Mr Tan Chuan-Jin
The first person who spoke to me was a rather handsome and youngish fellow wearing a red t-shirt, Converse moccasins and a pair of jeans. "Hello" said he "Are you Petunia? My wife reads your blog." I always get very pleased to hear that. Always. So yours truly smiled back brightly and said "Oh! That's nice! Does she also read the silly pieces about my dog Milo and my Little Boy who shoots little girls on their butts?" It appeared that Mr Handsome's wife did read the silly pieces too... as well as the rest.
He did not introduce himself, this Mr Handsome... no he didn't. I peered over and read his name tag instead. "Your name is Tan Chuan-Jin?" said I a bit hesitantly... and something in my memory came back about The Husband's comment about a very humble, sincere and down-to-earth fellow who had been fielded as a new MP. So I said, "Are you Tan Chuan-Jin, the MP?" and for a while I feared that I had said something inappropriate because his face took on a slightly closed look and so I prattled something quickly about my husband to try and smooth away his tiny frown. And too quickly, the session began and I had no chance to see if his face had softened or not.
Figuring Out The Why of Our Singapore Conversation
At the session debrief, I found myself sitting next to Mr Tan again. It was a relief to see that he was warm and friendly again. He made a comment about encouraging Singaporeans from all walks of life to sit together and share their perspectives. "Politicians have to manage the tensions between the various stakeholders. In Our SG Conversation, Singaporeans will get a chance to hear the life stories of other Singaporeans".
I must say that my experience of the SG Conversation opened my eyes to other Singaporeans. For one, I didn't realize that the elderly in Singapore felt such a sense of dispossession and rejection until one elderly gentleman from my group said his piece. For another, I had had the wrong assumption that harmonious race relations are so much a part of us that we don't need to work at it. It was a Malay lady doctor who in her impassioned speech convinced me that race relations can cause today, as much rawness as in the 1960s.
So yes... I think if, as explained by Mr Tan, the aim of the SG Conversation is to teach each of us some truths about our own country, then it did achieve that aim with me. I didn't really believe The Straits Times when it went on and on about how fragile our racial harmony is. I was also not deeply cognizant enough about the sense of rejection the elderly in Singapore feel so keenly.
These 2 truths took me by surprise. I may come across as naive or ignorant or even as lacking in empathy for Senior Citizens or minority races but I really was startled by the sharing from the Malay lady and the elderly gentleman.
Mr Heng Swee Keat explained that after enough conversations have taken place, the government will drill down on the key themes that emerge. I am familiar with the grounded theory methods that can be used to surface the themes from these SG conversations... and I do hope that the government will use these analytical techniques to surface themes from the flipcharts and notes that our conversations produced today. After the analysis and drilling down, I expect there will be a clearer direction to guide our actions as a nation.
And you know what, I don't think one needs to be anyone important to take part in the SG Conversation at all. If you're a Singaporean and wanna be part of the conversation you can just sign up and take part. I do encourage people to go and speak their minds, and learn from fellow Singaporeans. If we are Singaporean, we do have a duty to engage in a dialogue about our future, no?Besides, I had great fun. The ambience was very non-threatening. And I did learn important things.
Experience the How of Our Singapore Conversation
In actual fact, Petunia has never really grown up. No, not really. I still believe in the benefits of play time. Indeed, little kids have sometimes not known what to say when their Moms ask them "Is Auntie Petunia a child or an adult?" The session had coloured pens, large flip charts, cosy circles, scissors, glue, magazines and a Funny Man Facilitator. You couldn't help but feel like playing. The format of the session helped people to think divergently... mentally leave the boxes of current reality and dream silly from the heart about what people want to see in Singapore tomorrow.
I was allowed to be silly for a while... to leave the constraints of reality and really think about what I wanted tomorrow to be.
Back to Tan Chuan-Jin
When everyone rose to leave, Ms Lydia Lim, whom I NOW only discover (by googling) to be the Straits Times Deputy Political Editor, sat with me and engaged in some small talk.
"Did you not recognise The Minister? said Ms Lydia
"Oh yes! Oh yes! I know Mr Heng indeed!" smiled I.
"Errrrr... no. The OTHER Minister" said she.... and I swear her eyebrows giggled.
"Hmmmm... there is another Minister? Where?" I said, and peered about.
"Over there" and she signaled in the direction of Mr Tan Chuan-Jin. Oh dear me! I had quite missed the fact that Mr Tan Chuan-Jin was himself a minister. I presently realize, that I have been a little rude... somewhat impolite... and Dear Mrs Tan Chuan-Jin, if you do read this, please let your husband know that I am most grateful for his impeccable manners and depth of humility (gee... the man actually said he was the photographer for the occasion!! And I believed him!!), which clearly made up for my own unseemly lack of manners.
Mr Heng Swee Keat
I was happy too that I got an opportunity to make my peace with Mr Heng, after subjecting him and his Ministry to a fair amount of online abuse in the past 2 years. I saw him, shook his hand and made my apologies because I truly am very grateful that MOE has made some bold moves in the last month. The online student portal will help schools share learning resources with all other schools and students in the country. There is no more school banding and so schools don't need to compete with each other. This means that they won't be driving our children so hard academically and in CCAs, to try and outdo other schools. Schools and teachers can go back to nurturing our children. Schools who don't compete with each other will also collaborate.... and in so doing, every Teacher's workload will be considerably lightened. This frees up Teacher time for our children. Unfortunately, I think I also subjected poor Mr Heng to some minutes of boring prattle.
I can't help it! When I get nervous, I prattle!
I am grateful for these changes and realise that Mr Heng and his team must have had long and hard conversations about the issues before moving decisively to make these changes. I am also thankful to Ms Sim Ann for having been, for more than a year, the calm and deeply thoughtful listener and dialogue partner that makes her so very very special. It never felt right to blog about Ann because we had met up very discreetly and chatted very honestly. Blogging about Ann seemed like a betrayal of trust because Petunia never mentions friends by name on this blog (and also, I was plenty angry at MOE). If I had nothing nice to say back then about MOE, I didn't feel like naming people.
I do have nice things to say now... and I really think that without Ann's patience and forbearance, I probably would not have been asked to take part in the SG Conversation. Without Ann probably, Mr Heng may not even know about my blog... and would not have told me today "I read your blog".
I am always happy when people tell me they read my blog. Always!! It's what writers want - to be read. It is for that we write.
Mr Heng Swee Keat
Mr Tan Chuan-Jin