Rules of engagement for a civil, civil society

At a recent Institute of Policy Studies conference on the development of Singapore’s civil society, I had said that on our crowded island we would need more rules, not fewer.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me try to make my position clear —

• There are currently 7,600 persons per square kilometre in Singapore. A figure of up to 10,000 persons per square kilometre by 2030 is not beyond the realm of possibility.

• Singapore society is becoming more diverse, with roughly one in five inhabitants coming from abroad.

• Technology – and in particular the internet – will foster the creation of interest groups. Although such groups may not necessarily be political, there will inevitably be cause for friction between them. And the internet naturally provides a ready forum for flame wars of great intensity.

Not always government versus citizens

Interest groups form precisely because people have common interests.  But it would be a mistake to assume that all interest groups are inevitably anti-government. Politics may actuate some, but most are apolitical. This is evident in groups interested in the environment, culture, heritage, the arts, crafts, hobbies, sports and so forth. Foreigners who live and work in Singapore will also form their own formal and informal support groups.

The friction will not always be between that great brooding omnipresence known as THE GOVERNMENT (as some people see it) and helpless citizens. Civil society groups will present competing interests too.

Take nature for example. Human encroachment has nibbled away at the jungle; nibbled is perhaps the wrong word – great bites have been taken out of the green heart of the island. Monkeys and wild boars are driven to seek food near human habitations. People fear being mugged by a monkey.

There are calls for a culling. The nature groups are appalled.

Nature groups versus residents’ groups: the battle lines are drawn.

As another example, take the debate on the repeal of Section 377A of the penal code, which criminalises sex between two men. The clash is between those who want the section repealed and those who oppose this. The government seems to be almost a bystander in the debate, having decided on a totally unsatisfactory compromise: keep the section but don’t enforce it (this raises all kinds of questions about constitutional separation of powers and the desirability of keeping a criminal law that will not be enforced, but it is another issue altogether).

The debate between the two camps has often been far from civil.

An opportunity cost on a crowded island

In some countries (I will not name them, they know who they are) disagreements between interest groups are fought out by direct action – farmers blocking major roads to press their demands, gangs of feral youths rampaging on May Day looking for trouble with the police, anti-capitalists occupying public spaces to disrupt business.

Now, if this is the kind of society that we want, then by all means, let us cut back on the rules.  But this kind of disruptive behaviour affects ordinary people. In Berlin I had a driver, a Bangladeshi gentleman who was a valued employee. He lived in Kreuzberg. On May Day, he could not leave his apartment because anyone with dark skin was likely to be attacked by the gangs who regularly ‘celebrate’ this occasion by rioting, in the name of liberty.

Of course, people will say that this is scaremongering, that such behaviour is an extreme case. This is true, but things do not have to go that far to become disruptive.  Singapore’s roads are functioning at full capacity; the least obstruction – a broken-down car, road works – creates jams and bottlenecks. How would people react to gridlock caused by a march on a public road organised to push some interest group’s agenda?

Some may applaud such action. But will these same people be happy if they miss an examination or a job interview or a flight because the roads are jammed? On a crowded island, there is an opportunity cost to be paid for behaviour of this sort.

The internet will of course be a major battleground between interest groups. In person, one seldom resorts to insults unless one is looking for a fight or has a sociopathic disregard for others. There is a measure of self-restraint because rude and aggressive people can be identified, and most people still value the good opinion of others. That self-restraint disappears in the anonymity of cyberspace. But words hurt, and a festering wound can poison relations for years.

The rules of engagement

Coming back to the issue of rules: they do not have to be imposed by THE GOVERNMENT. If we are to live together on this island without life becoming totally unbearable, we have to work out rules on how civil society groups engage the rest of society.

May I suggest a few:

• If you want to protest, try not to disrupt the lives of others who are not involved. You will win more sympathy from the uncommitted that way.

• You do not necessarily win your argument by shouting loudly in public (or on the internet). The other side is more likely to be intransigent if shouted at rather than cajoled.  It is no coincidence that mediation and diplomacy are conducted in private.

• Attack ideas, not persons. Insults are the last refuge of the intellectually bankrupt.

• Avoid name-calling, even when justified. No idiot ever became wiser because he was told to his face that he was an idiot.

• Do not attack the umpire just because you do not like the rules of the game. We are all bound by the law, whether we like it or not. The people who enforce the rules are just doing their jobs. If you do not like the rules, there is a proper way to get them changed; attacking the enforcers is not the way.

• Finally, do not expect to get your own way all the time. The only ones who do not have to take others’ views into account are those who live alone. Community means compromise.

Life would be so much more pleasant if only people would get along; but if they cannot, they should at least disagree without being disagreeable.

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