The Singapore government’s tight grip over civil society is stifling its growth, according to activists that took part in a panel discussion on the issue on Wednesday.
Speaking on the role of civil society in Singapore, Siew Kum Hong, vice-president of human rights advocacy group MARUAH, said that the People Action Party government’s stance that civil society must be “something to be chosen or not chosen, something to be approved or disapproved, something to be controlled” lay at the core of the matter.
“Fundamentally, it’s about control, and I feel that this government today has control, believes it is entitled to that control, and I disagree with that. I don’t think that’s right,” he said.
A meeting of minds?
His comments came after Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Janice Koh, who was in the audience, asked the panelists what civil society needed to do in order to make a greater impact on policy change.
Responding to that question, Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng acknowledged that the government should accept that civil groups have valid opinions and suggestions.
“But at the same time, the civil group must also understand that the government has to balance a lot of interests,” he noted. “So I think both sides must be open-minded and then there can be a meeting space, a meeting of minds, and hopefully something good, something constructive will come out.”
Institute of Policy Studies research fellow Gillian Koh, another member of the five-person panel, said that it was important for the government to listen not only to civic society — the people serving groups in need but not doing advocacy — but also civil society, the groups that serve but also speak out and call for change.
Constance Singam, former president of women’s rights group AWARE, argued that in order to arrive at a balance between the interests of the various parties involved in an issue, it was imperative for different views to be taken into consideration.
“There will be conservative views, there will be radical views, there will be liberal views — the point is to arrive at a balance,” she said. “You need to listen to everybody to arrive at that balance.”
She raised the instance of how the government was trying to push through a bill for a law empowering police to strip-search people in Little India even before its appointed Committee of Inquiry has had the chance to share any findings it might have on possible causes of the 8 December riots.
She lamented that the fact that no one spoke against it was testament to “the sad state of civil society in Singapore”.
Balance of power must shift, say activists
Siew responded to Baey by saying he felt that the respect accorded between the two parties must be equal — currently, in his view, it is not.
“The respect of the government has not just to be about knowledge and passion; it has to be about respect of the rights of citizens to act, to organise and to assemble — and so respect is both ways, and it has to be full respect,” Siew said.
Siew, who is also a former NMP, raised the examples of how with regard to animal welfare, there was a good relationship between activists and the government, whereas in human rights it was a different story.
The state of the relationship between the parties, therefore, hinges on how “threatened” the government feels by the agenda of the advocacy group, he added.
“What would really precipitate (lasting change in Singapore) is if the balance of power is a lot less skewed (in favour of the government),” said Siew, noting that power is currently concentrated within the government, which decides on the parameters of action and discussion on a host of issues.
“I think we need to see a lot more weakening in that, and then you get a much more healthy environment where citizens who are not politicians, who are outside of government… can come together, have a really strong voice and be respected for that, and really influence the outcome of policymaking.”
Weighing in as a panelist, Intercultural Theatre Institute director T. Sasitharan also said it was important to examine and understand the type of democracy that existed in Singapore.
“Do you have a healthy democracy that enables this kind of confrontation and contestation to take place within society, or do you have a repressive authoritarian society? That’s the question — it’s not about how civil society people should behave… but you know there is another side to this coin which needs to be looked at too,” he said.
The panel was held in conjunction with the launch of SALT, an independent publication by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre on Wednesday evening.