The Singapore government’s approach to engaging with society has evolved from being largely propagandist in the early years of nationhood, to become more consultative and transparent, especially in devising developmental plans.
Over the past five decades, the emphasis has shifted from forging consensus on key national priorities—ranging from checking the rise of communism to propagating various public campaigns—towards allowing more room for local initiatives, encouraging the growth of civic society, and creating a greater sense of ownership and rootedness among Singaporeans.
In the 1960s, engagement was largely aimed at inculcating in the population a sense of identification with a new nation and this goal became the defining tenet of community engagement by Singapore’s founding leaders. While such engagement was motivated by political necessities, the government also set up various bodies to act as a bridge between the state and the people to harness the latter’s support for developmental policies.
By the late 1970s, with most Singaporeans living in public housing, semi-government bodies were formed to give residents greater say in the upkeep and security of their neighbourhoods. Over the next few decades, with a new generation of leaders taking over the stewardship of the nation, a more consultative style of governance emerged. Urban planning authorities began engaging the public in developmental plans and giving the people an opportunity to voice alternative ideas. Coupled with the awakening of civil society, this marked the start of a more dynamic era of urban governance.
Since then, the government has needed to engage the community more effectively, especially as Singaporeans become more vocal in wanting to be heard, often freely expressing themselves through social media. While several agencies have been successful in empowering the public and in co-creating neighbourhood improvement plans, public officials have also had to hone the mechanics of engagement in the face of opposition to projects that either disrupted people’s lives, or were seen to threaten Singapore’s heritage, environment and biodiversity.
In such circumstances, engagement amounts to providing greater transparency on the considerations underlying policies, and explaining the trade-offs and mitigating measures taken for segments of the public that might be adversely affected by decisions taken in the larger national interest.
The manner of public engagement is thus tailored to each situation, and the extent of public involvement dependent on the issue at hand, the relevant constraints, and the available decision-making space.