Contest of Ideas Critical, says NMP

Posted by Wendy Tan under Features on 6 March 2000

Fierce debates between civil society and Government can be constructive if they are non-violent, says Simon Tay. They also develop thinking minds.

CONFRONTATION from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society can be constructive if it is a non-violent effort, said Nominated MP Simon Tay on Saturday. He was speaking at the annual general meeting of the Singapore Environment Council's (SEC) Green Volunteers Network.

He said: "Would fiercely-debated discussions be seen as confrontation? Confrontation can also be a contest of ideas.

"And a contest of ideas is absolutely critical for Singaporeans to develop thinking minds and for volunteers to feel that they have a say."

He said this in response to Mr David Lim's message last week on how NGOs should base their relationship with the Government on a culture of cooperation rather than confrontation.

Mr Lim, who is the Minister of State for Defence, and Information and the Arts, cited the example of how violent demonstrations by NGOs at the World Trade Organisation's conference in Seattle last year had brought discussions to an early and disastrous end.

Mr Tay, who attended the Seattle conference as a non-governmental member from the Singapore delegation, said: "Many talk of the violence in the streets but it was a minority who turned to violence and those who did were courting trouble.

"They should not be taken to represent NGOs as a whole."

He added that there had also been a strong sense of frustration as the WTO had been a very closed-door and secretive organisation.

"That's why the ground was ripe," he said. "When someone does not listen, some will begin to shout and when people feel excluded, they will be unhappy."

And one good thing that came out of that was that change was now possible in the WTO, he said.

"It was a call to open doors that were locked. Let those who are outside come in. And this should not be seen as capitulation or a surrender."

NGOs and civil society could also play an important role when governments cannot or will not act, he said.

Citing the haze problem which is threatening to cast its pall over the region again, he said: "The unwillingness and inability of the Indonesian government to stem the fires has frustrated us, so has the inability of our Government to intervene successfully and sufficiently to stop this problem.

"But active citizens and civil-society groups can help governments by being the hands that work together."

And not only can NGOs cooperate, they can also cooperate across borders.

He said: "We can also be more critical where governments can sometimes be too polite.

"We need to criticise those who are starting the fires and help those who are trying to stop them as well.

"If we work at the NGO level, we can start to analyse which companies are doing this and maybe look at other tools to get to the nub of the problem -- which is that a minority of companies are setting big fires because it's the cheapest way to clear land.

"They're making money out of it, so we have to hit them where it hurts."

At Saturday's SEC meeting, its volunteers discussed how they can help spread the environmental message.

Ways to create greater awareness of the environment with a view to expanding the role of the council's Green Volunteers Network were also discussed.

NGOs CAN HELP WITH HAZE

'IF WE work at the NGO level, we can start to analyse which companies are doing this and maybe look at other tools to get to the nub of the problem -- which is that a minority of companies are setting big fires because it's the cheapest way to clear land. They're making money out of it, so we have to hit them where it hurts,' said NMP Simon Tay at the Singapore Environment Council's Green Volunteers Network AGM.


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