Saturday, July 28, 2007

Post No. 115: “Coffee Talk With George” – A Report

Earlier today, I attended a dialogue session, aptly entitled “Coffee Talk With George” (considering the venue where it was held), with Foreign Minister (FM) George Yeo (who is also a Member of Parliament of Aljunied GRC, which was hotly contested in last year’s General Elections) that was organised by the Bedok Reservoir-Punggol branch of the Young PAP and which was held at the Ya Kun Kaya Toast outlet situated in Basement 1 of Hougang Mall.

The turnout for this dialogue session was quite small actually, numbering, by my estimation, only about 10 plus people. Of course, I suppose that this small turnout is understandable, considering the low level of publicity that this event had (I mean, I only got to know about this event from Lianhe Zaobao earlier this week). And, of course, since the venue of this dialogue session can be said to be right smack in the middle of the basement, it attracted its fair share of curious onlookers. Also, by my estimation, most of those who turned up for the dialogue session were mainly in their late teens and/or early twenties, with 2-3 who are older in age. The media was also present at the dialogue session; from where I was seated, I spotted a camera crew from CNA and at least 2 to 3 journalists (one of who I recognised as being Mr. Ken Kwek from the Straits Times).

Before the dialogue session started, there was a short performance by a quartet of young female dancers (up till now, I still cannot see how this dance performance fitted into the overall scheme of the dialogue session; surely, it can’t be a dance performance just for the sake of a performance, can’t it?). This was followed by a short speech by FM George Yeo about how, drawing reference to MM Lee’s earlier remarks, Singapore is entering a “golden age” and how it is up to the younger generation to fully make use of this “golden age” & to decide where Singapore will continue from here.

The dialogue session then started proper, with the first question (or, as I see it, the first comment which is in part a reply to FM Yeo’s short speech) coming from this man who (by my estimation, he should be in his early 40s) commented that while Singapore have prospered so far, it would be necessary for Singapore to acquire even more talent, locally or from overseas, to ensure its continued prosperity. To this, from what I can remember, FM Yeo was in agreement.

The next question came from someone who, I suppose, those whom keep track of the local socio-political blogosphere would be familiar with – Mr. Choo Zheng Xi of “The Online Citizen” (TOC) fame. He first commented that to him, a country’s level of political maturity is not seen in how shrill (i.e. strident) the voices discussing socio-political issues are but in the level of constructive engagement between those adopt different stances on these issues. He also commented that there seems to be a supposed divide between the local mainstream media which is perhaps too cautious in propagating anti-establishment views and/or reporting news which is favourable to the local political opposition and the new media which is seen as anti-establishment. Thus, as an editor of TOC, he hopes to make TOC the bridge between these 2 different forms of media, with commentaries sent in both by those who are pro-establishment (or are in the establishment already) and those who are anti-establishment. In fact, as revealed as Mr. Choo, as part of the effort to achieve this “bridging effect”, he has invited Mr. Ephraim Loy to be co-editor of TOC.

He then asked FM Yeo how comfortable will he be with engaging with the anti-establishment voices in the local socio-political blogosphere and/or sharing the same online platform as these voices. Also, similarly, he asked how comfortable FM Yeo will be with encouraging his colleagues in the People’s Action Party (PAP) to do likewise.

To this, FM Yeo replied that he welcomed engagement with the local socio-political blogosphere. However, he added that while he would not shy away from discourse/engagement, the issue of whether constructive engagement can be achieved is dependent on the attitudes of those who are involved (note: by this, I think he meant that people should adopt a cooperative attitude and not one of obstinacy or name-calling) and the issue involved.

The third question came from this guy (who, if I remembered correctly, is a NUS undergraduate) who asked if the local public sector is placing an overemphasis on academic qualifications, resulting in the situation in which it is perceived that those who are on a scholar-track will, unless they make a major mistake, continue to be promoted. He then suggested that the local public sector emphasis more on work performance in its recruitment of personnel and the assessment of their promotion chances, seeing how, as a recent news article about how an ITE graduate managed to achieve a successful career have shown, good academic performance is not equivalent to good work capability or performance.

In reply, FM Yeo said that while it may be true that academic performance is not equivalent to work capability, it remains a fact that academic qualifications is seen as an indicator of potential work capability which is valued by both the public & private sectors.

Also, FM Yeo said that while those in the public sector who have good academic qualifications may be better off than their colleagues whom have performed less better academically in the initial years of their career, in the long term and in the end, how far one can go in the public sector is still dependent on individuals’ merit.

The next interesting question came from this middle-aged lady (who was seated beside me) who asked if it was possible that the Government and/or the PAP be more sympathetic towards those who are critical of it and not always resort to the use of defamation suits to defend themselves against accusations of misconduct from its critics. Perhaps, as the lady suggested, it is possible that the Government or the PAP employ public statements to defend their reputation against any accusations of misconduct.

These suggestions were, however, rejected by FM Yeo who maintained the standard PAP Government stance of that it is critical that Singapore’s political leaders defend their reputations jealously against any accusations of misconduct and the most fair & civilised way of doing so would be through the judiciary process.

The next question, which is a follow up question to the one above and posed by Mr. Choo (see above), directed at FM Yeo was about whether the fear or threat of potential lawsuits and/or parliamentary sanctions could have closed the door on discussions which can perhaps be potentially constructive discussions. For example, as cited by Mr. Choo, an opportunity for a more constructive discussion could have been lost when, recently, Non-Constituency MP Ms. Sylvia Lim’s (who is also the chairperson of the Workers’ Party) point that a constitutional amendment, enabling the Prime Minister to nominate another 2 persons into the Legal Service Commission, could perhaps create a perception of a partial judiciary was fiercely rebutted in Parliament by Professor Jayakumar, Law Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, who said that Ms. Lim was again raising the sceptre of a conspiracy which was once raised by veteran opposition politician, J.B. Jeyaretnam.

To this, FM Yeo’s reply was similar to that of Professor Jayakumar and MP Indranee Rajah. He also added that the use of speculative language (e.g. “could”, “perhaps”, “perception”, “possible” and “potentially”) in parliamentary enquiries should not encouraged as it is a devious way to cast doubt on the integrity of the Singapore system and its leaders.

Following this, a question was asked about whether the local public sector can improve on their accountability & transparency to the public, especially with regards to the response letters they write in reply to letters from the public. Specifically, the guy asking this question said that response letters from the public sector are rather vague and seemed to be skirting the issue at hand.

In reply, FM Yeo said that the local public sector has already scored very high, in international surveys, with regards to accountability & transparency and is constantly trying to improve. Yet, that said, FM Yeo added that the public sector is a service industry and there will always be customers who are dissatisfied with some aspect of the public sector; it is quite impossible to please everyone.

Another question asked was regarding how Singapore would face up to the increasing competition from rising economies, such as China’s and India’s.

FM Yeo’s reply to this question was, I think, quite predictable. He answered that this question was one that was constantly thought by Cabinet ministers and that there is a critical need for Singapore to build on its traditional strengths while developing new strengths. He also added that while, on the individual versus individual level, Singaporeans may not be better when competing with people from other countries, there are systemic strengths which Singapore has that other countries cannot emulate easily and/or cannot catch up with yet.

The second last question asked was one about whether the Government should be less involved in the Singapore economy, in that it should allow the market to find its own niche areas and not continue trying to “spot” niche areas for Singapore as this could result in less than positive results e.g. the placing of wrong “bets”.

To this, FM Yeo answered that Singapore, not being a command economy, cannot be too prescriptive with regards to the economy. Also, there is no way the Government can prevent individuals from blindly placing their “bets” in accordance with “bets” placed by the Government. Anyway, the “bets” placed by the Government are long term “bets” so it cannot be expected for these “bets” to immediately show success.

Finally, the last question was with regards to how Singaporeans tend to be overdependent on the Government, with people expecting it to resolve all matters big or small.

FM Yeo agreed that Singaporeans may perhaps be too dependent on the Government. As quipped by him, some of the residents that FM Yeo met during his Meet The People sessions tend to treat him like a “condo manager”, considering that they come to him for all sorts of minute problems. He added that Singaporeans should perhaps show more initiative and be more reliant and that this is one area which needed to be improved upon.

The dialogue session then ended off with the organisers providing refreshments (i.e. coffee and kaya toast) & giving out feedback forms to the participants while those from the media were going around getting interviews from FM Yeo and some of the participants.

In conclusion, I must say that this dialogue session, in my opinion, was not especially fruitful though it did provide some key insights. Also, as I have written in my feedback form for the event, it would have been better if the venue of the dialogue session was situated in a place with better acoustics and that was less noisy (I was sitting at the back and had to, at times, strain to hear what FM Yeo and the other participants were saying, even though they were speaking with microphones).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Same old same old from the PAP. Such sessions are designed as more Public Relation exercises and feedback sessions. Nothing concrete will come out of it, just like constituency walkabouts. Any wonder why the older or more adult citizens won't be bothered.

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