Managing Diversities
Contemplations on Civil Society circa 2013

By Gillian Koh

Based on discussions at the IPS Conference on Civil Society 2013, 11 November, Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel.

It has been an all too long fifteen years since the Institute of Policy Studies held its first conference on civil society. There have been significant developments in the landscape of voluntary and association life in that time – new facets have emerged and some aspects of how it operates have become even more critical to consider than before.
Then and Now

In May 1998 when we held that landmark meeting, all applications to register a society went through a slow track with no responsibility by the Registry to explain its decision if they were denied.  There was no such thing as Speakers’ Corner, much less any consideration of whether and where one could organise a demonstration.  Mention migrant workers and you thought of the Marxist Conspiracy.  If you wanted to write and stage a play, you knew you had to answer to the police.  In terms of their standing with the government, the ‘helping hands’ voluntary welfare sector and grassroots network under the People’s Association were the ‘welcomed half’.  The ‘thinking heads’ of independent groups, who added public advocacy to their service, adversaries.

In 2013, some rules relating to civil society have been liberalised as those of us attending several protest rallies of 2013 at Hong Lim can attest to.

Technology and specifically, new and social media, has thrown up a new breed of civic actors and forms of activism that mobilise the public more widely and quickly around hot button public issues.  Some will argue that this is the game-changer and the government is playing catch up here.  Of course, in the recent ‘hijab debate’, most of us were left breathless by the instant, visceral and certainly unpleasant reactions to the issue, so this development is both good and bad.

The Societies Act now more finely pinpoints the sorts of organisations that can be refused registration and the reasons – the list includes those that attend to areas of ethnicity, religion, language, gender, sexual orientation, governance, civil, human, environmental animal rights, as well as pugilistic skills!  Yes, a long list.  The groups whose declared objectives leave them outside this list enjoy automatic registration.  Some of the leading organisations in civil society are ACRES that addresses animal welfare, Transient Workers Count Too on migrant workers, Maruah on human rights.  They did get registered.  People Like Us on gay issues however, never did.  The new category of ‘political associations’ like Maruah and The Online Citizen however face stronger regulation especially with regard to fund-raising.  Life has not become easier for them.

In the areas of the arts and expression, the government has more clearly adopted and institutionalised a process of engagement.  While the fact that there is public consultation on censorship rules is not new, there is now greater use of citizen advisory councils to consider and deliver decisions on a wide range of issues.  There are schedules of organisations and artists qualified by their track record that get “green lane” approval for their work ostensibly from the Media Development Authority, not the police.

On the question of civil society’s contribution to policy development and decisions, it is clear that groups in the area of nature and heritage conservation, animal welfare, women’s and migrant workers’ right have managed to make an impact. Think of the dismantling of the gender quotas in medical school, the introduction of the maid’s day off rule even amidst public outcry, the new more compassionate regime in recognising the rights of injured migrant workers.  On a different score, this week, advocates against the death penalty celebrate the court’s decision to spare a drug courier the gallows because judges now have discretionary power to impose life terms in place of a mandatory death sentence previously.

On nature and heritage, a moratorium was placed on the redevelopment of Chek Jawa, which we hope will remain for a long time to come.  Nature advocates have regularly given input on the country’s green and sustainability plans, and although regrettably, the advocacy to save all of Bukit Brown was not successful, government plans were adjusted.

The government has taken steps to institutionalise the process of engaging the public and civil society by making the requirement that all new policies and rules have benefitted from their input before they are presented to the Cabinet for decision-making.   As is the case with the arts and media, the government recently announced that there will be a division in its heritage conservation agency that will ensure that the impact of prospective plans to redevelop or save monuments or historical sites would have been thoroughly discussed with broader stakeholders in society.  So institutions are being designed to enable engagement to happen.
The Bigger Picture

Taking a step back, the developments are not a linear progression towards liberalisation or a free-for-all.  The picture is more diverse and complex; regulation has become more nuanced with more room for free-play but tighter in areas that the government is most concerned about.

From the discussion at this year’s conference however, what is also clear is that there have been firm and positive steps towards engagement between civil society and the government; the outcomes in terms of policies and decisions may not always be what civil society actors feel are ideal but there has been progress to benefit of broader society.  Perseverance, patience and staying in the game have been important.

Nominated Member of Parliament, Ms Faizah Jamal who spoke at the second plenary session highlighted the need to adopt the ‘language’ of engagement to sustain a constructive relationship between the nature lobby and the government.  While it felt let down in the Bukit Brown Saga, it hopes that this language will lead to a more fruitful outcome in discussing a project that is just as critical in its impact on nature conservation and the biodiversity of Singapore – the cross-island MRT line.

Alvin Tan of The Necessary Stage (TNS) who spoke at the same session described the extraordinary tale of how a theatre company and its work moved from being severely proscribed to becoming accepted and ‘mainstreamed’ – think of the text of its play on mental illness, ‘Off Centre’ first, disavowed by its would-be commissioning agent in the government to now, when it is a basic school text for literature.  The banned form of Forum Theatre that TNS was associated with is now widely used.

Louis Lim of ACRES who was among the participants said that he and his group have not compromised on any of their positions on animal welfare but have nevertheless also found many areas in which to cooperate with the government and deliver guidance as well as services that to the public and animals.  He won spontaneous applause for this offering that day at the Conference.  If people ask activists: ‘do you want a place at the table or lobby the government?’, tell them it is a false choice.

There may however be limits to this this sort of vertical engagement between the government and civil society.  Researcher Yolanda Chin, speaker in the first plenary session, in referring to that thorny national population issue said that not all problems can or should be staunched by civil society, nor would it want such a role.  This is especially in areas of public policy where the gap between government action and public aspirations are far too wide; when the problem or solutions are deemed to lie squarely in the realm of government action.
Three Operating Principles for Governance and the Relationship Between Government, Civil Society and People for the Future

Pulling all the threads together, three key operating principles emerge that must continue guide us as we look to the future: first, the responsibility to engage.  Civil society actors have noted the progress that has come about both in terms of the process of engagement and the outcomes of policy and legislation but they want to know how this process can be institutionalised further.  Walter Woon, in the opening plenary session, mentioned how civil servants and younger government ministers now often share the same sense of fairness, justice and broader social and political values that drive activists.  While that is a good thing, it should be reinforced by embedding the rationale, skills and that language Faizal referred to, deep into the governance system.

It is ever more critical as civil society itself, like the populace becomes more diverse and policy development is mired in contests between achieving different definitions of what is the public good – it is good that people are at liberty to make their own lifestyle choices, while it is good that we uphold family and cultural values as we traditionally know them.  It is good to conserve our natural and built heritage, while it is also good where we can make room of new homes and roads for our immediate sense of quality of life.  There have to platforms where the mediation among the desires of multiple stakeholders can take place.  The good practice from multi-channelled Our Singapore Conversation, where there was the interaction among different members of the public as well as between then and government leaders has to be reinforced.

Implicit in that is the second principle – the responsibility to compromise.  Again, all sides have to trust that each is well-intentioned until proven otherwise.  Each has to adopt an ‘intercultural’ approach to engagement where they set out to uncover and appreciate the value system, the organisational culture and motivations of the other to identify what seem to be the non-negotiables in what each wants, and what there can be give and take on.  This learning needs to be recorded and remembered in the larger government system.  Woon reminded the conference that as we get more crowded and become a society of greater diversity, there will be intra-civil society conflict. Finally, it would be important that all sides have had equal access to the information on the issue at hand.

The spirit of compromise, and the art of agreeing to disagree, agreeably will have to developed. “The brat response” as Woon termed it, of being fixed in a position until one gets one’s way, should be rejected.  While it is possible that new rules and laws may be needed to guide our public life, and the courts and general elections always the final arbiters in the worst case, it is the ‘habits of the heart’ that must lead.  This is what Kwok Kian Woon on the second plenary session called ‘soft law’.  We need to trumpet the civic virtues of reasoning, discretion and finally, humility which will help us realise we can make decisions that are contingent on the setting and best available knowledge and then leave it to those who follow to do better.

The third principle is the responsibility to act.  This is what emerged in the many stories of activists.  In addition to those of Faizah, Tan and Ng, Corinna Lim of Aware cited in a parallel session at the Conference, its 2012 ‘End All Violence To Women’ campaign which sought to mobilise opinion makers to alert their networks to call out spousal abuse where they see it. Caritas aims to do the same with its new campaign on poverty targeted at the broader public to precipitate change at their level.  The Lien Foundation has gone ahead to pilot new forms of pre-school education that help disadvantaged kids level-up rather than wait for some national curriculum to arrive.

Riding on social networks, greater civic action can be brought to bear on reducing litter, illegal parking, dengue hotspots; on promoting greater cross-cultural interaction in our neighbourhoods.  The petitionary culture has to be reduced as it diminishes us as a people.  Rules or laws or government action may be necessary but insufficient to produce the pro-social behaviour we need, and the government may sometimes have to loosen some of the reins to allow ground-up initiatives to take shape.

In fact, in some areas, the peer-to-peer action would be far more effective.  If a public intellectual is ‘flamed’ for his calls for more cautious discussion and negotiation before any decision to allow the hijab to be worn in the nursing profession, we should reject uncivil aggression. If the aim of hacktivists like Anonymous is to mobilise the public on the freedom of expression or the press, we have to tell perpetrators that they do not do these acts on our behalf and ask how their means justify the ends.  Kwok wisely reminded of that Gandhian maxim, ‘the means we employ are ends in the making’.

The responsibility to engage, the responsibility to compromise and the responsibility to act – these are the habits that have to be more broadly propagated to take us on a clear evolution towards a progressive, civilised and inclusive society.

Please do keep an eye out for more reports on IPS’s Conference on Civil Society.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies.

A shortened version was first published in the Straits Times on 22 November 2013.

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