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Active citizenship: It’s all up to us

Helping design public consultation initiatives for different organisations over the years has presented me with many opportunities to hear first-hand from citizens across a range of issues.

TODAY file photo

TODAY file photo

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Helping design public consultation initiatives for different organisations over the years has presented me with many opportunities to hear first-hand from citizens across a range of issues.

Sometimes, I have been cheered by what I hear, but many times I have been dismayed, because what I have heard suggests we are lacking in shared responsibility, empathy, and logic.

How else can I explain, for example, why discussants would support a social programme because Singapore is an inclusive, caring society and we must take care of each other, yet refuse to contribute to the programme’s cost, asking “why should I pay for them if they cannot take care of themselves?”

As we mark our nation’s 52nd year of independent governance, my birthday wish for Singapore is that we never forget active citizenship is ALL up to us.

To build and maintain a strong, sustainable society of “one united people” that truly respects and cares for one another, it is up to us — individually and collectively — to Ask, Look, Learn.

To me, there are three questions to ask in examining the state of active citizenship in Singapore: Is the increasing involvement in social enterprise initiatives matched with a corresponding increase in understanding of the social condition, its antecedents, and wider impact? Is this understanding further matched by a sustained long-term commitment to action? And, how can we catalyse change if we are not even aware of the lenses we wear when interpreting and judging the world around us?

An adverse social condition unnoticed or unrecognised will not get changed, and meaningful, sustainable changes do not happen in the absence of understanding why change is even necessary. How, then, could we Ask, Look, Learn?


A recurrent refrain I have heard in public consultation sessions is “the Gahmen already knows what it wants to do” — that the consultation is little more than a public relations exercise.

I have been encouraged, however, by efforts in recent years to more sincerely seek citizens’ views — to ask better questions rather than assume that a small elite has all the answers.

Genuine engagement helps to affirm and confirm sensing, and creates trust and support for programmes.

Contrast, for example, the public consultation exercises around the nursing home in Bishan East and studio apartments for the elderly in Toh Yi, with those for the Mandai rejuvenation project and the Government’s severe disability insurance scheme, ElderShield.

The latter consultations presented opportunity for the public to contribute their views and suggestions and to have their concerns heard during the planning phase, while the former put the Government on the defensive after designs and detailed plans were announced and which had to be revised to placate unhappy citizens.

A truly participative democracy will require more of the former, and less of the latter.


What we see is not always indicative of truth. I have caught myself thinking disparagingly towards young people crowding the MRT lifts while visibly frail senior citizens and parents with baby strollers wait their turn.

Certainly, a good number of those young people are able-bodied enough to walk the stairs or ride the escalator. But, it is entirely possible someone who looks healthy has a medical condition that benefits from minimising exertion or the risk of getting jostled.

I realised this during a long convalescence a few years ago, following surgery to repair the damage from a sequestrated spinal disc. Outwardly, I did not look unwell, but I moved as slowly as a Galapagos tortoise — which also cannot climb stairs — and was afraid to get bumped or knocked over by the faster moving crowd.

I would use the lift even when going up or down a single floor. The scornful looks received were an epiphany!

We often make judgments without considering plausible alternative explanations, and what we believe of others is reflected in the words we use and our body language.

I treasure my friends who encourage and remind me — especially by their own example — to look at the world with different lenses; to consider alternative explanations and interpretations.


How much more gracious and supportive our society could be, if we learn to overcome the human tendency to evaluate people based on what we see or what we have been told, without taking the time to learn more and to get to know them better.

My experiences during consultations suggest we can afford to do more to create an environment in which suggestions can be offered safe in the knowledge that feedback on them will be constructive and affirming, even if the reception is negative.

No one should get slapped down or dismissed before being engaged to understand the thinking behind their suggestions. And if, after learning more, we conclude the suggestion is indeed untenable, offering constructive, affirming feedback is more likely to build bridges across which more suggestions can flow.

The longest-serving President of the United States Franklin Roosevelt once said: “The only limit to our realisation of tomorrow will be our doubts of today”.

Perhaps, one day, I will wake up and feel there is no more I can do to change a social condition. But, until I get to that point, I want to lay my head on my pillow each night comfortable in the knowledge that I have not given up, and that someone somewhere in Singapore may benefit simply because I gave it my ALL.



A consultant to the Ministry of Health, Gan Su-lin is a public communications and deliberative engagement specialist with broad experience across academia and the public and non-profit sectors. This piece first appeared in The Birthday Book 2017, a collection of 52 essays that examines challenges and opportunities for Singapore with the theme “What Should We Never Forget?” TODAY will be carrying other essays from the book in the coming weeks.


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