Monday, 18 May 2015

The rise of civil society and advocacy in Singapore

Advocacy may be on the rise alongside a civil and vocal society, but many issues still constrain its growth.
By Willie Cheng, Published The Straits Times, 16 May 2015

IN THE social sector, individuals and groups seek to change society for the better through the contribution of their money, time and voice to social causes. Advocacy - the lending of their voice to a cause - seeks to influence policy and other decisions within the system.

When its goals are achieved, advocacy can be more effective, even conclusive, in dealing with social issues in the long term, compared with relief and welfare. This is because advocacy seeks to address root causes, and not just the symptoms. Yet, only a minority of organisations and individuals venture into advocacy. That's because advocacy is difficult, especially in Singapore.

For one thing, results, especially those that successfully pre-empt the occurrence of bad situations, are not usually visible, compared to relief efforts. In addition and in direct contrast to its enthusiastic support of charity groups that serve the poor and disadvantaged, the Government is seen as resistant, even antagonistic, towards civil society groups. This was especially so during Singapore's early years when the Government considered economic survival an imperative and civil advocacy a distraction.

Various tools have been used to limit the operating space of civil advocacy.

In 1968, the Government drew up a framework of industrial relations to rein in the early activist tendencies of the trade unions. In due course, licences and permits were needed for newspapers and other publications. Defamation suits were seen as effective in silencing dissent, as was the Internal Security Act.

Winds of change

THE 1990s brought economic growth, and the rise of a more educated middle class with greater access to alternative thoughts and ideas. Then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong promised a more consultative government. He introduced the Feedback Unit (now Reach), Speakers' Corner at Hong Lim Park and the Nominated Member of Parliament scheme.

At the same time, Mr Goh's open disapproval of Catherine Lim's essay, "The PAP and the People - A Great Affective Divide", led to the establishment of "out of bounds" markers: a golfing term now politicised to denote topics that are not permissible for public discussion.

In 2004, then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a seminal speech on civil society at a Harvard Club dinner. He spoke of how the Government would be guided by "the community with regard to morality and decency issues". He encouraged civic participation through debates on policies but warned that criticism which undermines the Government's standing would be rebutted.

The liberalisation of Singapore's civil society space in Singapore has not been a linear one. Some critics describe some developments as "one step forward, two steps back".

One example is the Government's online engagement. With the rise of new media, it has made attempts to engage citizens through the Net and social media. At the same time, in 2013, the Media Development Authority (MDA) surprised many by requiring individual licensing for websites, including blogging sites that report on Singapore news. The move was widely criticised by Singapore's online community as another restriction on press freedom.

The Government is particularly sensitive about the agenda of human rights activists. In 2010, the advocacy group Maruah was gazetted as a political association three years after it applied to become a registered society, limiting its fundraising access not just to foreign donors but also effectively to local donors.

In 2012, the Singapore Management University suddenly cancelled plans to set up the Handa Centre for Global Governance and Human Rights. There was speculation that the Government had a hand in the move.

Rise of civil society groups

NOTWITHSTANDING these challenges and constraints, various civil society groups have emerged to champion their causes and contest government practices and policies. They include the Nature Society for the environment, Transient Workers Count Too for migrant workers, Think Centre for political research, Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) for women's rights, Association of Muslim Professionals for Malay-Muslim self-help, and Maruah for human rights.

In addition, prominent theatre groups and arts organisations such as The Necessary Stage, Substation and Wild Rice have risked censorship or punitive action to explore social issues that are sometimes controversial.

In 2007, for instance, Wild Rice was allowed to stage a political play, The Campaign To Confer The Public Service Star On JBJ. However, it subsequently saw its funding cut in 2011 and 2012 because its works were deemed, according to the National Arts Council, "incompatible with the core values promoted by the Government and society". Funding returned to its original level in 2013.

In 2013, Singapore's arts community released a six-point manifesto emphasising the fundamental importance of arts in society. One point was that "art can be challenged but not censored". The Government did not fully agree.

Last year, MDA pinned a "Not Allowed For All Ratings" classification to Tan Pin Pin's political film, From Singapore, With Love. This had the effect of spiking interest in the film.

Successful advocacy

FOR advocacy to be constructive, a change in attitude is required from Government and civil society organisations. Both need to recognise that active citizenry requires volunteerism, philanthropy and advocacy.

An effective civil society needs civil society players that cooperate with the state without losing their individuality and independence. At the same time, it needs a state that is responsive to alternative views.

To be sure, there have been instances when civil society players and the state - perhaps the specific individuals involved - have found the chemistry, openness and rationale to reach common ground.

One of the most prominent examples has been the Nature Society's successful campaign in 2001 to save Chek Jawa, an area on Pulau Ubin known for its rich biodiversity, from reclamation plans. After considerable discussions with the Nature Society, the Government decided not to proceed with the reclamation.

However, in an almost parallel case, conservation groups such as SOS Bukit Brown and All Things Bukit Brown did not succeed in preserving the Bukit Brown cemetery despite having its inclusion in the 2014 World Monuments Watch list. The Government said that it had to make the "difficult trade-off decision" to exhume 5,000 graves to create a dual four-lane road through Bukit Brown.

Other successful advocacy efforts by civil society groups include:
- A new law in 2013 to give foreign domestic workers a day off every week, after a decade of petitioning by migrant NGOs.
- A rule on the evidence of character in rape cases under the Evidence Act was repealed in 2012, after representations by Aware.
- The creation of the Early Childhood Development Agency in 2013 after a Lien Foundation study which showed that Singapore ranked 29th out of 45 economies in early childhood education.
- An animal welfare Bill by a committee of animal welfare activists, grassroots leaders and industry representatives was tabled last October after two years of collaborative review.
Horizontal engagement

HOWEVER, it should be noted that civil society is not just about a vertical civil society-to-state relationship where activists campaign on a public interest issue and the Government responds.

In recent years, a horizontal peer-to-peer relationship has developed between civil society groups, and between civil society groups and citizens. The result is that these groups may campaign against each other.

One example is a 2012 proposal by the Government to build eldercare facilities in Woodlands, Toh Yi and Mountbatten, among others. Some residents protested against their loss of common space, calling for such "death houses" to be located elsewhere. Appalled by the lack of civic mindedness, 500 residents in Mountbatten countered with a "In My Back Yard" petition, effectively drowning out the protests of the 130-odd "Not In My Back Yard" (Nimby) residents.

Similarly, Aware periodically encounters pushbacks from citizens for its strong stance on gender-related matters. For example, in November 2013, it announced its success in stopping the Singapore Armed Forces from singing a misogynistic version of a popular marching song. Most of the 700 comments it received on its Facebook page were negative.

The irony for civil society is that their internal conflicts could result in the state playing the role of objective third party and even justifying regulation to resolve disputes.

For example, in response to the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender activists and their annual Pink Dot picnic at Hong Lim Park, the LoveSingapore network of churches in Singapore sought to organise a pro-family event at the Padang on the same day last year. However, the authorities rejected the application and the event went virtual.

When a Muslim leader initiated a Wear White campaign for the same day to also protest against the Red Dot event, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, a statutory board, called for Muslims not to be confrontational.

Whither advocacy

ADVOCACY will likely increase, thanks to a more vocal population that is so plugged into the power of the Internet and social media. Facebook, Twitter and their ilk embolden political activism by enabling citizens to engage and have conversations that cannot be easily managed, if at all.

Given society's changing values and a more expressive public, horizontal engagement between civil society groups and citizens will also foster greater and more intense encounters.

Lines are being drawn between groups with opposing worldviews and values - especially between conservatives and liberals, locals and foreigners, and minority and majority.

While all this leads to a messier social sector, hopefully it will help to foster a more effective sector that is more willing to identify, debate and resolve key issues that will improve society at the core for the better.

The writer is author of Doing Good Well. This article is adapted from his contribution to the book, 50 Years Of Social Issues In Singapore, edited by David Chan.

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