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Friday, June 09, 2006

Feedback session: "Sense of Belonging"

I attended my first Feedback Unit discussion this evening. This was actually my second opportunity at this. The first time, something came up at the last minute and I couldn't attend it.

And to give a further background, yes, I've been a member of the so-called "People's Forum" (sounds very hammer-and-sickle, no?) for about a year. No, I'm not a government spy.

I had mistakenly thought that it was for youths and about what they want in Singapore. It was really a focus group to find out Singaporeans' sense of belonging and identity.

But first, let me state for the record: the government knows how to serve food! The invite said refreshments. It turned out to be a buffet with eight dishes (one was fruits, another was cream puffs). Of course, I had expected this, especially since the session was held on a weekday evening. I remember attending another government-sponsored event (for the life of me, I can't remember what it was!) and the food was top notch! Haha, tax dollars at work!

Back to the discussion...

There were 13 participants, one moderator (it sounds like civil servants get picked randomly to moderate such sessions), and three note-takers from the Feedback Unit. Of the 13 participants,
  • three were female,
  • the oldest was in his 50s, the youngest in his 20s, and about half were above 30,
  • slightly less than half were civil servants,
  • only two had never stayed out of Singapore for an extended period of time, e.g. for work or studies, and
  • there were no Malays -- apparently, they have their own focus group due to earlier research that showed that their ideas were significantly different from those of other racial groups.
To guide the discussion, we were given five questions:
  1. Are you proud to be a Singaporean?
  2. What makes you feel a sense of belonging to Singapore?
  3. What changes do you hope to see in Singapore that would make you feel more attached to the country?
  4. Are you confident that Singapore will have a bright future?
  5. Are you confident that your personal aspirations can be fulfilled in Singapore?
We spent almost an hour on the first question. As usual, there was a lot of digression, and there were a few people who elaborated so widely that the moderator had to cut them off.

Essentially, the feeling I got was that there was a failure to distinguish between "Are you proud to be a Singaporean?" and "Are you proud of Singapore?" Most people said they're proud because of Singapore's achievements, its global status, the respect and recognition we get from other countries, etc.

But a few of us kept driving back the point that those were about Singapore and not about our identity. We emphasised that their pride was based on the good that we have. I gave this example: if a person's family came to ruin, would he still be proud to be part of that family? I elaborated by saying that though Timorese face difficulties, I doubt many of them would want to return to Indonesia. (I also thought of Israelis and Kurds, but Timores leapt to mind first.)

Unfortunately, I felt that the point didn't sink in. Or maybe it's because there is no distinction between "proud of country" and "proud to be a member of the country"?

I liked this anecdote by a participant. She had two citizenships because of where she was born. When she turned 21, the Singapore government made her pick one (dual citizenship is not allowed in Singapore). After much thinking, she kept her Singaporean citizenship, even though she could have had a better life in the other country.

She put it succintly: Singapore gives her grief, but she loves the country. In anything, there is almost always a love-hate relationship. She didn't feel that she must be 100% happy with Singapore to love it. Instead, she works hard to improve Singapore.

Unfortunately, hers was not a view shared by others, especially the older ones. I've heard it said that the older you get, the less idealistic you become. In this focus group, I found that to be true. Those below 30 expressed hope and optimism, but those above 30 talked about the realities of life and a "give up" attitude.

This distinction came out strongly when we were asked for our personal opinions about the fourth question. The younger ones felt that Singapore would continue to do well (barring unforeseen circumstances), while the older ones expressed bitterness. Of course, this is just a generalisation.

Interestingly, there was little difference between the age groups when it came to the last question. Almost everyone didn't feel confident. Or we really, truly wanted to be confident, but our ideals were already crushed by harsh reality.

And that's how we wrapped up the session. Later, each of us was given a "goodie bag". It was a standard government envelope containing a notebook, a refrigerator magnet with sticky notes, a pencil, and a small "to do" white board.

My personal reflection: I actually am looking forward to participating in another feedback session. The general feeling is that the government doesn't care about feedback (true or not, I won't debate it here). However, I feel that this is a better forum to voice my concerns where there is a better-than-remote chance of being heard. This is compared to coffeeshops or at work or in a blog. Also, when listening to other people whom I wouldn't normally meet, I can reassess my preconceived notions. Which I think can only be a good thing.


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