Saturday 31 December 2011

Singapore's community activism blossoming

By Qiuyi Tan, Channel NewsAsia, 29 Dec 2011

More Singaporeans this year have spoken up and acted on a slew of social causes from heritage conservation and environmental protection to animal welfare.

In June, Singapore saw its first-ever public forum on animal welfare policies.

Observers said this is not unusual for a developed country with an educated population.

Assistant Professor Reuben Wong, from the National University of Singapore's Political Science Department, said: "Singaporeans find it remarkable because we've been used to a certain kind of politics which I'd describe as abnormal, where the citizenry has been depoliticised, where there is one overwhelming party or sometimes just one party in Parliament."

At the National Day Rally in August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had urged Singaporeans to come forward to play a larger and positive role on issues affecting the country.

Leading the way in this effort are civil society groups such as the Cat Welfare Society.

The society has seen public support increase steadily over the years.

But what made 2011 a milestone for the group was its engagement with the government.

It has successfully lobbied authorities to start sterilising stray cats this year -- a shift from the old policy of culling them.

Its vice-president Veron Lau said the Stray Cat Sterilisation Programme, which was terminated in 2005, is now back and piloting in a number of housing estates like Ang Mo Kio and Tampines.

Under the programme, the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA) works with town councils to microchip and sterilise stray cats, and pays for half the cost.

"I see the change from the government officers in the way they want to work together with us," Ms Lau said.

"It's because they have seen the results that are brought about when volunteers and residents in the community step forward to resolve issues, rather than just leaving it to the government officials to resolve them."

Separately, architect Tham Wai Hon got his friends and colleagues together to lobby the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to preserve the full tract of KTM railway land recently returned to Singapore. They did that by proposing creative development ideas.

Mr Tham said: "What's so amazing was that, usually in Singapore, things are planned 10, 20 years in advance, but this time, things happened so suddenly, no one was ready except our group. And so in that way it lent us a bigger voice, and the URA was really keen to get any ideas for what they could do about the space."

Mr Tham's group -- Friends of the Rail Corridor -- is now part of an official dialogue process with the Rail Corridor Consultation Group on the Rail Corridor.

There are concerns lengthy consultations will slow down Singapore's efficiency and strong government.

But activists and observers said the dialogue process as well as active citizens and a strong civil society are vital to a mature and resilient society.

NUS' Assistant Professor Wong said: "Some of the younger ministers and younger Members of Parliament (MPs) understand more intuitively, but the rest of the cabinet and government might have to be convinced of the merits of a more consultative approach."

While some observers said activist groups are getting more organised and connected, others believe there will always be new issues that will get Singaporeans talking and moving.

But one thing all can agree with, though, is that Singapore's budding community activism looks set to grow in the years ahead.

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