Role of Civil Service in Civil Society

Posted by Simon S.C. Tay, Zulkifli Baharudin and Cherian George under Features on 17 February 2000

THERE has recently been considerable discussion of civil society in Singapore. Younger ministers such as Brigadier-General (NS) George Yeo and Rear-Admiral (NS) Teo Chee Hean have followed up on Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's call to develop civil society and an active people sector.

The most recent call by Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for citizens to speak up and participate should be seen in this context. It continues, and strengthens, government endorsement for civil society.

Some citizens have responded to these encouragements. Others remain on the sidelines, calling for greater tolerance and a rolling back of controls before they join in.

Civil society in Singapore is not developing at a dynamic pace. Progress has been incremental at best. The recent article by Roundtable members Kevin Tan, Lam Peng Er and Valentine Winslow examines some reasons why.Should more be done?

There may be no need to hurry. A deliberate pace allows state and citizens to develop the capacities and attitudes for cooperation.

However, there are good reasons to avoid an impasse.

After all the government statements, if there is no marked progress, the Singaporean who is bred on effective action may begin to question if the Government really means what it says.

On their part, groups which remain on the sidelines risk government writing civil society off. The current opening and encouragements may cease. Cynicism can rise.

Three additional dimensions may be useful to the discussion about civil society. The first of this refers to events and driving forces outside Singapore. The latter two dimensions focus on local governance and the civil service.


THERE has been an international tide rising in favour of civil society. Recent events to disrupt the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle demonstrate the growing strength of such groups.

Civil society is promoted by globalisation. People communicate more freely across borders. They also recognise greater interdependencies in economic growth, environmental problems, and the human condition. When faced with uncooperative governments, groups can draw information, publicise their cause and gather support from international links.

Governments must recognise the international trends that encourage and legitimise the growth of civil society within the nation. Civil society is a tide no present or future government should ignore.

Our nation has always been open to the international community in matters of commerce and economic activity. Increasingly, economic openness interacts with social and political openness.

The creativity and critical thinking that are essential to the new economy cannot be confined to business matters. Creative and thinking people will turn their minds to society.

A more active civil society can bring many benefits. It can help identify problems as they arise and suggest responses. It can go further to actually help implement solutions.

A system that welcomes participation can therefore be more effective than a centrally-planned state. It is also more likely to win hearts, and root people to Singapore.

At the international level, too, there is greater scope. Seattle demonstrates that, increasingly, it is no longer only the governments which speak for the states. International organisations and negotiations are increasingly open to the interests, opinions and expertise of citizens. Civil-society groups can often speak up legitimately and effectively.

There has been some movement in Singapore. Women's groups in Singapore decried the rapes of ethnic Chinese in Jakarta in mid-1998. Our environmentalists have increasingly called for action on the Indonesian fires and the resulting haze. Singaporean doctors and other volunteers have also been involved in giving humanitarian and other help in Bintan and elsewhere.

More can be allowed and encouraged in an international community that increasingly wants to hear from citizens, and not only ministers. It can lend Singapore a slightly different voice, which can be both more critical, and more altruistic.


A SECOND dimension for Singaporean civil society is in local governance. Singapore remains a very centralised state, but more can and needs to be done at the local level. This is sometimes forgotten by civil-society groups which over-focus on the national level. Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan's recent statement on CDCs is timely.

Since the 1980s, more activities and responsibilities have been devolved to town councils and, more recently, Community Development Councils (CDCs), another initiative of PM Goh. Social assistance and the mediation of disputes are moving from the centre to the local community.

There is great potential in this. Decisions that affect local people can be given over to local decision-making processes. Having a greater say in matters of immediate impact will help demonstrate the importance of taking part. A higher level of activity and a greater fit to local circumstances can result.

On the other hand, devolution can potentially lead to more inefficiencies and inequities. Duplications and decisions of doubtful fairness can result. Much depends on how ready the local institutions and civil society are for new responsibilities.

An important part of the answer is to get more, and better, people into organisations at the local level. A difficulty is that many Singaporeans perceive residents' committees and community centres as part of the PAP apparatus.

It does not help that CDCs are divided along political lines, singling out opposition-held Potong Pasir and Hougang. This should change. Only then will more good people come out to participate. Only then, can the centre devolve more responsibilities with the assurance that local solutions will be fair and workable.

Further down the road, some system of accountability at the local level may need to be instituted. Perhaps elections for local councils and CDCs may be desirable.

It should not always be that CDCs must be chaired by a Member of Parliament. If capable and suitable local leaders arise, and are endorsed by their community, there is no reason why they should not take up the chal-lenge and responsibility.

Civil-society groups can also assist in enriching CDCs with their expertise. Some have the skills and special knowledge to run or advise on programmes.

Social-work NGOs, for example, might help put the right policies in place for the care of children, the aged, and others.

Women's groups can help audit local governance to ensure equality between the sexes. Environmental groups could help train local volunteers on the conservation and care of nature areas in the vicinity.

Some grassroots organisations can benefit from stronger multi-racial representation and participation. Where minority representation is low, a CDC may seem less important to minorities than the self-help groups at the national level.

Civil-society groups can help bring in a stronger multi-racial element to lessen such tendencies and strengthen community bonding for all.

Some civil-society groups can, and should, be encouraged to operate from CDCs to be more in touch with the community.

While more should engage at the international level, this should be complemented by local actions too.

If CDCs offer them office, and other space, this would help reduce costs. On their part, civil-society activities at the CDC level would help break the mindset that you must be part of the PAP. Local funding can also give more resources and relevance to CDCs and civil society.

Another important dimension is to make sure that civil servants have the right mindset when they administer CDCs.

They must be mature enough, and also open-minded enough, to learn new ways of working with the community and civil-society groups.


CIVIL-SERVICE engagement with civil society is only beginning. The current civil service head, Mr Lim Siong Guan, has sent the right signals, but it is less clear if the signal has carried all the way down the line.

Examples of civil-service intransigence still abound. The Urban Redevelopment Authority is an example. Its plans to redevelop the city core and tear down the National Library have provoked considerable public concern.

A group of citizens, led by architect Tay Kheng Soon, have exhibited an alternative plan that would save the building as well as some green areas.

The URA has not made a substantive response to this plan, or the underlying request that it reconsider its own plans.

The point is not that civil- society groups are always right. It is that the civil service and other institutions should listen and respond.

If the ideas are sensible and well thought through, they deserve a fair and even- handed reply on the issues.

If there are good reasons for government agencies to stick to their decisions, these, too, should be explained.

The URA's silence is deafening, when we consider that government leaders have endorsed engaging civil society and active citizens.

Nor is it a singular incident. The Public Utilities Board refused to engage in public discussion over its use of nature reserves to develop water-storage tanks.

The Singapore Tourism Board only discussed its plans for Chinatown after the calls and criticisms of civil-society groups grew loud.

If national-level agencies respond this way, local governance is unlikely to be better. This is especially if they are run by too many junior staff, and others, who know or care little for local issues.


SUCH cases of refusal and reluctance by government agencies damage the credibility of their ministers when they continue to endorse the idea that Government is willing to listen and debate.

The record of many private corporations is better in this regard. After worldwide controversies about the Brent Spar oil-rig and its role in Nigeria, Shell is expressly recognising communities as stakeholders.

There are also local examples of companies that listen and respond. Perhaps it is because such companies have competitors, and value their customer and community relations more.

In such examples, we see parts of the larger context. There are good and strong reasons to give greater acceptance to civil society in Singapore, both locally and internationally.

Its role, however, depends not just on what government leaders say. We must ask how ready civil-society groups are, and how ready local institutions and civil service are to respond, accommodate and engage them.

The cliche that it takes two hands to clap applies. In the case of civil society in Singapore, there would be much to applaud.

Show some love,

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