It was a diverse line-up of speakers – of journalists, activists and advocates, lawyers and academics – with vastly dissimilar interests and backgrounds, tasked to address broad themes on civil society action and advocacy. And a crowd of 120 involved or interested in advocacy had gathered at the National University of Singapore (NUS) to hear more from them. Through plenary sessions and group discussions “Apa Itu Activist?”, organised by a group of individuals and the Yale-NUS International Relations and Political Association (YIRPA) and supported by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), the High Commission of Canada, and YIRPA last Saturday, sought to not only enrich present public discourse, but also to share experiences and strategies for future endeavours in Singapore.
Yet to make sense of such diversity in a day was ambitious. What makes an activist? How is the image of the activist constructed, if their beliefs, causes, and methods differed? And with the persistence of state boundaries how can – and how should – individuals respond?
Determining the state of activism in Singapore – vis-à-vis countries in the region – was therefore a good starting point. J. Michael Cole, a journalist and photographer based in Taiwan, and Syahredzan Johan, who is on the Bar Council Malaysia and Malaysian Bar, spoke about civil society movements in the countries they covered. In Taiwan “the legitimate opposition parties and legislators have not been effective”, Mr. Cole shared, “and we need a third party”. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have had long traditions of street rallies and protests, and with the rise of “guerrilla-styled activism”, through which five groups of people could be targeting different government agencies at the same time, movements for a free media and same-sex marriage (and against it) have transpired.
It would be tempting to regard such vibrancy as an indicator for success, but “[the size of movements] does not necessarily matter”. “It is about keeping the government on its toes, making it uncomfortable”, he said, “and then drawing attention to a cause”. And because these causes are so varied NGOs can be “territorial”, and do not necessarily work well with one another. In this vein the Sunflower Movement earlier this year was unique, for bringing together a coalition of students and civic groups to protest the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, perceived to be economically and politically detrimental to Taiwan. Major rallies, covered by the international media, culminated in the occupation of the legislative chamber.
A Freedom of Information Act in Singapore
The Malaysians too have rallied behind a common movement. The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) brought citizens and NGOs together in 2007, 2011, and 2012, to campaign for free and fair elections in the country. After the elections in 2008 activism became more “hip … [and it also became] a badge of honour”, Mr. Johan reckoned, but cooperation in civil society was still limited. No collaborative undertakings have since “reached the success of Bersih 2.0 [in 2011], in terms of getting mainstream support”. Bersih mobilised the normal, everyday person, who participated on the Internet and on the streets. The Malaysian government’s forceful reactions and casting of aspersions only placed it in a bad light.
So can this notion of a common cause take root in Singapore, where advocacy is often disparate and short-lived?
Perhaps advocating for a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in Singapore – where, according to AWARE’s Research and Advocacy Director Vivienne Wee, we have a “very truncated public sphere” – is that tangible next step. At the federal level in the United States the FOIA allows for the disclosure of information and documents held by the government, to keep citizens in the know. Dr. Wee argued that while Singaporean activists continue to “occupy all available spaces” in social media, public consultation, as well as campaigns, lobbying for a FOIA in Singapore is important because the Act will help the research process for advocacy, so as to rigorously “make a case [for causes, by] building a body of evidence”.
Calls for a FOIA in Singapore are not new. In 2011 Member-of-Parliament Pritam Singh explored the benefits of a FOIA, positing that “no politician should be beyond reproach and a commitment to open government files for historical scrutiny are important features of a politically mature society”. Over the years journalists and parliamentarians have also lamented imprecise responses – especially those pertaining to specific figures – from the government. Fundamentally, lawyer Choo Zheng Xi contended that such a legislation will force bureaucrats to make their case on regulations more clearly and consistently, and is “a good starting point [to discuss] the relationship between the people and the government”.
The Politics of Civil Society
What should happen in the interim? More urgently, can advocacy strategies be situated in the broader political context?
Since causes in civil society are by nature marginalised by the main political process, Mr. Choo believes it is about “shaping our discourse as normative, as meta-political, and as values-neutral”. The #FreeMyInternet campaign in 2013, of which he was a founding member, was framed deliberately as a “party-neutral exercise”. Tay Lai Hock, founder and Kampung Chief of Ground-Up Initiative (GUI), thinks one has to find “crevices and potholes” within strong constraints. On the day of the forum Mr. Tay announced that after years of back-and-forth negotiations with the government and its civil servants GUI was expanding its operations at Bottle Tree Park in Yishun for the next six years.
Through the power of community involvement and support from the government GUI has built a Kampung in cosmopolitan Singapore. To engage the government, Mr. Tay continued, one needs to have stamina, to be righteous. Yet some in attendance noted that the government adopted a pick-and-choose approach. While it might be open to talks in areas like nature, issues such as labour strikes and the Internal Security Act are completely non-negotiable.
Further scepticism was articulated during the group discussions, which centred on entrenched state boundaries and the role of the media. Some were critical of the government’s call for civil society to stay away from politics, because actors have to question the fundamental structures which define the country. Negotiation and circumvention can only go so far. The over-emphasis on administrative implementation – of how socio-economic policies should be shaped – has sequestered politics, and could have limited the trajectories of advocates. Advocates can continue to appeal to the affective dimensions, but should remain cognisant of the licensing schemes, denial of resources, and judicial actions which are staunchly in place.
If civil society is defined broadly as the space between the individual and the state, then activism and advocacy must go beyond those at the forum.
In other words are we ready to reach out beyond the room, to engage those who might be against our movements or ideals, literary and cultural critic Nazry Bahrawi asked. To engage activists like Pastor Lawrence Khong, for instance. Within this broad space too he pointed out that critical issues of classism and racism remain pervasive, and not enough people are talking about racialisation. In fact, it is worth questioning “if we ourselves are part of an elite group”.
Whether activism and advocacy can be conveniently distilled into dichotomies – of movements that are either for or against a cause – is contentious. And when participants in the forum were already of many minds during the conversations, I am inclined to disagree with Mr. Bahrawi. Yet his bigger point on self-reflexivity in an environment of vast diversities, and consequently of sensitivity to the motivations of others, is worth bearing in mind. For in the quest for social change, change could, and should, very well start with ourselves.