our society. As we secure our online avenues for engagement, we do need to protect our people from cyber-crimes. My colleague, Minister of State for Health and for Communications and Information, Mr. Chee Hong Tat, will share more on these efforts in his presentation for the second sub-theme, on “Social Governance in an Information Age”.
Online channels, however, cannot substitute for traditional avenues of outreach and engagement. As we expand our engagement through online channels, we remain conscious that we may be narrow-casting, and connecting only with those who are receptive. As we try to expand our reach online, we will have to continue our engagement efforts through traditional means as well.
A local touch in engagement and delivery of Government services
In this regard, the issues that are often closest to the hearts of the people, are those that concern their immediate communities and their environment. In a diverse society, concern over amenities remain basic and fundamental. Effective delivery of services and common spaces on the ground reduces potential tensions, and facilitates interactions for harmonious living. Therefore, the second prong of our engagement efforts is to complement our online presence with a local, and more accessible presence, in the community.
On this front, we started early as well. We formed the Town Councils in the late 1980s and early 1990s, for effective oversight over local estate management purposes. This provided a more direct link between the choices of the residents and how their estates are managed. We boosted our efforts with the setting up of the Municipal Services Office around two years back, to improve the Government’s overall coordination and delivery of municipal services in a highly dense urban environment. Our Chinese friends would have seen an example of a well-integrated and planned residential development during their visit to Treelodge@Punggol yesterday.
Late last year, we also completed a network of 24 Social Services Offices, or SSOs, across Singapore. The SSOs are designed to bring social assistance touch points to local communities. They will work with Voluntary Welfare Organisations and partners in the community to provide more coordinated assistance that better meet the needs of our residents.
Through our Government offices in the communities, we hope to work with the people for more effective outreach and also engagement. We hope to leverage the networks of the people, to multiply awareness of Government efforts, and to better reach out to the silent majority, or those who are unable to be reached easily. With our local offices, we can also hear feedback more directly and also faster.
An example of how we have tried to pursue these efforts, is through our Pioneer Generation Ambassadors. Around 3,000 PG ambassadors, who are volunteers, helped to visit our seniors in their homes, and explained the healthcare benefits that have been introduced for them.
Singapore is a small city, where our residents across different races, religions and cultures live and work in very close proximity with one another. Engagement and conversations at the local community level promotes understanding of differences and also shared experiences. This is important towards building harmony and resilience of the people. My colleague, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and for National Development, Mr. Desmond Lee, will share more in his presentation for the first sub-theme, on “Social Governance and Urbanisation”.
Harnessing the collective energy of the people through engagement
Last year, we celebrated our 50 years of independence and rounded off our celebrations with a “Future of Us” exhibition at the Gardens by the Bay. We also launched a series of public dialogues which are still on-going called the SGfuture dialogues. We hope to ride on the positive atmosphere from the jubilee celebrations, to harness the collective energy, ideas and perspectives of our people through these dialogues. We hope to hear what our people wish to see in Singapore 50 years from now.
High profile engagement series are not new to us. We held the Our Singapore Conversation exercise in 2012, and saw how such efforts can be useful towards collective visioning. More importantly, we also saw how the participatory nature of such engagement can go towards inculcating active and also responsible citizenry. We hope that through the dialogues, participants will experience first-hand the need for compromise where diverse perspectives exist. Participants will also meet other like-minded people, exchange ideas, and translate them into implementable initiatives that benefit various meaningful causes, communities and societies at large.
At the end of the SGfuture dialogues, we will share the diversity in ideas and perspectives with our people. Through this, we hope to sustain the conversations that we have started, and get Singaporeans to converse with one another, and with us on key issues surrounding their lives and Singapore. And particularly for the SGfuture dialogues, we hope that these do not remain at the conversations level, but will translate into active action and participation from Singaporeans.
As we look forward, we will continue to safeguard, and pursue fair and lawful governance of society taking into account the various dimensions of diversity. We will ensure that access to services and to the justice system are streamlined, and there are channels for settlement of disputes out of court. We will hear more about this from my colleague, Senior Minister of State for Law, Ms. Indranee Rajah, under the third and last sub-theme, on “Creating a Fair and Effective Justice System”.
In conclusion, as new and emerging diversities confront our societies, engagement and consultation is important and necessary. Engagement lets us understand and appreciate the differences as they change, before we work on how to manage them. Correspondingly, engagement has the same effect in raising awareness of differences in the people, and encourages responsible participation in civic society and in contributing to the collective development of Singapore.
We will continue to work on diversifying our avenues for engagement, leverage technology and new media, while also going closer to communities. We hope that residents will come forward and take part constructively in conversations on issues close to their hearts and on the future of Singapore.
With that, I look forward to insightful discussions at the Forum. Thank you.