The PAP has asked for a National Conversation. About a week later, the social media responses make me wonder whether we will ever have one. To explain what I mean, I need to digress a little to my personal life.
Until I was engaged to my wife, I had always taken conversations with my then-girlfriend for granted. It was only after a number of heated arguments that I learned how to have a proper conversation.
The concept is so simple that it is almost silly. Conversation is not just about talking. It’s also about listening. Conversation is a two-way street.
It’s easy to believe that conversation only means talking. It’s easy to forget that when someone is talking, someone should be listening too. If everyone is talking and nobody is listening, there is no conversation at all. There is no attempt to understand each other’s position.
This reminds me of a joke: “In the first year of marriage, the husband talks and the wife listens. In the second year of marriage, the wife talks and the husband listens. In the third year onwards, the husband and wife talk, and the neighbours listen.”
It can be very hard to be a good listener, especially if you are a “results-focused” guy like me. I admit I learned how to listen the hard way. There was a time when I would fail to listen to my wife. She would say something, which I would interpret as a problem and then propose a solution. Then my wife would simply repeat herself, I would repeat my answer, and the cycle continues until either we have an argument or we change the topic. I eventually learned that my wife wasn’t actually looking for a solution. She just wanted someone to listen, which meant I had to stop interrupting and learn to be silent. I also learned to be less impulsive and judgmental, because nothing kills the mood of a conversation faster than letting my wife know that I think she is just being silly.
If we are going to have a national conversation, we have to learn to listen as well. After all, Singaporeans already excel in complaining, so we have the talking part sorted out. We have to hold back our impulses to judge others quickly, because being too judgmental creates a “us versus them” barrier that hinders social engagement.
In the immediate aftermath after the National Day Rally, there were a number of blogs praising PM’s speech and call for a national conversation. The online mood was more positive and reflective than it normally is. Even the surprising event where PM invited a few bloggers for a friendly chat at the Istana was well-received by the bloggers themselves.
However, there were detractors as well, and it didn’t take long for their voices to get louder. Yawningbread felt that the PAP’s minds were already closed, so their consultation committee would not be open-minded. Mollymeek felt that the PAP’s engagement is a sneaky and narcissistic way of “making people adverse to radicals”, and that it is naive to believe the PAP is really about to engage the people.
It makes me wonder: “Is this the right way to start a conversation?” Many online commentators have always accused the PAP of being closed minded. There is some historical truth to that statement. But when we see the Govt try to open up and engage, we see the same commentators cynically writing off these efforts. It’s a classic case of “Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” Are we not becoming the monsters that we say we hate? Must this be a race to the bottom?
It’s a good thing to question everything the MSM tells us. But there’s a difference between being a skeptic and being a cynic. A skeptic does not place undue faith on a person or idea, but he does not write it off immediately either. A cynic is generally distrustful and ridicules others. The latter is not conducive to engagement, and is unhelpful when we’re trying to solve big hairy problems. If we’re being cynical in engaging the Government, is it really a useful engagement?
It is sad when people like Visa have to put disclaimers when they are writing something that remotely smells pro-PAP. Our online culture has spawned this necessity, because like Visa says, it’s easy to assume that the author is some kind of PAP lapdog or bootlicker. Praising the PAP is liable to make a blogger an apostate by netizens questioning the identity and political motivations of the author. “Ad hominem” attacks are more fashionable than reasoned discourse. Andrew Loh wrote: “Taking the easy way out by attacking others – especially anonymously – just shows one is not really concerned about our society. It also shows cowardly behaviour and an inability to deal with disagreements.”
It is ok to disagree with the PAP’s policies. They are not perfect, and there are Singaporeans suffering for it. But before we react to the unhappiness, should we also not hear the views of those who are helped or gaining from these policies? Is it fair to complain that the PAP is only making tweaks to the system, when each policy has winners and losers? After all, it is a truism of policy making that the people who are adversely affected tend to be the most vocal, whereas those who benefit tend to remain silently appreciative.Take for example, housing prices. Yes they’re too high for many newlyweds, but housing value is also tied to the retirement of many older adults today. If the PAP changes policy too quickly, the retirement future of many Singaporeans could be at risk. Isn’t it more prudent to change the ship’s course in a slow but firm manner? Shouldn’t we recognise that it is not “the people vs PAP”, but really “many people with different interests pointing in different directions?”
Cherian George wrote: “Democracy requires the right to speak, and this is where the internet has come to the fore. But democracy also expects of citizens that we listen, to hear views different from our own, to negotiate and, if necessary, compromise. We need spaces for such deliberation and social conciliation.”
One of the important lessons that my wife and I learned was that we should do our best to avoid mentioning mistakes made in the past. What’s done is done, with we should apologize, accept and move on. It isn’t a healthy relationship if we keep harping on the past, because it is an albatross around our necks.
I implore everyone who is reading this to really think about the meaning of conversation and listening. A truly heartfelt engagement is a rare and precious thing, even amongst couples married for many years. It will be even more difficult between citizens and the government. But we owe it to ourselves to try to put our prejudices aside and have a real National Conversation. It is our Singapore, and we are in it together after all.