Managing Diversities
SP 2014: Contestation versus Consensus: Which is a More Constructive Force?

This reflective essay is based on the third session titled “Consensus/Contest” from the Singapore Perspectives Conference 2014.


Professor Kishore Mahbubani
Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Professor Chua Beng Huat
Department of Sociology
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
National University of Singapore

Ms Debra Soon
Managing Director
Channel NewsAsia
MediaCorp Pte Ltd


For the third session of Singapore Perspectives 2014, a new element was added, that of a debate that included the use of audience polling. The debate motion was, “This conference resolves the consensus rather than contest, will secure Singapore’s future”. Three rounds of polling were conducted – before, during and after the debate. Before the debate, the proposer, Prof. Kishore Mahbubani, led the poll with 59.4%; but slid to 38.8% halfway through. The last poll swung back in favour of the proposer receiving 57.7% of the votes.

Briefly, Prof. Mahbubani scoped his argument around the “new normal”. He claimed that there was overwhelming consensus among the masses in the political landscape in the past (before 2011) due to sound policies that were accepted by the masses. While Prof. Mahbubani felt that this was not “normal” for a developing country that had just gained independence; contestations after the General Election 2011 (GE2011) saw Singapore moving towards the “new normal”. However, he cautioned that as we moved towards this “new normal”, Singapore must be careful to not only focus on magnifying the differences, lest it be torn apart.

Meanwhile, Prof. Chua Beng Huat, the opposer, pointed out that in the early days of rapid economic development and improvements in the standard of living, there was not much to be unhappy about. However, this does not mean that there were no contestations. One of the statements Prof. Chua made was that “no genuine consensus can be achieved without prior contentions… [because] before this process, any agreement would be simply an imposition by those who are in position of power.” Prof. Mahbubani supported Prof. Chua in this regard, admitting that consensus is a bottom-up process (i.e., consultations with the masses).

My vote is for Prof. Chua because I share his sentiments that contestation has, and will continue to be a critical part of Singapore history and culture.

Before the rise of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, there was the illusion of the lack of contestation. The Speakers’ Corner did not exist till the year 2000. Also, although Article 14 of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore guarantees Singapore citizens the rights to freedom of speech and expression, and peaceful assembly without arms, the enjoyment of these rights is actually restricted by laws such as the Public Order Act and Societies Act. Hence, as Prof. Chua aptly pointed out, one should not presume that consensus was reached and enjoyed. The absence of open and public contestations such as the relatively recent protests against the Population White Paper is not a reflection of the actual sentiments on the ground.

Today, the pervasive popularity of the Internet had facilitated the visibility of supposed growing contestation by and among Singaporeans. According to the findings of a global social media company that were released in January 2014, the Internet penetration rate in Singapore is 73%1.  Meanwhile, based on findings by Media Research Asia, the smartphone penetration is 87%, as of September 20132.   Singaporeans are now able to voice their views online and reach out to far more people than what offline conversations could provide, and in the process, stir up discontent and possible contestation. For instance, there was relatively high online chatter when the Population White Paper was released, with articles on platforms such as Yahoo!SG receiving thousands of comments. Evidently, the rise of these online platforms has provided Singaporeans with a means to air their views, which might otherwise go unheard and unnoticed.

We are now unable to discount online discourse and the various forms of online “contestation”. Our mainstream media now selectively picks up and reports on trending online topics,  including the recent online tirade against the now-infamous remarks of Anton Casey, and online petitions expressing discontent against government programs and policies like the petition against the Health Promotion Board’s (HPB) Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on sexuality.

Although I reckon these online conversations or contestations are important in enabling the government to better understand the sentiment on the ground, the Internet is a double-edged sword. It is a platform that could help foster stronger societal bonds via better understanding of differences but could also magnify our differences leading to polarisation and social destabilisation. For instance, the ability to go anonymous online can breed extremism. The Internet also made it easier for individuals to avoid or bypass people with opposing viewpoints, which might result in homogeneous enclaves and extremism. The Internet also has an echo-chamber effect, where untruths, half-truths and misinformation are able to go viral easily and influence public opinion.

Ultimately, I still believe that the Internet can be a useful platform for society. The Internet enables the process of deliberation, whereby one is able to view differing opinions and any on-going debate. As Prof. Chua highlighted, the process of debate and compromise can be healthy for a maturing Singapore society. So far, we have seen social media being used to benefit the society (e.g., SG Haze Rescue) and even regulate itself to a certain extent (e.g., reactions to the posting of gruesome pictures of the two boys that died in the Tampines road accident). However, admittedly, it still remains to be seen to what extent the Internet is playing a constructive or destructive role in policymaking and our social fabric.

Moving forward, I reckon we should embrace contestation as the route to consensus because the process allows us to learn from and understand one another better. In engendering contestations, we must remain objective and pay special attention to any possible augmentation of differences and inequalities. Care must also be taken not to lose focus of the endpoint — consensus.




Teo Jin Ye is a research assistant at the Institute of Policy Studies.


For more information on Singapore Perspectives 2014, please visit our IPS website.

Please also do check out the other articles on Singapore Perspectives 2014, including:
Singapore Perspectives 2014: Opening Remarks by Janadas Devan
SP2014: Transcending Differences through the Arts? by Mohammad Khamsya
SP2014: Articulating Differences for an Evolving Nation:  A Socio-Economic Standpoint by Sarjune Ibrahim S/O Sitheek
SP2014: More than Just Differences by Chang Zhi Yang
SP2014: Literature and Empathy: Understanding Differences by Zhou Rongchen


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