Disclaimer: This article reflects only my point of view and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the mediators on the HMG panel.
This General Elections 2015 was a fiercely contested fight. Aside from the merits and value propositions of the political parties, I was more often than not, fascinated by the negotiation / conflict management styles by party supporters to win votes for their camps. As a mediator, I often find myself having a front seat to human nature. This GE2015 felt all too familiar albeit at a national level - heated tussles between party supporters posturing demands and threatening consequences, with battle lines drawn accompanied by a display of raw emotions
on all sides.
There are of course, those who attempt to facilitate constructive discussions by exploring and developing points of views held by opposing party supporters. More often than not however, robust discussions can be easily dampened by vitriol or debasing remarks targeted at individual politicians / parties. In the zeal to persuade a friend or colleague to see your point of view, political discussions over a casual coffee can degenerate into a serious undermining of the worldview and value system of the person who disagrees with you. I have seen more than a few relationships grow cold during and after the heat of elections.
As a young nation, I believe how we conduct our political discussions at a micro level (both interpersonal and inter-organizational) reflect the maturity of our electorate. This in turn, will determine if we can work collaboratively and enhance the quality of our macro policy discussions
Taking a leaf from the playbooks of seasoned negotiators and mediators, I would like to highlight the following best practices that I personally hope to see more of in the political arena:
1. We must continue to encourage one another to clearly identify and continuously articulate each other's interests and motivations, not merely assert our own positions / demands. We should discuss points of contention but wherever possible, look for common interests to focus on, no matter how small. Efforts worth highlighting include thoughtfully facilitated discussions organized by Inconvenient Questions
, as well as The Thought Collective's DMZ Dinners
. In my opinion, these neutral platforms encourage robust but constructive discussions, and go a long way in building up positive active citizenry.
2. More than merely an intellectual discussion, politicians and citizens alike need to earn the right to speak, by first seeking to understand. This requires parties to listen well, constantly summarize and reframe to ensure that we have heard the other person correctly, and sincerely emphathise with the sentiment even if not the substance. Too often in political discussions, I observe people speaking "at each other", where when one person is speaking, the other is not so much listening, as he is formulating another line of thought in his head. How often have we heard the retort "That is not true!"
, before that same person launches into a defensive presentation of his or her own collected data. Such discussions are usually counterproductive, as confirmation bias
suggests that we have a tendency to be selectively read what we already choose to believe.
Active and informed citizens must seek to listen and understand, develop the capacity to withhold defensive retorts, form a thoughtful and considered opinion, whilst respecting multiple perspectives of truths. The effort to seek to examine each other's perspectives of truth, would help us climb up and down "The Ladder of Inference" with humility (a subject I wrote about during the Little India Riots 2 years ago)
, and focus on developing creative solutions to meet multiple complex interests.
3. Effective communicators understand that persuasive messages must not only convince the mind (cognitive), it must also hit the heart (affective), and most importantly, result in a desired action (conative). National policies in party manifestos must not only make socio-economic sense, they must be carried by politicians whom people feel affection and affiliation towards, and are willing to take a risk by placing their vote of confidence in. This is where the election tactics, and strengths and weaknesses of a long-term relationship is best reflected. Many commentators (summarised by The Middle Ground here
) have analysed specific contexts relating to the wins and losses, and I would add that the increasingly sophisticated Singapore voter will require all 3 aspects to be adequately addressed.
4. Where we disagree, make an analysis of what exactly the source of conflict is and address it accurately. Broadly speaking, sources of conflicts can be categorized into 1) data conflicts, structural conflicts, 3) perceived incompatible interests (my gain must be your loss), values conflicts and 5) relational conflicts (Christopher Moore, 1996)
It is my observation that when conflict arises, people argue without sufficient understanding of what the source of conflict really is. Hence, they argue at cross-tangents and are not able to collaboratively brainstorm on solutions. For example, a structural conflict arising from insufficient time to make a considered decision, can sometimes be misinterpreted as a values conflict where one accuses another of being high-handed and valuing one priority over another. A data conflict where folks have incomplete information to form an informed opinion, can be made good without undermining the other's experiences, intelligence, integrity or value system. Naturally, if the conflict is a relational one where trust had broken down over a long period of time, then the solution must be to rebuild the relationship. No amount of hard facts can resolve a relational conflict.
It is heuristically easier when faced with massive amount of information and opinion to attribute disagreement to personality differences. It is my opinion that great pains must be taken to differentiate the sources of disagreements and address them with due concern and versatility. It seems unlikely that one-size-fits-all messaging will convince the sophisticated voter.
5. Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional. Particularly in deeply heated political discussions where one is likely to infringe on values, always be prepared to "agree to disagree". Pick your battles according to person and context. Unless a higher principle is at stake that would justify the costs of adopting a competitive stance, it is often wiser to protect the relationship with grace, walk away with dignity and continue the discussion another day. This is of course easier said than done, and requires acute self-awareness and personal mastery.
All that I have said above is always easier when we are neutral facilitators and can afford to be detached from the conflict. As a Singaporean, I am as vested as the next person and am just as liable to be emotionally embroiled and overly critical. Nonetheless, it remains my desire that Singaporeans seek first to see the good in each other's points of views.
As DPM Tharman said in what I consider to be a conciliatory tone, "Singapore... has to remain a society with diverse voices and views, not just during elections... We will take views from the opposition, we will take views from civil society, we will take views from people from different walks of life...Everyone will be included in the way we go forward, and everyone must feel included in the way we go forward. This includes online and social media, which play an important role in shaping opinion, and should continue to do so as constructively as possible."
('Post GE: Opposition can continue to contribute to Singapore', Straits Times, 14 September 2015)
Whilst a healthy dose of competition and robust debate is at times necessary to polish ONE idea, distributive bargaining and a win-lose mindset will inhibit the flourishing of MANY ideas. I look forward to that perfect harmony of voices that will in time, make beautiful music for our nation.
Ms Linda Heng