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Discursive events on socio-politics in Singapore are often well-intentioned – to increase civic engagement and awareness of issues – yet given their proliferation the quality and value of these events cannot be taken for granted. As someone who has organised and has been involved in these endeavours (and been critical of dialogues and forums and large-scale seminars), highlighting these seven opportunities for disruption stems from the desire to challenge ourselves and the sector to do even better.
1. The poorest events disproportionately privilege one-way communication – from the panellists to the audience per se – with an inadequately diverse panel (in views and demographics). Events should increasingly feature a plurality of views, instead of disproportionately privileging a dominant narrative. Dialogue sessions or question-and-answer sessions are not the answer, because the perspectives of the guest speakers or panellists are still prioritised, and the moderators (and organisers) have to be intentional about creating a safe space for members of the audience to ask constructive questions and to share personal thoughts.
Beyond the familiar, organisers will have to think of more innovative or creative formats which maximise the number of contributors.
2. The guest speakers or panellists matter. In addition to their diversity, organisers should ensure that the guest speakers or panellists have the expertise or experience to provide useful insights. There should be space for their perspectives to be challenged too. Credentials or public recognition could offer some indication on whether someone is a good fit, yet at the end of the day the participants should actually benefit from the experience.
3. Even if speakers or panels are diverse, the audience is often not. And low attendance is likely too. It becomes a problem if the same group of individuals – usually of the middle- or high-income groups – attend these events regularly, given the risks with echo chambers. In other words, the participants may only be interacting within familiar circles which are not necessarily representative of the broader population, hearing things which align or confirm pre-existing perceptions. Logistically and practically, financial and resource investments are not justified if attendance is low.
4. The overall lack of diversity could stem from the structure of these sessions, which are more conducive to those more articulate or of particular demographic groups. Consequently, the same voices may be articulated and echoed, and again representativeness would be an issue. For instance, many sessions on inequality and poverty may not directly feature low-income or disadvantaged families in Singapore, and even if they are nominally represented the extent of their participation may be limited by the structure of the conversation or discourse.
The responsibility is therefore on the organisers to disrupt and vary how such sessions are planned and to be more deliberate with who is included, the programme outline, and how different perspectives are accommodated.
5. One-off events face issues of sustainability and impact. Put otherwise: Given that a single event is likely to be limited in impact, what are the follow-ups? How do we ascertain if the event has been effective in disrupting mindsets, challenging assumptions, or prompting changes in rhetoric and in action? Even more ambitiously, how do groups and organisers work to create communities where solidarity is valued?
6. And if it all goes to plan, so what? What happens after the event? Much is expected of groups and organisers – many of whom have day jobs or other roles and responsibilities – but the costs of not evaluating what happens after events include: Superficial undertakings designed to meet arbitrary targets but neglect benefits to participants; duplicate events; as well as important insights or feedback which are not circulated outside of the event.
7. Finally, feedback: What and where are the good events? One of the most immediate and effective ways of raising standards is to highlight good examples (and perhaps even the negative ones). As it stands, we attend events, hopefully learn from it, and leave. Yet we do not always process what happened or share feedback about what could be improved. Closing that loop – starting with organisers gathering criticisms and evaluating how the event turned out – would be beneficial in the long-term.