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Interviewed and profiled in The Straits Times, 17 August 2013

Updated: Jan 3, 2021


KENNETH PAUL TAN; National dialogues a lesson in active citizenry

The Straits Times, 17 August 2013

The Our Singapore Conversation (OSC), a year-long project that saw 50,000 Singaporeans participate in 660 forum sessions, recently came to an end. Elgin Toh caught up with Associate Professor Kenneth Paul Tan, an OSC committee member, over supper this week, to find out what he thought Singapore learnt from the dialogues.

* What did your work on the OSC committee involve?

We attended committee meetings and were asked to advise on various aspects of the OSC process and outcomes. We were also expected to participate in as many forum sessions as possible.

* What were some decisions the committee had to make?

The final report had a lot of editorial input from us. In the transition into Phase 2 of the OSC, the secretariat also presented to us their efforts at codifying the dialogues into 12 perspectives, to see if they matched what we heard on the ground.

* Was there any that attracted a bit more discussion?

Yes. It's a very vocal committee that made many suggestions, sometimes difficult ones. The secretariat was quite responsive to the interventions of the committee. The fiercest intervention, though, came during the announcement of the White Paper on Population in January. I remember at that committee meeting, some members felt let down.

* Why?

Here you had a process of engagement with citizens. You were trying to make it authentic and get citizens to participate, make their views known, and then in some way, have these views fed into policies. But the feeling was that the White Paper seemed to pre-empt the discussions.

Some committee members had obviously pulled in a lot of their own networks, contacts, friends and colleagues to get involved in this process. These people then came back and asked them: "What is this about?" So they found it difficult to explain.

That was one of the moments when our committee discussions felt somewhat awkward. Minister Heng Swee Keat explained to us what the process was for the White Paper. I don't think everybody was necessarily convinced by the explanation, but we moved on. The process of engagement was important and we were committed to it nonetheless.

* What would have been the preferred approach for committee members?

It would have been better to dovetail the two. Not that the White Paper has to be the report of the OSC. Certainly it was not meant to be one. But it should be informed by it. The OSC was an extraordinary exercise lasting one year. It doesn't happen all the time. So honour that process and make people feel that their investment of time and effort actually counted for something.

* What were the most important outcomes of the OSC?

To me, the value of the OSC was in building capacity more than providing answers for policymakers. The skills and talents required to act in public spaces as responsible citizens - engaging one another, debating... These are not necessarily natural abilities. You learn to become active citizens.

* What are some research projects you're working on now?

I've been writing about pragmatism, which has served us well in the past. The argument I make is that this has degenerated a little over time. It's no longer about experimentation or a nimble approach to decision-making.

Instead, pragmatism has been almost reduced to an approach hardly capable of questioning the long-term goals, but is focused on working out the technical means of achieving them.

Vulgar pragmatism mechanically calculates based on material costs and benefits. It loses its recourse to values and ideals. We've become so technically sophisticated that we no longer want to or know how to think in moral, philosophical and aesthetic terms.

* Other projects?

I'm also thinking about the dynamics of moral panic, an old-fashioned sociological concept, but I think still capable of providing deep explanations.

Sometimes in the public imagination, there are sudden spikes of interest surrounding a group of people - called "folk devils" - who are blamed for society's problems, such as the black muggers of London. They became a kind of distraction in an economic crisis. It has to do with the capitalist system, in all its complexity, needing to hide its deep structural problems behind the human face of an exaggerated threat.

I try to use that to think about whether there are folk devils in Singapore and whether we tend to react to them when we are near a systemic crisis. One example may be foreigners. Interestingly enough, another folk devil might be the establishment, or the PAP.

* Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, in his recent book, One Man's View Of The World, writes that if Singapore became a two-party system, we are destined for mediocrity. What is your view, as a political scientist?

We know what the arguments are. They usually have something to do with Singapore being a small place with limited leadership talent, and therefore we can't afford to split the talent.

But another argument relevant to Singapore is the need to have a system that can adapt.

So if you have one party in power, and that party is highly successful over time, you put a lot of trust in it, and that party may also have a lot of trust in itself.

But later on, when circumstances change, they may make a wrong decision, and we go very far down that path. Let's say, as a result of that, it crumbles, the party loses credibility, and everything is possible, from voting it out to revolution. What's going to take its place? There's no leadership or organisation that is ready. It's not resilient. That, to me, is a good argument for guarding against a bad future.

* Would you ever enter politics? Why or why not?

I'm afraid not. I don't think I have the kind of talents that would make me a good politician. You have to be very decisive sometimes. As an academic, I tend to always have in my mind counter-arguments. I would come to a decision far too slowly.

But I also think my talents make me much more useful as an educator. I'd like to think that I'm helping to equip my students to be more effective citizens.

* You grew up in Katong and still live here. And you've invited me to your home here today for supper. What does this neighbourhood mean to you?

This area has a pre-independence charm to it. But I like it also because it's quite a dynamic place. Real people live real lives here. New developments compete with older structures.

There is tension in Singapore between development and the desire to preserve things. And what I'm looking forward to is the kind of planning and development that creatively resolves the tension.

Think of Athens, for example. So imagine the horrors of building a subway underground through all these valuable historical ruins. But what they do is to turn some of their underground stations into museums. So they might display and curate some of the original walls and artefacts that were dug up during construction.

For a fuller version of this interview, go to



Singapore Press Holdings Limited

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