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What do food and conversation have to do with defending the country? Challenge finds out how connecting with people through stories contributes to Singapore’s Total Defence.
Hi Stranger, Let's Talk

What is your Singapore Story?

How do you see Singapore now? What do you hope a fellow Singaporean will see in the nation’s future?

These aren’t questions that usually pop up between people who have just met, but for two hours on a Tuesday night in January, 10 strangers found themselves discussing them. They chatted over garlic butter risotto and chai spiced brûlée salmon, served in a very Singaporean way – in a styrofoam takeaway box complete with a red rubber band.

This was a social dining experiment by The Thought Collective, a social entrepreneurial group. The event, which aims to bring people together over food, took place at the National Museum’s Food For Thought cafe.

The organisers set the participants at round dining tables, which made conversation easier. And to get the group talking, they created a card game where players answered questions about Singapore by picking out picture cards, then chatted about their choices. To join the event, the participants first had to answer three questions (see sidebox). Their answers were then printed on their place mats at the dinner – each place mat was unique, again providing fodder for conversation.

One participant was Ms Sharie Ong, a teacher and mother of two. After seeing Food For Thought’s Facebook post on the event and intrigued by the idea of hearing the stories of others, she signed up to take part. “I wanted to know … what kind of concerns fellow Singaporeans have,” she says. “I know everybody grows up differently, but how differently?”

What are the stories you tell

To get a spot in the social dining experiment, participants first had to answer these questions, posted on Food For Thought’s Facebook page:

What always makes a place feel more like a home to you?

If your life in Singapore were a colour, what would it be? Why?

Sum up Singapore’s future in just one word.

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A different approach

What Ms Ong didn’t know then was that the dinner was part of commemoration activities for 30 years of Total Defence. This was a collaboration between Nexus, the Ministry of Defence’s Central National Education Office, and The Thought Collective.

Nexus found that the general public tend to think of defence only as civil and military defence, says Executive Officer Rachel Yap, who was involved in the planning. The organisers wanted to show that “there are people out there who are contributing in their own ways” to other aspects of Total Defence.

This would in turn let participants see that they, too, can help to boost Total Defence. For example, connecting with other Singaporeans through the social dining experiment can build social defence – living harmoniously among different races and religions, and looking out for one another.

Themed “Because You Played A Part”, the commemoration included a nine-day experiential showcase, with supporting events such as this social dining experiment and a food-andfilm festival.

As these events were vastly different from previous years’, Nexus knew they were taking a risk. Ms Yap explains that they went into unfamiliar territory to leave a more lasting impression on the public: “We wanted to reach out to people on a deeper level… We get a lot of feedback that on the whole, typical exhibitions don’t really go far for people. [With] something like a social dining experiment, they’ll remember it for months.”

We came together for one common purpose – to understand each other’s stories better.
Hi Stranger, Let's Talk

Reaching out through stories

That was certainly true for Ms Ong. While the exact details were hazy three months after the event, she still remembers the conversations she had. She also became friends with a few of the diners she met. That night, when it was revealed that the event was part of this year’s Total Defence commemoration activities, she still found the evening meaningful.

She now views Total Defence differently. As a teacher, she has always been a facilitator of her school’s Total Defence activities instead of a participant. With the social dining experiment, she says: “The feeling was much more personal because I felt that connection with nine other Singaporeans whom I’ve never met before… We came together for one common purpose – to understand each other’s stories better.”

Through the picture card game, Ms Ong saw that she had more in common with these strangers than expected, as they chose the same cards to answer the questions. She says: “We have common gripes… but at the end of it, the hope that we have for Singapore is actually positive… Everyone picked cards that represent hope and promise.”

She was encouraged by her discoveries from the social dining experiment, and so were the organisers, who were pleased with the positive response to the event. Nexus saw that it helped to make Total Defence more relevant to citizens, showing that even simple acts such as donating or helping out a neighbour helps. Ms Yap says: “People always think it has to be big concepts and ideas. We really wanted to show them that simple things matter.”

Nexus’s unusual way of engaging people this year has certainly paid off in the case of Ms Ong. She now tries to talk to her neighbours more often and volunteers in her neighbourhood. The social dining experiment encouraged her to think about how she can contribute to Singapore outside of her work. “Because I connected with other people, I felt that it was important to give back to society.”

    Jul 2, 2014
    Yvette Kan
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