Narrowing the empathy gap

Narrowing the empathy gap

SINGAPORE - In 2006, then United States Senator Barack Obama said that America's "empathy deficit" was as pressing as its federal deficit.

He defined empathy as "the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us - the child who's hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room".

Empathy deficits can be seen all over the world as societies stratify along income lines, including in Singapore.

The Our Singapore Conversation exercise was an attempt to narrow the empathy gap by bringing citizens of different backgrounds and profiles together. If they got face-to-face, it was hoped, it would be easier to see through one another's eyes.

But the empathy gap here has another dimension: the one between the Government and the people. It is an issue that the People's Action Party (PAP) has been grappling with since the bruising 2011 General Election.

Party leaders have urged the rank-and-file to change the perception that MPs do not listen and have no empathy.

Last year, Senior Minister of State for Law and Education Indranee Rajah said that what people want from ministers "is a sense of empathy. They really want to feel that you feel for them. They also want to feel that you're one of them".

This past week, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean took the empathy imperative to young scholarship recipients, telling them that civil servants must have a deep understanding of the public's needs; empathy and ability are equally important to reach the top echelons of the public service, he said.

That the Government is attempting to close its empathy gap is evident.

But honing a more empathetic form of governance requires more than just dialogues, consultations and mass-engagement exercises, where a show is made of enacting uncontroversial suggestions from members of the public into policy.

It requires more than preventing grassroots activists from lining up to receive an MP at a community event; it requires more than slashing ministerial salaries.

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