EDUCATION Minister Heng Swee Keat's promise, that a committee chaired by him will engage Singaporeans in a "broader conversation" on the future, is the latest manifestation of an emphasis on consultation that goes to the heart of governance.
It should be seen in the light of an old fear that a contradiction at the heart of Singapore would break it eventually.
This seeming contradiction was that the city-state had to compensate for its lack of size and natural resources through speed and effectiveness in decision-making.
However, these imperatives would impose increasingly unacceptable constraints on an electorate not prepared to pay the old political price for economic success: close control over its life choices.
Economics and politics would part ways, so to speak, and the system would fall through the crack.
So went the prediction, to put it crudely. It has been disproved by the emergence of a desire for a strong state in which citizens have a stronger say.
This is the crucial point. Citizens do not want a weak state incapable of reacting swiftly and decisively to hostile changes. But they do want the state to respect and reflect their opinions more tangibly in the formulation and implementation of national policies.
A workable combination of the two demands - decisiveness and responsiveness - can be achieved and sustained through public consultation and engagement. Consultation is of a higher order than feedback, which is the public response to a policy once it has been made, and seeks the input of citizens in the making of the policy itself.
For example, the Ministry of Health recently elicited views on making MediShield more inclusive. Since there have been mixed responses on extending the basic insurance scheme to cover congenital and neonatal conditions, the ministry wants to hear from parents and other Singaporeans on the proposed extension of coverage, which will cost about $1 a month for the younger ages.
There is a wider move by many ministries to release consultation papers before drafting legislation, particularly on finance and technology, so as to benefit from the views of experts in those industries.
But consultation goes beyond seeking expert views on technical subjects. On the policy front, the Government launched an extensive consultative exercise before setting up the two integrated resorts containing casinos.
Now, it has solicited public feedback on proposed amendments that would fine-tune the laws governing them, so that the social ills spawned by the casinos do not overwhelm the economic benefits that the resorts bring to Singapore.
Consultation does not have to provide consensus, but it can produce a working compromise. For example, a compromise took shape when plans to build a highway through Bukit Brown Cemetery were refined by making a bridge part of the new road. The bridge would reduce the number of graves needing to be exhumed and protect wildlife and streams, thereby respecting the cemetery's historical character and preserving its ecological place in a green Singapore. What consultation also does is to blunt the edges of divisive issues. In a speech in 2005, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, who was then Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, noted that issues were becoming more complex and potentially more divisive.
"There are often no obvious, easy answers that will please everybody. Trade-offs will have to be made, and some segments of society will benefit, while others appear to lose," he said. "Riding roughshod over affected stakeholders will only alienate them, and create more difficulties during implementation."
In the circumstances, he noted, consultation was not intended to force consensus but to show that all views and interests had been considered before a final decision was taken.
The test of this approach has arrived, with the Government inviting the public to share its views on Singapore's population needs by commenting on a paper prepared by the National Population and Talent Division.
Immigration is the most divisive national issue to have arisen in the past few years, unleashing a degree of abusive online acrimony that borders on xenophobia. This consultative exercise should go some way towards creating a calmer social environment for addressing the contribution of immigration to Singapore's long-term future.
Whether they are supportive or critical of the official stand, concerned citizens have an opportunity to create a fair, balanced and effective population policy by contributing their rational and studied views.
Views received by the Oct 31 deadline will be considered in formulating a White Paper on population that is expected to be ready by the end of the year.
Consulting the future
SINGAPORE has come some way along the path of consultation. Consultation was made institutional in the Singapore 21 exercise, undertaken at the end of the last century, and the Remaking Singapore initiative, launched at the beginning of this one. They raised the bar of expectations among citizens by inviting them to become active partners of the State in charting Singapore's future.
These expectations continue to set the tone of the consultative exercise today, and point to the future.
Former British secretary of state for business Peter Mandelson remarked in a public lecture, hosted by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in September last year, that the social contract has to be debated openly to meet people's expectations. Indeed, in the new normal created by globalisation, he added, the "activist state" has to be even more accountable to the populace, even if this is done at times at the expense of efficiency.
It is unlikely that Singaporeans will accept a less-efficient state as the price of consultation and accountability, but the rest of his point is well-taken.
Globalisation unites the world at the trans-national level, but it creates serious disparities and divergent social constituencies within national economies. It becomes increasingly difficult to conceive of a single set of policies to cater to the social diversity which marks the new normal.
The only way to arrive at policies that will serve most of the people the best most of the time is to consult citizens more and more.
A stronger say in the State in turn helps the State stay strong.
This perhaps could form one of the assumptions of the national conversation that minister Heng is about to launch.
The writer, a former Straits Times journalist, is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.