August 21, 2007
Nat is as usual, the ever energetic guy. He’s gotten a few of us to come together on (yet) another website which will feature some regular “columnists” to contribute articles. I’m not sure how this differentiates itself from other existing websites, but anyways, here I am writing on it once a fortnight. They are quite random thoughts, I think, until I figure it will be on a particular topic.
Here is my first article since the inception of the website, which is http://bolehland.com
The (F)utility of Forums
Gathering a bunch of people together at the same place at the same time to discuss apparently important issues is a natural recipe for great empty talk, or great initiative for change, depending on the nature and focus of the particular conference. I have become increasingly disillusioned with the manner in which forums, seminars, summits, conventions, and conferences (you name it) are conducted. Many times participants end up leaving feeling a sense of hopelessness at the futility of such talk-shops.
Granted, the objectives of these numerous seminars vary widely. Let us examine each of these and examine to what extent they justify their ever having existed. I begin with the premise that all such gatherings do have a particular goal, failing which they do not deserve to be considered. Some barely make the mark.
First, you have the Government-initiated (Type G) events where the Prime Minister and other Very Very Important Persons (VVIPs) grace the occasion. At such formal ceremonies, red carpets, media galore, ceremonial fanfare brighten up the otherwise dingy halls. VVIPs sit on plush couches, looking down upon their loyal audience. Very Important Persons (VIPs) decide to attend in honour of the VVIP gracing the ceremony, paying the utmost attention to speeches and the event’s content. That is, until the VVIP leaves.
The objective of G-events is to usually showcase the amount of hard work that particular Ministry or Department has been doing. Speakers wax lyrical about the positive direction the country is moving towards, highlighting the rosy bits of reports (economic, social or otherwise) and strategically sidestepping negative aspects. Targeted critical questions from the floor are usually responded to with a “we will look into it”, or “the Government knows what is best for its people”.
Then, you have the Privately-initiated (Type P) events where private conference management companies run as proper businesses with profit in mind. These usually target the private sector and business crowd and issues highlighted specifically cater towards industry news and updates.
The more interesting of the lot are those seminars and workshops organised by non-governmental organisations (Type NGO). Due to restricted funding, leaders working relentlessly to ensure every ringgit and sen is maximised. Invited speakers are specialists in their specific fields of work. Participants are firebrands in such sessions, civil society by nature already being the most outspoken in society. Woe betide any Government official who dares step foot within these flaming parameters, to act as sacrificial lamb (at least temporarily) and receive critical questions from the floor.
Then of course you have the Opposition Political Parties (Type O) events, usually either held in a particular Assembly Hall (similar to Type NGO) in the Klang Valley, or in obscure halls whose rental fees are significantly lower. Type O forums see the likes of a usual “forum circuit” crowd, faces increasingly recognised. At such forums, one is always curiously on the look out for particular individuals strategically placed in the back row, quietly observing from afar. Attendance includes members of the public, and dialogue usually ends up with numerous roundabout complaints and vows to “show the Government a message or two”.
In all forums, you usually have the very tedious and long-winded questioner from the floor. I am not, however, wishing to discriminate against those who love the sound of their voices.
If one wanted to spend his or her entire life conference-hopping one to the other in the Klang Valley each day without actually working, one could do so. Given the relatively open space for dialogue and discussion in the last few years, the conference sphere has expanded beyond G and P types to include great mushrooming of NGO and O types. Are people wasting their time and resources? In evaluating the utility of these events, I create my own filter: it must be solution-seeking towards national development. Action-oriented solutions must be based upon one, a genuine desire to change and act upon it; two, the correct mechanisms, structures and people present to allow for such change; and three, in its ability to access public media coverage.
In my humble opinion, none of the current Conference Types in Malaysia sufficiently meet the three criteria listed above. G types have two and three, but not one. P types may or may not have one or three, but they do not have two. NGO and O types have one, but not two or three. This is too short a piece to go into in-depth analysis, monitoring and making use of indicators, much less exploring the subtle differences in objectives and goals of each individual forum.
For Government events to be considered successful drivers for change, they must at least be perceived to be genuine for change in society and to act upon it. Verbal commitments are not quite considered as genuine, as more and more citizens see evidence of empty promises. Talk is cheap.
For Private events to contribute to national development, they must work more closely to push for changes in structure and mechanisms, because dancing to the same dance merely perpetuates existing faulty systems.
For NGO and Opposition events to be true catalysts beyond preaching to the converted, they must work at setting up elaborate machinery through people, resources and mechanisms to match that of G and P types, so that the result of even the most inspiring of forums can take concrete shape thereafter. Finally, working as best through any means to ensure maximum publicity in mass media.
Do we have what it takes to achieve the above? I have been to only very few conferences where such a gathering of people ignited real action-oriented change. We want, after all, to be investing all that time, effort and hard cash not in empty talk any longer, lest we leave behind us a trail of highly intellectual debaters only able to articulate socio-political thought but never tasting the fruit of their verbal battles. Futility of talk can and must be transformed into utility.
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