Open Debate - and Open Minds - Needed

Posted by Simon S.C. Tay, Zulkifli Baharudin and Cherian George under Features on 29 February 2000

WE WOULD like to thank the PS21 Office for its response (ST, 25 Feb) to our article on civil society (" Role of civil service in civil society ", ST, Feb 17).

It replied to three specific examples we mentioned of the lack of public engagement by government agencies: the on-going controversy over the National Library, the use of nature reserves for water storage, and the Chinatown conservation and development.

In the PS21 reply, there was specific mention of stands taken by architect Tay Kheng Soon on the National Library and by NMP Simon Tay on the nature reserves. The thrust of our article is not about consulting individuals, but engaging the public more broadly.

Nevertheless, let us clarify the point regarding the nature reserves. Simon Tay did file a question in Parliament on the issue, but this was not allocated time for an oral reply, and, therefore, there was no debate in the House. The minister released his answer in written form.

Mr Tay's press release was the most timely and direct means of sustaining the debate. The PS21 Office is, therefore, wrong on the facts when it says he chose to write to the press "instead of joining issue with the Government", and that he could have "rebutted the minister's point in Parliament".

But there are more important points to consider. First, just because a question is raised in Parliament does not mean it cannot be discussed in public more generally and openly. Secondly and most importantly, citizens have a right to engage, not just NMPs.

Similarly, we are not concerned if Mr Tay Kheng Soon as an individual has, in the past, accepted that the National Library should or should not be conserved.

What's important is that there is now broad public concern about the issue. Mr Tay is significant insofar as he, as an architect, has shown concretely how these concerns might actually be manifested. These present plans are what the URA should respond to, not the past.

The way the PS21 Office reply reads suggests that speaking to an individual is enough, or that government agencies have done all they can and should. It thus defends the status quo.

We must ask if the three cases cited are being held up as examplary instances of how the civil service should continue to engage civil society in 21st-century Singapore.

If so, how would this measure up to the statements by the political leadership and the head of the civil service, Mr Lim Siong Guan?

We suggest that the PS21 Office apply a more demanding yardstick, focusing on the degree of public engagement achieved.

Applying such a standard, the Chinatown example probably emerges as the best of the three. In the end, there was a public discussion on the issues.

In the debate on nature reserves, there was no such discussion. But the Government released information on why there was no other suitable location and how the National Parks Board had ensured that minimum damage was done.

The current debate on the National Library has benefited from none of these elements of engagement.

When we see these differences, two questions arise. First, we should ask ourselves if government agencies should only respond when, as with the Chinatown case, the public outcry grows loud. If so, are we encouraging a vociferous civil society rather than one that can speak politely and expect a prompt reply? Must we yell to get service?

Second, we have to see that engaging the public is a process with some different but essential elements. Private consultations have a place, but they are not a substitute for greater public consultation.

It is not essential that the Government agree with the suggestions of the public. We made that clear in our article. What is essential is a process of public engagement. Open discussion and debate are part of that process. So are open minds. Both are not abundant in the PS21 reply. We do not need attempts to centre debates on individuals. This, sadly, seems to be the tack taken in the reply.

People's participation and Singapore 21 are a hope for the future. We need to look at the present and the past to understand how we can get there and what must change -not stubbornly defend everything done to date. Surely, things can be better and should be.

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