How is the National Conversation going?

Belmont Lay questions if the ongoing national conversation is less about what Singaporeans want but more about learning how to speak the language of the government (AP photo)

In "The FlipSide", local blogger Belmont Lay lets loose on local politics, culture and society. To be taken with a pinch of salt and parental permission is advised. In this post, he talks about how Our Singapore Conversation has stopped talking to the people.

For the uninitiated, we're officially at the halfway mark of Our Singapore Conversation (OSC), a year-long chit chat to get Singaporeans to open up and say what they feel.

And for those who think like me, OSC has always appeared kind of redundant because I thought the Internet has all along allowed Singaporeans to wear their hearts on their sleeve.

Anyways, the second phase is about to be rolled out in late March. It will zoom in on what makes Singaporeans feel like they belong here, and it's expected to take another six months to complete.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, here's a recap of how swimmingly well the national conversation has proceeded so far.

Insights galore

After six gruelling months of getting participants to sit in circles and scribble on mahjong paper and white boards, the national conversation has yielded numerous groundbreaking themes.

Don't believe me? Check out three of the 12 main themes that have emerged:

"A Singapore that is Affordable to Live in"

"A Society where Everyone Can Age with Dignity"

"A Society That Takes Care of the Disadvantaged"

Oh my goodness. We wouldn't have guessed, would we?

High cost of living, graceful ageing and helping the underprivileged -- all these themes that have been talked about to death on the Internet is finally being acknowledged. And they can actually be paraphrased another way. With capitalisation.

It is, therefore, better late than never for the government to heed the calls of the Internet community.

A more consultative government

But what's up with this change of heart where people's views are not being taken for granted anymore?

Let's look back to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Message 2012.

He said: "Think seriously about our future, contribute your ideas and work together to make it happen. Singapore must keep improving... If we stand still, we will fall behind… But if we adapt to changes and exploit new opportunities, we will thrive."

It was from this comment about contributing ideas that the seeds of the national conversation were sown.

To further illustrate his commitment to a consultative style of governance, PM Lee acknowledged the changing political landscape and this need to work with the people in a collaborative fashion in an interview with The Washington Post just last week.

He said: “It’s a different generation, a different society, and the politics will be different. We have to work in a more open way. We have to accept more of the untidiness and the to-ing and fro-ing, which is part of normal politics.”

So, how open and untidy is this normal politics of to-ing and fro-ing now?

Oh my goodness again. We wouldn't have guessed, would we?

The government pushed out the Population White Paper with a hugely unpopular 6.9 million population target, beat us over the head with it and passed it in Parliament, amid widespread derision and opposition -- all in a week's time.

I mean, if this is the process of normal politics, it only makes one wonder what abnormal politics with little to-ing and fro-ing looks like.

What is Singapore's vision?

The most pressing problem for Singaporeans now is that they feel left out because they don't really feel like they have a say as to where this country is going.

The people can say one thing and the government will do something else. It is almost as if they were both going down two separate paths.

Once in a while they might intersect and this is where the fabled meeting of minds will occur.

And where the two paths diverge, I guess we can call it the ongoing process of consultation.

Maybe this national conversation is less about what Singaporeans want but more about learning how to speak the language of the government.

Belmont Lay is the editor of New Nation, a publication that has been engaging its readers in an ongoing conversation for more than two years.