Sunday 5 May 2013

When activists cross a line

Andrea Ong and Elgin Toh explore some of the rocky terrain that civil society groups navigate in terms of crossing the border into partisan politics
The Straits Times, 4 May 2013

WHEN does social activism become political or partisan?

The question, often a tricky one to answer in the Singapore context, has come into sharp focus again recently.

Last week, lawyer and activist Nizam Ismail resigned from his leadership positions with the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) after he said he was told the Government had taken issue with his online comments and his participation in two political events in his "personal capacity".

The message conveyed to him, he said, was that he should "tone down" his activities or the Government would cut AMP's funding. Otherwise, he should disassociate himself from the self-help group.

AMP and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim have denied government interference in the group's management.

The Government then said Mr Nizam was using AMP as a platform for pursuing partisan and racial politics, a charge he has denied in his blog.

The episode created a stir, coming in the same week that the Home Affairs and Manpower ministries issued a strongly worded statement responding to some NGOs and individuals backing two ex-SMRT bus drivers alleging police abuse while in custody for instigating an illegal strike.

Noting that the Government had already refuted the drivers' allegations, the joint statement said: "In the guise of protecting vulnerable foreign workers, the NGOs and individuals have in fact exploited them for their own political ends."

The two incidents have raised questions about the state's relationship with civil society and the space within which these groups can operate.

While civil society typically pursues goals and interests that the state alone may not be able to fulfil, history has shown that there are no-go zones that the Government is acutely sensitive to. These OB markers bear the labels of "politics" and "race", which are perennial concerns in Singapore society, though civil society activists point to the shifting sand definitions of these terms that have been problematic for them.

State-society relations

THE latest incident is not the first time the Government has used the label of being partisan or political to express disapproval with players who have strayed out of bounds. In 1994, writer Catherine Lim was censured by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong after she wrote an article on an "affective divide" between the Government and Singaporeans due to its top-down approach to governing.

Mr Goh said Dr Lim had gone "beyond the pale", adding that those who wished to comment regularly on politics should enter the political arena.

Observers interviewed said the Government's stance that politics and political comment belong purely to the realm of party politics does not seem to have changed since this 1994 episode.

The Government's underlying concern, articulated by former Information and the Arts Minister George Yeo in a 1999 interview with an AMP publication, is that groups or individuals could be fronts or "puppets" for others to achieve their political aims. This stems from the People's Action Party's (PAP's) political battles in the 1960s and 1970s with the leftists who used organisations like trade unions and cultural associations to mobilise people.

Later on in the 1980s, a few Catholic priests who published booklets criticising the trade unions and labour laws and spoke up against the 1987 Operation Spectrum were labelled a "political pressure group". The same term was used in 2008 by the Government to turn down a suggestion by the Law Society to allow it to comment on issues not submitted to it.

Said Mr Yeo in 1999: "Invisible dalangs pull strings and make things happen on the wayang stage. If this is the way politics is conducted in Singapore, we will never achieve democracy because the real protagonists do not show their hands or identify themselves.

"So, over a period of time, we have taken the view that if you are a civic organisation, whether you are an organisation like AMP or whatever, if you want to get yourself involved politically, please get into the political arena and not hide behind a religious group, a tuition class, or a theatre troupe."

These considerations are part of the terrain that civil society groups have to navigate. Academics have noted that there are few explicit laws guiding what such groups can do or say. But in an interview with Insight this week, Law Minister K. Shanmugam shed some light on how people can navigate the different spheres.

As individual citizens, everyone has their political rights to express views, he says. But as a recent statement by the Attorney- General's Chambers states, action will be taken when statements or actions are made which insult races or religions, or suggest the Government is using race or religion for its own purposes.

The Government will also take action against any statement or action that seeks to undermine the independence of the judiciary.

The law is also clear that those who seek to engage in party politics need to set up political parties to do so, says Mr Shanmugam.

As for NGOs and other associations, they are registered with the Registrar of Societies (ROS) and are bound to keep within the ambit of their Constitutions.

The Societies Act was amended in 2004 to allow groups whose activities do not touch on race or religion, or civil and political rights or the governance of Singapore, to be automatically registered.

The ROS has the discretion to refuse registration to groups outside this category though some groups have called for more transparency in this respect.

On what registered groups can do, Mr Shanmugam says: "The issue is whether their Constitution allows it or does not allow it, and also whether they misuse the funds that are given to them. If they are funded for a specific purpose, they go and take the money and do something else, that obviously will be frowned upon."

While the law might be clear, civil society groups say they also have to read the signals sent by government leaders.

National University of Singapore sociologist Chua Beng Huat has argued, for instance, that the Government prefers the term "civic society" over "civil society" as the former emphasises the civic responsibilities of citizens rather than their civil rights.

This has led to the growth of organisations that are viewed as "junior partners" to the state rather than innovating or complementing the state in their own right.

In a 2011 article for the Civil Service College journal Ethos, current Nominated MP Laurence Lien called for a more mature civil society but argued that many non-profit organisations are more like "subcontractors" delivering social services on behalf of the Government.

Over the years, however, there have been signs of a gradual loosening of the reins.

In 1991, Mr Yeo made a seminal speech in which he compared the state to a banyan tree that needs to be carefully pruned so civic institutions can thrive. And in 2004, just before he took over from Mr Goh as Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong called for greater civic participation in a Harvard Club address.

He also signalled a change from the past in the rules of engagement. "The Government will not view all critics as adversaries. If it is a sincere contribution to improve government policies, but one which we do not agree with, then our response will be dispassionate and factual, pointing out where we think the criticism is mistaken but encouraging the critic to continue to stay engaged or even counter-argue.

"But a criticism that scores political points and undermines the Government's standing, whether or not this is intended, is another matter altogether," said PM Lee.

Speaking to Insight this week, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) Lawrence Wong reiterated that criticism from NGOs was not automatically unacceptable to the Government.

"We welcome feedback from all NGOs on government policies even if they may be critical, as this helps us to improve public policy for the benefit of all Singaporeans," he said, but added: "NGOs should not be used as a cloak for partisan political objectives.

"Similarly, while individuals in the NGOs are free to express their views, they should not use their organisations to pursue a partisan political agenda. Otherwise we may end up with religiously based VWOs or ethnic-based groups being used for political purposes. That's something we cannot afford to risk in Singapore.

"Ultimately, we need to strengthen Government-NGO partnerships through regular conversation and engagement, and over time, build mutual respect and understanding of the complementary roles of each of the parties."

Cases of SMRT and AMP

SET against this backdrop, how should the recent altercations with Mr Nizam and the NGOs involved in the SMRT bus drivers' case be viewed?

Mr Nizam's case is arguably more complex, as the Government's reaction can be traced to the history of AMP and the times its aims have somewhat diverged from the PAP government's.

Responding to Mr Nizam's resignation, Dr Yaacob said public money should not be used to build "a platform for people to be involved in partisan politics".

Indeed, AMP's website says it is a charitable organisation. It runs community services such as bursaries and micro-business programmes. AMP leaders have also stressed in the past week its aim of being a non-partisan platform.

But what might make the PAP government uneasy is any hint of AMP forming an alternative leadership for the Malay community.

At its founding in 1991, AMP suggested this was possible, and in 2000 it called for a non-partisan "collective leadership" picked by the community. The implication: The Malay MPs may be deficient in leading the community.

The proposal was flagged by the Government for entering the arena of racial politics. Mr Goh said it was "clearly a political challenge to the Malay MPs" and would lead to other communities pressing for their own interests. AMP dropped the idea.

Last year, AMP proposed a Community Forum (ComFor) to re-position Malay-Muslim organisations to "engage a national, inter-ethnic, issue-oriented agenda".

PM Lee urged it to "have a care if you are venturing into civil society issues which are not primarily to do with the Malay-Muslim community" - and its primary task of tackling social and economic issues. AMP later dropped the idea.

In two letters to The Straits Times Forum Page last week, MCCY charged Mr Nizam with pushing for racial politics by trying to revive and repackage the "collective leadership" idea in ComFor.

One of the letters also took issue with the "strident postings" on his blog and a Facebook group.

The waters were muddied further when stories appeared, first in Malay community newspaper Berita Harian and then online, raising questions about Mr Nizam's private life and financial situation.

This provoked a reaction within the community, prompting Mr Nizam to lament that he had been the subject of "hatredness".

Mr Nizam has also rejected the charge of racial politics, while he and AMP chairman Azmoon Ahmad have clarified that AMP shared the ComFor idea openly with the Government before its formal proposal. MCCY, however, noted that "Mr Nizam played a leading role at the convention and championed this idea strongly".

Others have defended him from the charge of racial politics. Former AMP chairman and NMP Imran Mohamed notes that AMP was founded as a race-based group. He, Mr Azmoon and other Malay leaders have signalled their desire to close the matter and heal the rift. But observers say AMP's historical instincts of wanting to be an alternative leadership may surface from time to time.

Another set of advocacy groups taken to task by the Government were those who took up the cause of the SMRT bus drivers jailed for instigating strikes.

The Government suggested the groups - including Maruah and Think Centre - did not truly care for the workers' rights, but wanted to score political points. When one worker alleged police abuse, the groups hindered investigations "while continuing to cast aspersions on the integrity of the police", the Government said. The groups have denied the charges.

For now at least, it does not appear the Government plans to accuse the groups of violating their own Constitutions. The groups also do not receive public money.

More dialogue needed

THE last two weeks have thrown up specific questions on Government-civil society engagement. (See below). What is clear though is the greater need for dialogue.

Associate Professor Reuben Wong from the National University of Singapore sees two consequences arising from Mr Nizam's case and the SMRT strike case.

One is that questions may now be raised about AMP's autonomy, which is a lose-lose situation for both AMP and the Government as "civil society is most effective when it is seen as autonomous".

Two, the Government may need to give reassurances to civil society and not alienate it as a bloc, he says.

Increasingly as society becomes more diverse, the Government may need the support of civil society groups to carry the ground on some policies, he notes. He cites the mandatory weekly day off for domestic helpers - a legislation which kicked in this year - which was unpopular with some Singaporeans but was strongly supported by NGOs.

Recent events, say analysts, have highlighted the need for even more engagement, to talk about issues like how to define a space for civil society groups not interested in partisan politics. Far better to engage openly than to force dissenting voices to go anonymous online, they add.

As to how best to work out these rules, Mr Yeo said with some prescience in 1999 that the public should decide.

"Some lines are hard to draw in advance but, over a period of time, we can establish certain conventions. Sometimes we have a controversy, a big incident that sparks a public debate. After a while the dust settles and a common understanding emerges. This is a 'common law' way to establish the standards for our society."

Invisible dalangs pull strings and make things happen on the wayang stage. If this is the way politics is conducted in Singapore, we will never achieve democracy because the real protagonists do not show their hands or identify themselves.

So, over a period of time, we have taken the view that if you are a civic organisation, whether you are an organisation like AMP or whatever, if you want to get yourself involved politically, please get into the political arena and not hide behind a religious group, a tuition class, or a theatre troupe.
- Former Information and the Arts Minister George Yeo in 1999

Past clashes
Beyond the Nizam Ismail incident, friction between the Government and civil society has occurred from time to time, sometimes with implications for future engagement. A look at some past instances:
By Elgin Toh and Andrea Ong
1986 - Mr Francis Seow was elected president of the Law Society. He then made statements critical of the Government on a range of issues, including, for instance, the lack of press freedom, as - he said - was reflected in the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act.
Then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said the society had "gone political".

The Government then moved to tighten the Legal Profession Act, restricting the society's role so it could only "assist the Government in all matters affecting legislation submitted to it" - effectively preventing it from commenting on matters not submitted to it.

In 2008, the Law Society hinted it would prefer to have this law changed. The suggestion was quickly shot down by the Law Ministry, which said: "We do not want to revert to the situation in the 1980s where the Law Society behaved like a political pressure group."
1993 - Civil society groups Roundtable and The Socratic Circle were registered, but only after they acceded to requests by the Registrar of Societies to amend their Constitutions to limit their activities to members.
"We agreed to the changes because we thought it best to get registered," said founding member of Roundtable Raymond Lim, who later became transport minister.

In 2000, the registrar began to allow the Roundtable to invite non-members to its events, but they had to be invited by name.

A year later, police investigated the group for "providing public entertainment without a licence".

It had publicised one of its events on a website, in an apparent contravention of the invitation-only clause in its Constitution.

The group's members, however, explained it had advertised the event to ask those interested to write in for an invitation - and only those with invitations were let in.

No charges were filed.
1997 - Gay activist Alex Au's application to register a gay rights group called People Like Us was turned down by the Government.
The Registrar of Societies gave no reason for his decision. But he noted that the law gave the registrar the power to decline applications for groups that are prejudicial to public peace, welfare and good order or are likely to act against the national interest.

A second application in 2004 was also turned down.
2010 - Human rights group Maruah is gazetted by the Government as a political association - a move that bars it from accepting foreign funding.
Maruah president Braema Mathi said the group was surprised by the move. It had been careful not to admit members of political parties or to politicise the issue of human rights, she said.

She added that Maruah's growth would be constricted by the funding rule, and that its plans to hire paid staff and set up an office would be hurt.

The Registry of Societies said that "given Maruah's objectives and activities, there is a need to ensure that Maruah does not become used by foreigners to interfere in our internal affairs".

Other groups that have been gazetted as political associations are The Online Citizen (TOC), Think Centre, Singaporeans For Democracy and Open Singapore Centre.

Singaporeans For Democracy reacted to being gazetted by shutting down, citing the restrictions on funding and the additional paperwork requirements.

But TOC persisted. The first website to be labelled a political association, TOC criticised its gazetting as "unreasonable, arbitrary and incorrect". It pointed out, however, that its activities were self-funded anyway.

The three questions the recent episodes have thrown up:

What counts as dabbling in politics

THERE is a fine dividing line between the personal, social and political.

At least, this is what the events of the last two weeks suggest, from the friction between the Government and former AMP board director Nizam Ismail, to the censure of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for their continued pressing of the SMRT bus drivers' claims of ill-treatment while in police custody.

And just how those areas are delineated within civil society itself has become the subject of debate online and in the media.

Past government statements have reflected a view that that which is "political" can be distinguished from that which is not.

Several observers, though, say that most issues can easily become political. Sociologist Tan Ern Ser from the National University of Singapore, for example, says: "In a broad sense, any action or speech which voices or champions the rights or interests of any individual, group or community is necessarily political.

"So it is difficult to stay clear of politics completely."

Furthermore, the term "political" can be subjective, such observers argue.

For instance, Dr Kevin Tan, former president of the Singapore Heritage Society, says heritage and nature lovers may feel they are not being political in calling for Bukit Brown cemetery to be preserved.

"This is what we do, " he says.

But is it political, he asks, if the groups come up against a government agency?

While the Government tends to be wary of civil society's intentions, he says, "I'm not saying that civil society groups are there as suspicious bloodhounds sniffing out some kind of pernicious act on the part of the State...

"The State doesn't have all the answers, and if we think you're getting it wrong, somebody's got to tell it to you".

But even if most issues can become political, what matters equally is just who is doing the advocating and by what means. Attempts to mobilise over an issue by causing friction, rifts or tension within society are clear infringements, say analysts.

Another issue that has arisen is: When is the relationship between politicians and civil society considered partisan?

Dr Kevin Tan feels that once a group mass-mobilises the public in support of an election candidate, it strays into partisanship.

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin notes that in Europe, NGOs are overtly partisan. But this is accepted in Europe's political culture.

"Singapore does not have that culture and Singaporeans want to be very clear on the role of NGOs - although the lines may blur in the future."

In the wake of Mr Nizam's resignation from AMP, Maruah president Braema Mathi wrote a Forum letter asking if there were "partisan double standards", given that some PAP MPs serve as directors and advisers to such groups receiving state funds.

Some clarity has arisen from the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth's reply that the same rules apply to all, including PAP MPs who serve with these groups: "Their role is to help achieve the particular social, cultural or educational goals of these bodies, and not to exploit these bodies for their own political ends."

Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad agrees with this stance of equal treatment of all MPs, regardless of their party. Citing his own experience, he says that as a former Mendaki board director, he made sure not to use the group as a platform to campaign for the PAP.

Can one speak in one's personal capacity

MR NIZAM Ismail, the former director of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), did preface his speeches at the White Paper protest and a Workers' Party (WP) forum by saying he was speaking in his personal capacity.

Is this disclaimer valid? Does it ensure sufficient distance between his views and AMP's?

In his statement issued after Mr Nizam's resignation, AMP chairman Azmoon Ahmad acknowledged the disclaimer but said Mr Nizam's stand was "erroneously perceived as a reflection of AMP's official stand".

This view - that perception matters - is echoed by many whom Insight spoke to.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam notes that each case was different.

"The test is: How would a reasonable person view it? What is the impression left in people's minds?" he says.

He cites how he had to watch what he said when he was a senior partner at a law firm, before he entered Cabinet.

"If I go out there and talk about a certain law, it's not credible to say these are not the views of my law firm," Mr Shanmugam says.

President of Taman Bacaan Abdul Halim Kader agrees that Mr Nizam's long association with AMP has made it very difficult for people to make a distinction.

"When people refer to Nizam, they tend to say, 'Nizam from AMP'," he says.

Some have drawn parallels between this case and another earlier this year, of Mr Li Yeming, who wrote to Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao in his personal capacity criticising WP chief Low Thia Khiang for what he saw as the latter's anti-foreigner views.

Mr Li was vice-chairman of a committee in the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations (SFCCA). His offer to resign from his post - after the letter drew strong online reaction - was deemed unnecessary by SFCCA.

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin says the two cases differ in that Mr Li's comments may have been seen as "one-off", and hence did not "fundamentally prejudice" his position in SFCCA.

Other observers argue that in an age when more people are performing multiple roles, it may be unrealistic not to allow them to switch hats freely or, at times, to speak purely for themselves.

Associate Professor Reuben Wong from the National University of Singapore notes how establishment figures like Ambassadors-at-large Tommy Koh and Chan Heng Chee, who wear many hats, are able to speak in their "personal capacity".

Veteran civil society activist Kevin Tan agrees. He says that to disallow the disclaimer is to impose an unacceptable restriction on individual autonomy.

Dr Tan, who is associated with many groups, adds that he often explains to his audience which capacity he is speaking in - personal or otherwise.

But it is a grey area and if there is a risk of misunderstanding, it is far better to err on the side of caution, say others.

This was why former Nominated MP Imram Mohamed stepped down as AMP director when he entered Parliament in 1994.

"I would be expressing my own views in Parliament and I didn't want people to think I was speaking on behalf of AMP," he says.

He returned to AMP after his NMP term ended.

What of groups that get govt funding

THERE are civil society groups - and there are civil society groups.

The Government has long maintained that two distinct categories exist - and an NGO in one is judged differently from that in another.

At issue is whether the group receives funding, as then Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo pointed out in 1999 in an interview with - incidentally - an AMP publication. He said: "If (groups) accept public money, then there must be public accountability. The issue of how the money is spent would be debated in Parliament and subject to questioning by MPs.

"If only private money is involved, you are autonomous. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot say that you want public money but you should not be questioned. After all, the money belongs to the people of Singapore."

After Mr Nizam Ismail resigned from AMP last week, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim reiterated that oversight was necessary whenever money was handed out. He said: "Our concerns are about how government funds are being used. Money which is given by the Government to Malay-Muslim organisations must be for the purpose of voluntary work that will help the community move forward. It is not for the purpose of creating a platform for people to be involved in partisan politics."

Most observers interviewed do not dispute this. An elected government has the power to set the ground rules on the use of public funds and exercise discretion over disbursement, they contend.

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin argues that every group is, after all, accountable to any provider of its funds, even if this is not the Government. "Just like a church - you take money from your congregation, you're answerable to the congregation. So you have to steer towards what the congregation want, because that's what they give you money for," he says.

An NGO that takes public money is automatically transformed, in some sense, into "an extended arm of the Government", in that it is performing a role the Government wants it to.

"It comes with a price - let's face it. Otherwise, don't take money. Then you have complete independence."

Taman Bacaan president Abdul Halim Kader agrees, and likens the funder-fundee relationship to that of father and son: "Your father gives you money to go to school. If you go the wrong way, will your father continue to support you? No. He will correct you, scold you and caution you."

Adds Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser: "The expectation is for the organisation to use the funds to help uplift the community through welfare and educational programmes."

Civil society activist Braema Mathi says funds for existing programmes approved under a group's ambit should not be cut. She acknowledges that a withdrawal of future funding

can be legitimate if there is a breach in the terms of reference, but says the process should be made transparent.

Civil society activist Kevin Tan agrees that the Govern-ment has the discretionary power to turn off funding to a group at the next review for no reason other than it has been critical of government policies. "But this surely does not augur well for a more vibrant and participatory society," he adds.

Whether cuts are fair or not, observers agree that having to even consider the question implies that donations from private sources are lacking - a point of some lament.

This problem is a bigger one in the Malay community, according to Mr Abdul Halim, as it lacks "millionaires and billionaires", unlike the Chinese and Indian commu-nities. "We still need the support of the Government in every way. When we can stand on our own feet, then maybe it's fair for us to move forward on our own, with less sup-port," he says. "But not now."

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