Wednesday 13 November 2013

S'pore more 'welfarist' than other nations: Shanmugam

By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 12 Nov 2013

FOREIGN and Law Minister K.Shanmugam yesterday issued a challenge for anyone to find a government that is more "welfarist" than Singapore's.

While it studiously avoids using the word, the Government substantially subsidises every aspect of a citizen's life, he said.

Speaking to an audience of activists at the Institute of Policy Studies' (IPS) conference on civil society, he said that primary and secondary education are practically free and a "hard cash subsidy" for housing goes to 83 per cent of the population.

On talk that the Housing Board profits off building flats, he said it has to pay market rate for the land, and this money then goes into the reserves.

Mr Shanmugam was making the point that reality often differs from rhetoric, which he said was also the case when activists charge that the Government is reluctant to engage with them.

In a dialogue moderated by Professor Tommy Koh, IPS' special adviser, Mr Shanmugam parried with activists who urged him to roll back laws that circumscribe and hobble associations here.

He defended the Political Donations Act forbidding foreign funding for gazetted associations, and said the Societies Act, which defines a society as 10 or more people, would not prohibit 10 people coming together to give out masks during the haze, for example.

Making it clear that the Cabinet wants to engage with civil society, he said: "Can the Government handle everything alone? No way. We prefer to tap into the enthusiasm of people. It is a simple fact that Singapore cannot be governed without the active participation of people and civil society."

Engagement ability invariably differs across the 100,000- strong civil service, but it has improved over the last decade and will continue to, he added.

He praised activism like the Singaporeans Against Poverty campaign spearheaded by Caritas, the Catholic Church's social service arm. It avoids asking what the Government should do, he noted, but asks Singaporeans to step up.

But Mr Shanmugam lamented the "navel gazing" that Singaporeans and activists sometimes do on issues "of secondary importance". The conference covered topics like the future of civic education, youth activism and the sustainability of the "many helping hands" approach in social aid.

Singapore society is not properly grappling with the population timebomb of an ageing demographic and low fertility, an issue of far greater magnitude and importance, he said.

But questions like "Where is your manpower for the military going to come from?" and "How are we going to design your HDB flats?" are not "sexy topics that people at IPS conferences like to think about".

NGOs have vital role in working with Govt, society

MRS CONSTANCE Singam ("Don't dismiss civil society's contributions"; last Saturday) accurately quoted Law Minister K. Shanmugam as saying at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) conference, held on Nov 11, that "Singapore cannot be governed without the active participation of people and civil society". (The full quote was: "Can the Government handle everything alone? No way. We prefer to tap into the enthusiasm of people. It is a simple fact that Singapore cannot be governed without the active participation of people and civil society.")

She then drew the inaccurate conclusion that the minister had implied that "civil society activism should focus on welfare and service provision".

The minister neither said nor implied that, nor does he believe that.

He made clear at the conference that a modern society like Singapore needs strong partnerships between the people, civil society and the Government. He also said he and his colleagues strongly believe that.

Mrs Singam also said the Government cannot deny the significant contributions made by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), Caritas and the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP).

We agree entirely with Mrs Singam that such NGOs have a very important role in working with the Government and society.

The Law Ministry, for example, has worked closely with Aware. To cite two recent examples: Last year, the ministry piloted legislation in Parliament (the Evidence Act) after discussions with Aware, and at the association's strong request. This year, it engaged Aware executive director Corinna Lim on harassment, an issue that the association has taken a clear position on.

In his concluding remarks at another recent IPS conference on the topic of harassment, the minister said he would give serious consideration to Ms Lim's views that there should be standalone legislation on harassment.

Likewise, the minister has also expressed his wish to work with Caritas. And the Government has given considerable financial and other support to AMP since its inception.

The Government has and will continue to engage civil society as an essential partner in dealing with the important issues that face Singapore.

Praveen Randhawa (Ms)
Press Secretary to Minister for Law
ST Forum, 26 Nov 2013

Don't dismiss civil society's contributions

AT THE recent Institute of Policy Studies' conference on civil society, Law Minister K. Shanmugam seemed to imply that civil society activism should focus on welfare and service provision ("S'pore more 'welfarist' than other nations: Shanmugam"; Nov 12).

This has been the Government's position since independence and the changes in society - more educated, more participatory citizenry - do not seem to have influenced the Government to take its citizens more seriously in their desire for more participation in the policymaking process.

For even as it promotes new outlets for public debate, such as the "national conversation", the Government continues to define the limits of civil society activities.

The World Bank defines civil society as a variety of "non-governmental and not-for-profit organisations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations". These include:
- Raising awareness of societal issues and challenges and advocating for change;
- Delivering services to meet societal needs such as health, education, food and security;
- Bringing knowledge and experience to shape policy and strategy, and identifying and building solutions;
- Providing education, training and other capacity building;
- Giving power to the voice of the marginalised or under-represented;
- Encouraging citizen engagement and supporting the rights of citizens; and
- Promoting fundamental and universal values.
The Government cannot deny the significant contributions made by organisations such as the Association of Women for Action and Research, Caritas, the Association of Muslim Professionals, Maruah and the Nature Society (Singapore).

Their work has raised the level of public debate on issues of concern to our society, empowered citizens to act on their own behalf and enabled the Government to be more responsive to the needs of our country.

Mr Shanmugam is right - "Singapore cannot be governed without the active participation of people and civil society". Thus, the Government should not be dismissive of civil society's contributions.

Constance Singam (Mrs)
ST Forum, 23 Nov 2013

Out-of-bounds marker on race, religion 'still necessary'
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 12 Nov 2013

FOREIGN and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said that the Government should not roll back its out-of-bounds marker on race and religion because discussions on these matters can still threaten the social fabric.

Replying to a question on whether it should step back to let citizens acquire the skills of civil debate, he said: "At a very philosophical level, you could say we should be able to talk about each other's racial and religious issues without having to really damage society.

"Often you will have a group of people who will debate it at that level, but then you will have probably a larger group, in any society, for whom this becomes very visceral and impacts on their perception of another race," he said.

Speaking at an Institute of Policy Studies conference on civil society, he added: "I'm not saying these are the only viewpoints. But in that context, I would advocate the Government to intervene, and say what the terms of those sorts of debates should be. That's been our position in the past and I don't see that changing in the context of the Internet, (which is) just a means of expression."

His comments came in the wake of a movement to overturn the ban on the wearing of the hijab or Muslim headscarf in certain uniformed public sector jobs.

Earlier, conference speaker Amrin Amin, a member of the Suara Musyawarah committee on Malay-Muslim issues, said that the hijab petition was an example of the type of messy, ground-up activism with no clear leadership that is emerging in a newly politicised and assertive Singapore.

More taking on Govt in court, former A-G observes
Woon urges activists to adopt 'give and take' approach
By Kash Cheong, The Straits Times, 12 Nov 2013

LAW professor Walter Woon yesterday said that the number of challenges to the Government in the courts has gone up, and that anecdotally, he would say there have been more such challenges in the last five years than over the previous decades.

The former attorney-general, who now teaches at the National University of Singapore, was speaking in his personal capacity at the Institute of Policy Studies conference on civil society.

Prof Woon said that while the diffidence that Singaporeans have in challenging the Government has not disappeared completely, it has diminished since the 2011 General Election.

He cited four recent cases. Two were constitutional challenges against Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises gay sex, while the third was from a Hougang resident regarding the Prime Minister's discretion in calling a by-election.

The fourth was by Reform Party chief Kenneth Jeyaretnam, who sought to block a US$4 billion (S$5 billion) loan from the Singapore Government to the International Monetary Fund.

Prof Woon predicted more jostling for public space among interest groups and fewer inhibitions in taking on the Government as society becomes more diverse.

He and several veteran civil society leaders, fellow speakers at the conference, urged activists to "stay at the table" instead of taking a more combative, "my way or the highway" approach.

He also said it seemed to him that the younger ministers "have a stronger sense of fairness than what we have seen before".

But he emphasised that activists must refrain from the "brat response to say this is what I want and I'm not leaving till you change it". He stressed that "there has to be compromise for all of us to live here altogether".

Nominated Member of Parliament and green champion Faizah Jamal said that maintaining civil relations with policymakers pays off.

When the Land Transport Authority wanted to engage with green activists on the Cross-Island MRT Line that could cut into the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, it turned first to the people who spearheaded a campaign to save the Lower Peirce Reservoir from becoming a golf course in the early 1990s, she said. "They are thinking, these are not troublemakers, they will have something to say."

Mr Alvin Tan, founder and artistic director of The Necessary Stage, urged activists to remember that corporations and the Government can change - albeit slowly. Over the years, The Necessary Stage went from having its plays censored to being consulted and having some of its suggestions become policy.


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