A collection of short essays by Singaporean activists, the quality of Constance Singam and Margaret Thomas’s “The Art of Advocacy in Singapore” therefore varies and further depends on the individual activists and the organisations they represent. The best essays, especially those grouped thematically under animal welfare and heritage / environment, pointed to observable actions and corresponding markets of success, whereas the less impressive ones were too preachy or polemical. While these essays were eager to identify structural problems or to criticise the ruling government, they were less able to articulate perspectives – in a book ostensibly about “the art of advocacy” – about moving from rhetoric to sustainable, effective action.
It is also striking, in this vein, how many activists pointed to the parables about saving babies or starfishes: Either about saving one starfish at a time amidst the tens of thousands stranded or the beach, or about the limited utility of saving babies downstream of a river without checking the source of these abandoned babies further upstream. Most essays emphasised the importance of addressing broader structural issues, though many may have overlooked the value of direct, day-to-day graft.
Be that as it may, there were common features of activism in Singapore: Not many of the causes are likely to lead to conflict with the Singapore government, the need to be rational and not too emotional, as well as taking advantage of mass media, social media, and correspondence or trust-building with the government in the wake of the 2011 general elections (and even if the response or the position of the government can be disappointing). Essays by AWARE, the Nature Society (Singapore), Project X, and the Singapore Heritage Society advocated for a combination of direct services, research work, advocacy or dialogue and engagement with the authorities, and public education or mobilisation across the general public to effectively bring about change. Interestingly too, veteran diplomat Tommy Koh is very frequently mentioned as a champion of many causes.
The AWARE chapter also provides the most practical tips for successful activism in Singapore. Across the other chapters, useful points about ego and self-care and humility, the Legal Profession Act, and the diversification of funding sources were raised.
Overall, while “The Art of Advocacy in Singapore” offers a useful glimpse to the state of activism in Singapore, there are a few shortcomings in addition to the aforementioned quibbles and preferences. First, Singam and Thomas do not explain how the list of activists and their organisation was decided in the first place, and it is also not clear if the themes – ranging from culture / faith to literature / theatre to sex workers – were decided before they approach the writers. Second, and running seemingly counter to what happens in real life, the editors do not tease out collaborations among the activists, or even explore areas of disagreements and tensions. And third, amidst the documentation of their past projects and accomplishments, few activists wrote about the future or offered perspectives about the trajectories for activism in Singapore (even if they are pessimistic).