SP 2016: Panel on “Collaborative Governance?”

Feb 16, 2016 at 11:42 am | Hits: 2380

By Elaine Ho & Ng Yan Hao


Mr Chan Chun Sing
National Trades Union Congress


Mr Warren Fernandez
The Straits Times


Ms Lee Huay Leng
Lianhe Wanbao

Associate Professor Eugene Tan
School of Law
Singapore Management University

Mr Kok Heng Leun
Artistic Director
Drama Box Ltd



The first panel at Singapore Perspectives 2016 was on Collaborative Governance. It focused on what constituted good governance and how this could continue in Singapore as Singaporeans became increasingly diverse and civic and cultural activism expanded in society.

Mr Fernandez began the session by saying that good politics does not mean the absence of politics. He cited both Singapore President Tony Tan’s opening address in Parliament in January 2016 and United States President Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address, noting that political systems that can manage disagreements, incorporate the views of minorities, create checks and balances and stabilisers should be created, while sustaining the bonds of trust and preserving constructive political discourse.


Minister Chan Chun Sing: Good Governance Depends on “ADAM”

Minister Chan proposed that good governance is defined as a system of policies, products, processes and people, that delivers better lives and livelihoods and a better future for Singaporeans. Good processes “engages the collective wisdom, power and energies of the people” towards shared goals. To have a good system, it is essential to groom better people and leaders for tomorrow and today, cultivating values, capabilities and a strong sense of identity to serve the people of Singapore.

Minister Chan suggested that good governance in Singapore’s context is aimed at preserving its competitive advantages, given its demographic and resource constraints relative to larger nations. Additionally, he mentioned that better models of governance should achieve “ADAM”: Alignment of citizens with broad values and goals, faster decision-making and collective action, acting decisively, and managing and resolving consequences effectively.

Subsequently, Minister Chan noted that pork-barrel politics and the politics of self-interest are prevented through the commitment of stakeholders to act collectively, take ownership and responsibility for outcomes, and a sense of stewardship to take care of others across demographic, socio-economic and ethnic groups. He also highlighted the need to balance providing care for the current generation and providing for the needs of future generations. He pointed out that while conversations may be useful, good governance means these conversations can be turned into action. The Singapore Conversation and the upcoming Singapore Futures dialogue are good example of translating ideas into collective action, he said, where every Singaporean has a stake in harnessing collective ideas, aspirations and actions to move forward together.


Managing the Rise in Political Participation

During the question and answer session, participants noted that collaborative governance must involve co-creation of agendas and expansion of political participation. This must be supported by greater data transparency from the government; more open discussions among key stakeholders; less censorship and greater tolerance to dissenting views; and a reduced role of the state in society, to provide space for a responsible and robust civil society to develop. Collaborative governance generates a degree of chaos aimed at better mutual understanding and is premised on a rhizomic distribution of voices in order to preserve a free and democratic space for debate.

Minister Chan replied that the development of the space must be mediated by an understanding of context. For example, open discussions may place undue pressure on leaders, which make frank discussion of issues and mutual compromises among key decision-makers more difficult. When grounded in the right principles, honest and robust discussion can occur behind closed doors. The key to establishing effective collaborative governance is to maintain shared goals to serve the common good, build trust among the participants over time, find solutions all can accept, communicate effectively to the public, and take collective action and responsibility for outcomes. One example of collaborative governance is tripartism, as practised by groups such as the National Wage Council. The council comprises employers, trade unions and government representatives and issues guidelines on wage adjustments. While data transparency will improve going forward, civil society should use the data for responsible ends to preserve the trust between people and government.  

Trust, respect and humility, and a commitment to the search for a better solution for all involved must provide the underlying substance of politics, while simple binaries, slogan politics and absolute ideological positions should be avoided. Policies navigate tradeoffs that are specific to a given context; and better shared understanding of these tradeoffs on all sides enable better policy processes. For example, the simplistic notion that locals are good and foreigners are bad obscures the difficult tradeoffs that Singapore faces, explained Minister Chan.


Problems of Over-Centralisation in Politics

Participants noted that centralisation of political authority and the dominance of a single party amplify systemic risks from a corrupt or incompetent government. Minister Chan noted the inherent tensions between nimbleness, systemic risks and diversity have been recognised by leaders, who have sought to bring diverse perspectives in Parliament while creating stabilisers, internal checks and adjustment mechanisms within government. For example, the nine Nominated Members of Parliament ensure that diverse voices are heard, and the People’s Action Party’s Members of Parliament are not monolithic.

With regard to censorship of the arts community, Minister Chan noted that it was the responsibility of the arts community to build consensus with other groups on the norms of acceptable conduct, rather than to pass the buck to the government to achieve this. However, Minister Chan also emphasised the need for less dependence on the government as arbiter and problem solver, and cited the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) as a good example of collective bottom-up consensus-building.


Establishing a Singaporean Identity

Participants were concerned about the impact of being an open society, and how the different global and cultural identities of people living in Singapore would affect the building of a shared identity. Minister Chan replied that Singapore is defined by its values, and a shared vision for the future, rather than its historically entrenched identities, and this makes it attractive to people all over the world. This may create a self-selection effect and a convergence in values which could support the delicate balance required for stable, nimble and collaborative governance.

Participants noted that establishing a sense of rootedness to Singapore is difficult in light of the constant demolishment of cultural and historical landmarks, to which Minister Chan asked: “How prepared is this generation to give up what it cherishes to allow the next to build their dreams?” He added that are no easy answers, and a fine balance is required between conservation and space to create growth. Nevertheless, he also agreed that economic success and material wealth cannot define the national identity, and the sense of rootedness cannot be based on economic self-interest.  


Elaine Ho is a graduate student at NUS. She was formerly a Research Analyst at IPS Social Lab, a centre for social indicators research at the National University of Singapore. Ng Yan Hao is a Research Assistant with the Economics and Business cluster at IPS.

Category: Conferences


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