Singapore Ready for a More Civil Society

Posted by James Gomez under Features on 17 February 2000

IT is no longer a case that Singapore's nascent civil society has to develop by incremental gains, there is now a window of opportunity for a vertical take-off.

Singapore 21 (S21), a government launched initiative, has called on Its citizens to practice active citizenship and shape the Singapore that they want to live in.

Primarily motivated by economics, the PAP government went on a mammoth consultation exercise with 6000 people. Its purpose, to keep the republic relevant for the knowledge-based economy. The findings in the report have been published last year as what Singaporeans want for the future of their country.

This added with a recent spate of liberalisation in the Republic's financial and telecommunication sectors has created an expectation that state-society relations are loosening up in Singapore.

In such an environment Singapore's civil society must be prepared to change its mindset and seize the opportunity for a vertical take-off. The model of incremental change is no longer helpful in this fast changing environment. The citizens have to adopt a new model of alteration for the millennium and be ready to make a quantum change.

The Politics 21 initiative by the Think Centre (an independent research centre) and Socratic Circle (a policy discussion group) has done precisely this. Taking at face value the government's call for its citizens to practice active citizenship and shape the Singapore that they want to live in, the Politics21 (P21) series was launched to raise political awareness and fill the political gap in the government's S21 process in October 99.

After organisng three forums and receiving a warning from the local police for organising the first forum without a licence, the group has weathered the storm and has developed a programme for the year. Among the many projects that this group has initiated in response to police demands for licences to organise public talks is a review of the Republic's muzzle - the Public Entertainments Act. In doing so, this new group has secured a crucial bridge head for civil society development in Singapore.

Presently the two existing political discussion groups the Roundtable and Socratic circle are contemplating proposing changes to their constitution that will have a bearing on their ability to organise activities for the public. The government's earlier conditions were that these groups could only register if they restrict their activities to members.

But if their attempts to change their constitutions to organise public events are successful, there will be further changes to the civil society landscape. Public debate over issues of national concern will increase and their coverage in the media will also increase. Thereby creating a greater awareness.

Nevertheless, there is a challenge in positioning civil society for a vertical take-off. In a country where self-censorship continues to be the biggest hindrance to innovation, there will be segments that will hold themselves back willingly or hang on to the words of politicians in government as when is the right time for change and the best method of effecting change.

Bureaucrats will waver in their position as gatekeepers. Civil servants will have to learn to go easy on administrative and policy guidelines that affect the effective operations of the civil society.

In this climate, civil society in Singapore will not take-off as a single bloc and one should not expect it to do so either. But rather to accept that they will operate as disparate groups organised along an immediate set of interests and willingness as to how far each group or individual will want to contribute in active citizenship, and how engaged they want to be in policy development.

Thus, when thinking of a quantum change, civil society groups and individuals will not en masse do the vertical take-off, each will take-off at different times and different speeds. It will also see a situation where different groups will form different alliances for different causes. Such alliances will shift from issue to issue and moment to moment. And in an increasingly globalised word it would involve forming alliances within and without.

Regional and international networking would an important component in this alliance. The attempt to keep regional and international networking possibilities away from the few independent NGOs will no longer be an easy task for the Singaporean government and neither is it desirable if the Republic's civil society is to take its rightful place in the global arena. The continued presence of government officials or representatives from quasi-government bodies in the regional and international civil society circuit has to be replaced by real civil society actors from the ground.

The civil society vertical take-off will impact politics in Singapore. The ruling party will have realise that the opposition will make ground. The opposition parties also see a window of opportunity. In this context each political party will be involved in its own attempt to ensure that their advantage is not compromised. Civil society will be caught right in the middle of this competition.

Look out too for commentators, observers and those who will only stand on the sidelines and say that civil society and some of the actors are engaging in politics and masquerading as politicians. The line between civil society and political society so artificially drawn by the state and kept in by rhetoric by no less than some civil society actors themselves will be very telling.

However, the civil society vertical take-off impact will be greatest on the role of political parties. The PAP and otherwise. What will replace them will a system of networks - the political party will only act as a legal conduit and a symbol of mobilisation for electioneering. A system that has suppressed political expression for so long can no longer prevent 4 to 6 people from a variety of fields to come together for that vertical take-off even in general elections if they were serious about politics.

Singapore is at a crossroad. Its institutions need reinventing and liberalising and presently civil society holds the key. Politics 21, one the many new initiatives in the Republic holds an important key in contributing to this development.

There are some eyes that are watching this development with special interest. We in civil society are watching them too. The time for incremental change is over, Singapore needs to make a quantum change. The Republic's civil society is gearing itself for its very important vertical take-off.

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