Singapore's Civil Society is Poised for a Vertical Take-Off

Posted by James Gomez under Public Forums on 28 January 2000

Speech of first speakers for the Non-Partisanship Forum.

Welcome all, you have heard the term stand up and speak up in Singapore social and political commentaries. Now there is a new term that we need to add to our social-political vocabulary, that is LOOK UP. Ladies and gentleman I want you to bear with a little as you look up. What do you see? I know its the ceiling and if you were outside the sky, maybe the stars.

Try to remember what you see. This is the view that you will be in front of you in your drivers' seat when you witness what is going to happen next in Singapore's civil society. It is no longer a case that civil society has to develop by incremental gains, there is a window of opportunity with S21 initiative and the liberalisation of our financial, telecomm, broadcast and other economic sectors therefore we must be ready for a VERTICAL TAKE-OFF. All systems are go. This is the year for Singapore's civil society and we must be prepared to seize the opportunity for that very crucial vertical take-off. We can no longer talk about an incremental change we have to adopt a new model of change for the millennium and do a QUANTAM CHANGE.

Politics 21 - the Think Centre and Socratic Circle initiative has done precisely this. After organisng three forums and having developed a programme for the year, we have secured a crucial bridge head and we believe it will have positive effects on civil society development in Singapore.

Right now 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. Please confirm the specific details of such a review directly with the chairs of vice-chairs of the respective organisations. But if their attempts to change their constitutions to organise public events is 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. There will be segments that will impose self-checking 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. It is a position they have been for too long. Civil servant will have to learn to go easy on administrative and policy guidelines that affect the effective operations of the civil society. In this regard, I am please to inform that the Think Centre is presently engaged in study to facilitate a review of the Public Entertainments Act. Politicians on all sides will also increasing become apprehensive of their own roles and what they once thought was their monopoly over policy formulation.

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 I speak of a vertical take-off civil society groups and individuasl 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 alliance 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 government and neither is it desirable if Singapore'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 has to be replaced by real civil society actors on the ground.

And now a word on politics. The civil society vertical take-off will impact politics in Singapore. Let's be clear about that and not kid ourselves that this will not happen. The ruling party will have realise that the opposition will make ground, the opposition parties will also see a window of opportunity. Each will be involved in its own attempt to ensure their advantage is not compromised. Civil society will be caught right in the middle of this evolution. Look out for commentators, observers and those who will only stand on the sideline 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 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. It cannot prevent 4 to 6 people from a variety of fields to come together for that vertical take-off if they were serious about politics.

Singapore is at a crossroad. Our institutions need reinventing and liberalising and presently civil society holds the key. Politics 21 holds an important key in contributing to this development. There are some eyes that are watching this development with special interest. And we are watching them too. The time for incremental change is over, we have to switch to the mode of quantum change. By being here today you have joined us for that very important VERTICAL TAKE-OFF.

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