DEPUTY Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's open call to Singaporeans to engage the Government in debate over national issues, and his assurance that the Government, will be more open to public opinion should be commended and embraced by all Singaporeans.
Indeed, groups like The Roundtable have been established specifically to engage the state and its citizenry in debate over political and policy issues.
Brigadier-General (NS) Lee's invitation comes at a wonderful moment. The S21 process, which represents the most positive, dramatic and concerted attempt by the Government to engage civil society, has just been completed.
But that is not enough, for, even with the widespread consultation process of S21, there are many in civil society who continue to question the Government's motives and sincerity.
Indeed, these cynics doubt whether the Government can find it within itself to tolerate dissenting and opposing points of view when debating policy in the public domain.
These cynics find it difficult to see how and to what extent Singaporeans can truly become the active citizens envisaged in the S21 Report.
HISTORY AND BAGGAGE
THIS cynical ambivalence can be attributed to recent history of state-society or state-individual relations.
The state has always welcomed active citizenship and participation in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) under the voluntary welfare organisation (VWO) umbrella. Groups who come together to help manage homes for the aged, child-care centres and the like, have been very much encouraged since they support and supplement existing Government efforts in the social-welfare domain.
However, the state has hitherto been rather more ambiguous about and wary of groups who seek greater political space and participation and groups who push the boundaries of the state-citizen relationship.
The Government's ambivalent attitude has its roots in the formative years of nation-building, when subversives used societies, unions and cooperatives as front organisations in their attempts to destroy or overthrow the Government.
As far back as 1974, Professor Chan Heng Chee pointed out that "one of the most significant developments in Singapore politics in the last decade has been the steady and systematic depoliticisation of a politically-active and aggressive citizenry".
This was done through the creation of community centres and Citizens' Consultative Committees (CCCs) which "have also enhanced the domination of the PAP".
"Although these measures were initially enforced to suppress the communists, they have, in fact, resulted in the control and limitation of all political activity other than the ruling party's."
She contrasted the PAP's view of "politics" with another view where "politics refers to the phenomenon of democratic politics, where groups of people unite behind different readerships to compete, bargain and negotiate in the shaping of political power and to influence or control policy directions.
"This view of politics sees politics as a legitimate continuous activity, rather than a sporadic concentration of activity once every five years at election time."
Indeed, while the days of communist-front activity are long gone, these suspicious attitudes, so strongly ingrained, remain with us. A "them-and-us" attitude was allowed to permeate the Singaporean political discourse and those who were not "with the Government" were seen to be against them. If you opposed a government policy, you had to sympathise with the opposition.
Thankfully, such simplistic thinking has been abandoned. The S21 agenda recognises the active citizen as a vital participant in the social as well as political arena.
BIG HOPES, SMALL STEPS
SO WHERE do we go from here? The Government has consulted, they have discussed, and they have documented the aspirations of Singaporeans within the rubric of the S21 agenda.
Civil society, on the other hand, has been taking incremental but exceedingly-cautious steps, with the organisation of several conferences, workshops and forums. Yet, each is waiting to see what will happen next.
The Government appears to have fired the first salvo with BG Lee's open invitation to debate.
His constant assurances that no policy is "too sensitive to question, and no subject so taboo that you cannot even mention it" and that "as long as the argument is over policies, the limits for debate or the out-of-bound (OB) markers are very wide" are heartening indeed.
But will civil society bite? Should civil society bite? The answer to the second question is more obvious than the first. Of course, we should. But on what terms?
There is still the historical baggage of how the state has treated civil society in the past. The spectre of the "Catherine Lim" affair continues to loom large for many, who are minded to engage the Government in a political debate.
It is unfortunate, but such experiences cannot be wished away. Neither should they, for they form the collective memory of the forging of a relationship. Civil-society cynics cannot be expected to jump into the fray, simply because the Deputy Prime Minister calls upon them to do so.
Many will continue to sit on the sidelines waiting for others to take the plunge, just to see whether the erstwhile carnivorous crocodile has changed his diet. What needs to be done is to repair and rebuild the degree of trust between state and society, which was tested so severely in the past.
This has to be done with both sides showing good faith and a great deal of give-and-take.
CALL FOR CONCRETE PROPOSALS
COMPARED with state action on other policy matters, the Government's verbal encouragement of citizen participation in national issues appears to be marked by a lack of any accompanying concrete action.
Contrast this to the approach taken in meeting other stated national goals. When the Government said it wanted to build up Singapore as a media-and-entertainment hub, it liberalised regulations on film-and-drama censorship and satellite ownership.
When it declared cost competitiveness as a major objective, it slashed fees and cut the CPF rate as a signal that would be noticed far and wide. However, in asking Singaporeans to engage the Government in public affairs, its verbal cues have not been unequivocal.
But the more-hopeful Singaporeans, including members of The Roundtable, choose to focus on the positive signals and act accordingly, but this has more to do with personal inclinations, rather than any objective, material evidence provided by the Government.
A positive demonstration of good faith on the part of the Government will go a long way to ensuring a positive response to BG Lee's call.
The Government must demonstrate its willingness to deal with the obstacles which impede active civil-society participation on policy matters. Two come to mind immediately.
First, legislation like the Societies Act, the Internal Security Act and the Public Entertainments Act need to be reviewed seriously, so that bona fide civil-society groups can get on with the business of being engaged in public debate.
Already, civil-society groups have discussed and outlined the problematic areas in some of this legislation. Perhaps a ground-up initiative to review and propose amendments to this legislation will meet with a favourable reception in Government circles.
Second, The Roundtable made a call last year for greater latitude to be given to individuals wishing to voice opinions through free-speech venues. The Government's response was at first negative, but grew warmer subsequently.
Freedom of speech is necessary for proper debate, and no debate can really take place with participants constantly looking over their shoulders.
Perhaps the time is now right for such venues to be set up. They would go a long way to meeting BG Lee's clarion call for greater participation and active citizenship.
If that happens, we will truly be heading in the direction of active citizenship and "more helping heads".
TWO WAYS TO HELP
THE Government must demonstrate its willingness to deal with the obstacles which impede active civil-society participation on policy matters. Two come to mind immediately:
* Legislation like the Societies Act, the Internal Security Act and the Public Entertainments Act need to be reviewed seriously, so that bona fide civil-society groups can get on with the business of being engaged in public debate.
* Greater latitude should be given to individuals wishing to voice opinions through free-speech venues.