Constructive Dialogue and Constructing Legitimacy

The government’s continued policy to ban the hijab should not come as a surprise.

Yaacob Ibrahim said in his note that he wants us to continue constructive dialogue with him. According to Yaacob, he and the Malay MPs will then raise it with PM and the Cabinet.

Constructive dialogue is a nebulous term. The best definition is an event where two or more parties speak and listen to each other to help everyone improve. A dialogue requires speaking and listening. The parties should have relatively equal power.

But that is not how it works with the Singapore government.

There are several key components to constructive dialogue Singapore style:

1. Citizens provide feedback to the government.

2. This feedback should be held in proper respect and decorum.

3. Government representative listens to the feedback.

4. Representative explain their position.

5. Representative assures citizens their views will be taken under advicement.

This is not a dialogue. It is a claim for legitimacy.

But let us assume there is a constructive element to dialogue. Is being constructive evenly applied? Or is there greater expectation on one party than another?

If the engagement is based on citizen disagreement with government policies, then the constructive nature applies to how the citizen engages the government.How does the engagement take place? What are their relative powers?

The power differential is large. The government is the sole decision maker. Because it is held under the banner of being constructive, the manner, not just the message is important.

Criticism would be considered negative. Instead, feedback should be given with proper deference.But what is also important is not the actual meeting. Both parties know how the other would react. Take yesterday’s meeting between the government and Muslim leaders for example. What was the meeting about?

The optimists had hoped the government would make concessions. They attended the meeting with the belief that a decision had been made and the government would shift their policy. In this scenario, they expected the government to accede to their request prior to the meeting. The meeting itself was not to construct a new position. It was to listen to an announcement. That cannot be seen as being constructive.

The pessimists (who were proven right this time), had expected the government to announce the policy would remain as is. Once again, there is nothing constructive. The only constructive argument made is that feedback is given so that the government may modify the policy in future. But this is not a new issue.

There had been numerous discussions over 41 years. Where is the constructive agenda in the process?The pessimist’ assessment is however flawed on one significant point. They believed that the government met with Muslim leaders to inform them of the rejection prior to announcing it to the public.

It is supposed to break the news a little easier. The argument follows that since the government took time to meet and announce it to them, it shows that the government takes the issue seriously.

But that is not why they were invited to meet. Because what followed was more important than what was said during the meeting.

When the government announced their rejection, they referred to the meeting to claim the decision’s legitimacy. Various media reports referred to the government’s meeting with Muslim leaders. They further indicated that the leaders understood the government’s decision.

Halimah Yacob posted her FB page saying:

“We had a very good discussion with representatives of PERGAS and the Malay Muslim organizations at Mendaki just now on the hijab issue. The leaders appreciated that the Malay Muslim MPs were doing our best on this issue…”

The meeting was not simply to inform Muslim leaders of the decision. It was to grant moral authority to the rejection of the hijab. The government claimed that Muslim leaders understood the ban. That should mollify the community. If our leaders accept and appreciate the decision, then so should we.

Constructive dialogue then was not a mere exercise to find a better process. It has always been a process to grant legitimacy to unpopular decisions.

Zulfikar M Shariff

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