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Post date: Jan 11, 2013 7:0:29 AM

editorial; Forging a new Singapore consensus

3 January 2013

Straits Times

THRIVING by staying open to the world was a need that won widespread support during both Singapore's difficult years and the boom times. Welcoming investment, talent and ideas from everywhere was seen as a boon to society. Importantly, it was not seen as harmful to social cohesion. But as the scale of the influx changed, with more foreigners using public transport and vying for jobs and housing, so too has the sense of consensus that underpinned the nation's success.

Accommodation is now less a question of implicit faith in the authorities and more of articulated trade-offs acceptable to the majority. Seen this way, consensus is very much a negotiated process with some give and take by all parties. If this is not achieved, public policy can be stymied, with ill effects extending broadly to all sectors, as can be seen in other nations divided by deeply entrenched beliefs and interests.

Independent Singapore benefited from high growth rates by plugging into a global economy. A long period of economic vitality and relative peace was a blessing because consensus, in what was then a fledgling nation, might not have been achieved in a troubled environment. But this confluence of serendipitous factors created a consensus for good times. Changing public sentiments here and economic and political ferment elsewhere make it important to forge a new consensus to help keep the Singapore dream alive in an interconnected world stalked by opportunities and threats alike.

In his New Year message, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong underlined the basis of public engagement undertaken by the Singapore Conversation initiative: "A 'conversation', by definition, cannot merely be about each one of us putting across our own point of view. We have to learn to walk in one another's shoes."

Hence, Singaporeans will need to reach deeply within themselves to find and build upon common areas of agreement, while learning to live peaceably with divides that cannot be bridged yet or ever. The broader and greater the number of overlapping spheres of tolerance and understanding, the better the chances of national goals being placed ahead of individual and group interests.

A consensus, of course, is nothing if it is not first debated from below. Nor does a consensus entail unanimity or uniformity of views. As discussions continue apace, it is important for them to not just help point towards the national good but also to foster an ungrudging acceptance of compromises made. Forging a new consensus will be tricky on hot-button issues like immigration and values. But at stake is the social cohesiveness that can prompt all to care stoutly for Singapore.