Festival of Ideas 2023: Thinkers in Society

Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Fiona Ting (24S06A) and Saara Katyal (23S05A)

All photographs by Raffles Photographic Society.

“Thinkers in Society” marked the first of the trio of highly anticipated 2.5 hour long evenings that formed the Festival of Ideas. No expense was spared: a diverse range of most dynamic academic and cultural leaders were brought together at the Albert Hong Hall (AHH) to share their unique perspective on the structural inequalities and polarities that exist within our society.

Before the event: Participants actively engaged in conversation in the glitzed up AHH.

The AHH was filled with the magic that comes with the glittering in life—the chatter of anticipation and the gleam in participants’ eyes. This was in no small part due to the novel set-up of the AHH, replete with fully carpeted floors, dazzling lights and even colour changing lamps—almost like a cross between a disco and a TED Talk.

Starting the evening, Dr Aaron Maniam, Deputy Secretary at MCI, gave a keynote address on his idea of “mess” and how we can make society more equitable. 

Dr Aaron Maniam providing context for the evening.

He connected his schooling experience to his vision for revitalising and invigorating historically marginalised or disadvantaged groups by reframing information. To much raucous laughter and tired groans, he proclaimed, “Auspicium Melioris Aevi!”, showing his ardent sense of school pride and his hopes for a better age.

Following Dr Maniam’s speech, he was joined a panel comprising Professor Teo You Yenn from NTU’s Department of Sociology, social worker Mr Danish Fawaz and community worker Mr Lim Jingzhou took the stage to share a little about their areas of expertise. 

Mr Lim talked about homelessness and housing insecurity in Singapore, Prof Teo discussed the gaps that meritocracy in Singapore fails to address, and Mr Danish Fawaz underscored the importance of ensuring all members of society are able to live with dignity. 

The common concern that all of them dealt with was the lack of opportunity and access that different members of society face, due to circumstances or a lack of confidence or information. Guided by moderator Mr Kenneth Kwok, they shared some strategies by which this lack of opportunity can be bridged. 

For instance, Dr Maniam shared about his experiences conducting coaching sessions pro bono in organisations like SINDA and Mendaki, inspired by the practices of consulting firm McKinsey. In this way, underprivileged individuals can be empowered to tackle life’s challenges on a more level playing field. 

Panel discussion with Professor Teo You Yenn, Danish Fawaz, Lim Jingzhou, Dr Aaron Maniam and moderator Kenneth Kwok.

The audience was also given the opportunity to ask the panellists questions – the question-askers ranged from retirees to RI students to fresh teachers, pointing to the broad appeal of the session. The thought-provoking questions they asked included questions on the community service habits of young professionals, the reasons for needing to reconsider Singapore’s model of meritocracy, and the limits of the government in driving structural change. All questions were answered with great thought and depth by the panellists, and the audience was left with much to reflect on. 

Participant asking panellists questions during Q&A segment.

During the intermission, students, staff, alumni and guests all walked around, taking the opportunity to stretch their legs, mingle with one another, and for some, to try the bespoke FOI mocktail made specially for the occasion by local group The Winery

The mocktails, ready to be prepared at a factory line.

After the break, a fireside chat with Ms Kuik Shiao-Yin, former Nominated Member of Parliament and cultural change strategist, and Mr Kenneth Kwok, CEO of Singapore Symphony Group. Interestingly, they are neighbours who met at their common void deck and recognised each other before the event! They had a comfortable chat, code switching to Singlish at times, about the power of storytelling and how stories help encourage connection between different groups of people in an increasingly polarised society.

Ms Kuik Shiao-Yin and Mr Kenneth Kwok having a chat.

An anonymous audience member asked via the online question asking platform,  “Is RI the best place to talk about meritocracy, considering its economic profile is rather homogenous?” Kenneth Kwok read this question out to uncomfortable and knowing chuckles. She illustrated her point that change can be seen and enacted everywhere.

Finally, after all the serious, intellectual talk of the evening, poet and alumnus Theophilus Kwek and local singer-songwriter Annette Lee took to the stage to provide the audience with some artistic entertainment. Theophilus and Annette warmed up the audience with a short chat, cracking jokes about the swivel chairs and throwing questions at each other about their creative inspirations, thoughts on what makes a home, and sources of hope. Having previously met at a party, the two quickly established an easy rapport, and it was a disappointment to realise that they would be performing individually. 

Theophilus Kwek and Annette Lee sharing personal stories.

As Annette left the stage, Theophilus shared some anecdotes about his time as a student of RI a decade ago, before masterfully segueing into an introduction to the poems he wanted to read. He first read a poem based on his mother’s experiences fleeing from the Bukit Ho Swee fires. Then, he shared about an oral history project among the residents relocated from Dakota Crescent, tying into Mr Lim Jingzhou’s earlier comments about housing insecurity. The poem based on this, titled “Mid Autumn”, was in colloquial Singlish, making for a funny yet poignant reading. 

Theophilus Kwek performing his poem, “Mid Autumn”.

To wrap the evening up, Annette Lee and her guitar-playing partner performed some of her original songs, including Song for the Underdog and Gold, whose motivational messages she explained over gently strummed chords. As Annette’s singing filled the room, the audience swayed and clapped, and the Albert Hong Hall, complete with an elaborate lighting rig and advanced sound systems, turned into a concert venue. 

Annette Lee performing to a guitar accompaniment.

With the conclusion of Annette’s last song, the first day of RI’s Festival of Ideas came to an end. Attendees stepped out of the Albert Hong Hall into the cool night air, with many bringing the insights of the evening with them. 

Interested to know more about the Festival of Ideas conducted as part of RI200 celebrations? Look no further— read on to find out!

Festival of Ideas: Leaders in Sustainability

Festival of Ideas: Pioneers in Innovation

Festival of Ideas: Pulling Back the Curtain

461690cookie-checkFestival of Ideas 2023: Thinkers in Society


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