Monday 3 June 2013

Keeping it civil: How now for political engagement

By Pravin Prakash, Published TODAY, 1 Jun 2013

The relationship between the citizen, civil society, politics and the Government in Singapore is a complicated one.

This relationship has come under scrutiny in recent times, with much debate focusing on dynamics that exist between the political rights of the individual, the role of NGOs and civil society, as well as the Government’s perspective.

The conceptual history of the term “civil society” is enmeshed with the idea of citizenship, the limits of state power and the regulation of market economies. The popular modern perspective is that civil society serves as a buffer zone between state and market – a socio-political space strong enough to negotiate the influences of government and the free market on the individual and greater society.

Jurgen Habermas, the German sociologist and philosopher, articulates that “civil society is made up of more or less spontaneously created associations, organisations and movements, which find, take up, condense and amplify the resonance of social problems in private life, and pass it on to the political realm or public sphere”. An active civil society hence potentially functions as a bridge between the government and the people, encouraging positive discourse and initiatives.


In Singapore, the Government has often advocated the proliferation of a “civic society” over that of a civil society.

The term first found articulation in 1991, by then Acting Minister of Information and the Arts George Yeo. who called for the creation of a “Singapore Soul” by an active citizenry, with an emphasis on the responsibilities to the nation. In another speech at a conference on civil society in 1998, Mr Yeo mooted the notion of the “Singapore Idea” and expressed hope that there would be found “new and better ways to bind state and society together”.

“For it is in working together that we optimise our position in the world. In the web world, the state is not completely above society. Both exist together drawing strength from each other,” he added. The emphasis, it may be discerned, is on citizen participation that works within governmental and institutional frameworks rather than outside it.

In Singapore this has manifested in a focus on aspects such as good governance, civic responsibility, honesty, strong families, hard work, a spirit of voluntarism and a deep respect for racial and religious diversity.

The result has been the flourishing of organisations such as the People’s Association (PA), which are essentially civic groups that function as assistants to the state, and which perform important roles such as the provision of social services. Civic organisations such as the PA do play a key role in Singapore society – however, this has also meant that traditionally speaking, civic society and not civil society has flourished here.


Why has the Singapore Government maintained a distinct wariness towards the development of a vibrant and potentially politically active civil society? Its suspicions, it may be argued, date back to Cold War days when an active civil society was a hotbed for communist organisations.

Incidents such as the Hock Lee bus strike and riots of 1955, which was orchestrated by politically motivated trade unions and students, left a deep impression on early PAP leaders. The PAP’s own political struggle with left-leaning organisations in the 1960s and 1970s taught it the potential dangers of politicised trade unions.

In the 1980s, the Government reacted strongly to criticisms made by Catholic priests on the trade unions and labour laws. The criticisms were harsh, yet it cannot be denied that there exists a real threat in the amalgamation of religion and politics.

A perusal of recent world history tells us that the Government’s fears are not completely unfounded. A politicised civil society holds the potential to be disruptive and violent, capable of inflicting extensive damage. A paternalistic approach to civil society has avoided such excesses.

But the question must be asked: Today, in a globalised and increasingly politically aware Singapore, is it time for policies on civil society evolve?


The political culture in Singapore is undergoing fundamental changes. The 2011 General Election appears to have ushered in a more politically charged and aware citizenry that is determined to voice their concern, disapproval and opinions on social and political issues.

The Government seems well aware of the shifting sands and has made efforts to engage the population in ways it has often shied away from in the past. In 2004, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong articulated that “the Government of Singapore will not view all critics as adversaries. If it is a sincere contribution to improve government policies … (we will) encourage the critic to continue to stay engaged or even counter argue.”

In an interview in March this year, the Prime Minister commented that: “It’s a different generation, a different society, and the politics will be different. ... We have to work in a more open way.”

Recent initiatives such as Our Singapore Conversation have been both lauded and criticised in equal measure. Many have called it a step towards more political engagement while others think it a mere talkshop.

Political openness and evolution must be a gradual and two-way process, even in the face of mounting frustration. In many states, a swift and passion-fuelled political change have often resulted in fractured states with little benefit from the process.

It is also imperative that this process is a two way one, negotiated by both an open minded government and an equally accommodating civil society. This is often a laborious process, especially given that our civil society is in many ways still in its infancy. The state too must shift its perspective, from a paternalistic approach to that of a mentor, more experienced and yet trusting of its protégé’s capabilities.


Yet it must be acknowledged, we live in exceptional times with regards to our political culture. An increasingly political citizenry has been aided by the effects of globalisation and the popularity of social networking. The proliferation of ideas and opinions can no longer be contained within state boundaries. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have become hotbeds for discussion on political and social issues.

The Government must become acutely aware that issues and policies will be actively debated and thrashed out. It must take measures to promote more debate in public spaces between citizens and itself, even as such exchange currently does take place via several avenues. Discussion and debate must entail all sides being open to the idea of learning from one another and willing to see the other’s perspective.

Otherwise, a culture where debate takes place without the Government will become the norm. This must be avoided because a vibrant civil society and a capable government, plugged into one another, drawing from one another’s strengths, can be a socio-political force of immense capabilities that Singapore must utilise.

In an increasingly online world, there must be a culture of political engagement that is mature, educated and engaged for positive change. The alternative is a scary one: Online avatars engaged in what borders on mudslinging and hate. Civic society cannot engage these opinions but an active and vigorous civil society can.

As a tutor at both the university and junior college level, it is clear to me that today’s youth are intelligent, opinionated and spirited with a strong interest in positive political and social engagement. Many are not the cynical and disinterested naysayers that the youth are often painted as being.

Given the proper encouragement and avenues, I am confident that we can accelerate the growth of a dynamic and positive civil society, driven by youth that will work for the greater benefit of the country.

Pravin Prakash is a political science graduate of the National University of Singapore. He currently tutors at NUS and works at the Institute of South Asian Studies.

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