NMP Kuik Shiao-yin calls on govt to welcome dissenting voices for a more inclusive S’pore

'... if we have power, let us be aware of its silencing effects on people so that we can learn to lay our power down and help others feel they have permission and safety to share their truths.'

By Tanya Ong | May 18, 2018

Youth Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Kuik Shiao-yin has during her term been making an impact through her powerful speeches.

Earlier this year, during the Budget debates, for instance, she questioned the decision to accumulating our reserves over taking more steps to meet the needs of Singaporeans living in the present:

NMP Kuik Shiao-yin in Budget debate: Spend to help people today or save for the future?

And on Thursday, May 17, Kuik rose to respond to the President’s Address as part of the debates in a speech that in some way echoes the leadership in pushing for greater inclusivity in Singapore.

Her speech, titled “The Power of a People”, highlighted in particular, however, the importance of accommodating dissenting views, as well as the need to alleviate socio-economic inequalities.

Accommodating dissenting views better

In her address, President Halimah raised concerns over the future leadership’s ability to listen to dissenting views, as well as the potential fault-lines of social inequality.

Kuik referenced a speech written by students at an NUS Tembusu College forum on March 20 this year, which she said aptly represented the younger generation’s anxieties and hopes for Singapore’s future, and resonated with themes brought up by President Halimah.

Kuik then asserted dissenting voices do not just belong to the vocal minority, and that surveys that seem to present too positive an assessment of public opinion are a cause for concern as they may not accurately capture the ground sentiment.

“My own sense of the ground — I could be wrong and you may disagree with me — is that there are more people who have dissenting views about what’s going on in our country than government-commissioned opinion polls reveal. This is partly because many people in this segment are unlikely to answer such polls in the first place. They don’t like registering their dissent openly — be it on survey, on social media or any form of record.

The reasons why people keep their dissent to themselves vary: some honestly assume that their opinion is unimportant or unqualified; some like getting along and fear that their honesty will invite an open rebuke or a cold shoulder from establishment; others say it is self-preservation based on their past experiences. Whatever it is, their quiet dissent is real and such withholding of views may give leadership the wrong impression that all is quiet on the western front.”

Kuik raised the example of how she noticed people did feel concerned about the extent to which government folks pursued the take-down of historian PJ Thum and his credibility, despite Straits Times interview with Janil Puthucheary that claimed otherwise:

“In my work, I do get to talk to a considerable number of youths and white collar working professionals. There were definitely some people asking about it, wanting to talk about it and showing concern about the general handling of dissenters. So I don’t think it’s a case of ‘nobody’ cared.

Many of these lay observers — even those who were more establishment-leaning — did express their deepening discomfort with watching the establishment go for — what they perceived — as over-kill when it came to dealing with naysayers from the opposition, from civil society and even from within the establishment’s own ranks.”

With this in mind, she called for more voices, including anti-establishment ones, to be welcomed by the government:

“The youths believe that having dissenting views doesn’t mean they are any less passionate for Singapore’s good or less loyal to Singapore’s interests. They speak out because they care and they want to see their leaders model curiosity and compassion in their engagement with divergent views.

As founding minister S Rajaratnam once said, ‘Don’t tell me things you think I want to hear; tell me things I should hear even if they make me uncomfortable.'”

This practice is not just for dissent’s sake, she argues — it facilitates constructive dialogue and builds a robust system.

“The purposeful inclusion of more thoughtful voices who are unafraid of challenging establishment views makes our system stronger. Can I suggest that we intentionally seek out more non-establishment types to participate in our national level focus groups, committees, boards, ministries and parliament? If we want our system to be resilient, we need to boldly open up our echo chambers.”

Alleviating inequality

Kuik also touched on inequality, a theme discussed in significant depth by Education Minister Ong Ye Kung and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in their speeches in the debate, pointing out that income inequality often results in a power disparity entrenched in several policies, such as housing, healthcare and education.

In Kuik’s words, “policy is — after all — power frozen in place,” and policy changes should always empower the previously disempowered to help themselves:

“How much better would it be to go for a policy change that can let power thaw, flow and refreeze into a new, hopefully more empowering place — one where previously disempowered people can now help themselves and independently access the options they need to move ahead in life?”

As a potential faultline in our society with wide-reaching implications, such inequalities need to be addressed urgently by levelling the playing field, she said.

More specifically, she suggested that children, as well as their parents, should be supported — for instance through education or housing subsidies:

“Parent and child are a package deal. Want to help the child? Help the parent too. The children will say the same thing. Because that is what love says. We want to be in it — together.”

Future of Singapore

Kuik concluded with the question posed by the Tembusu students: Who do you want Singapore to be?

Her own take on the way forward is for us to be the best version of ourselves, and to challenge who we could be:

“We are not Lee Kuan Yews, Goh Keng Swees or Rajaratnams. And we need not pretend to be.

They were who they were. They were who they had to be.

Those times, their times are past. Our time is now.

We each must learn to be bold enough to live out who we are — and dare to challenge who we could be.

We need only be the best of Ourselves.”

Ultimately, she says, Singapore is constituted by the “sum total of all our choices.”

You can read her full speech in a Facebook note she published here.

Top photo from Kuik Shiao-yin’s Facebook.

About Tanya Ong

Tanya knows pi to the 35th decimal place for absolutely no reason at all.

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