Singapore civil society – maintaining values, evolving actions

By Howard Lee

As I sat in the tiny room at the Artistry with close to 100 people, I can’t help but get the feeling I was back in that much bigger room full of trouble makers, when the Institute of Policy Studies organised its Civil Society Conference.

It didn’t take me long to realise that I was once again surrounded by people who have been pushing at the boundaries of the norms in Singapore, doing what they believe is necessary to make this country better.

Maruah's Braema Mathi speaking to civil society members at the townhall for Project 50/100.
Maruah’s Braema Mathi speaking to civil society members at the townhall for Project 50/100.

Film makers, playwrights, lobbyists and activists, academics, artists, bloggers. Despite it being the close of the week, everyone brought a certain amount of energy to the townhall event – a briefing by the Project 50/100 steering committee to seek contributions for activities to commemorate Singapore’s 50th anniversary, but offering perspectives that are seldom seen.

Indeed, Project 50/100 looks set to be quite different from SG50. First, while SG50 is a celebration of Singapore’s past, Project 50/100 attempts to go beyond that, encouraging participants to map out what they wish to see for Singapore’s future, on the topic of their passion. Operative term: Recognise the past, connect with the future.

Second, it promises to capture the essence of Singapore in “alternative narratives, new perspectives, different truths”, so says its tagline. While SG50 aims to fund projects that “reflect the Singaporean identity and sense of belonging to Singapore”, Project 50/100 will count as core project those that “carry an ideological frame that is progressive, inclusive, alternative, diverse, multi-dimensional”. Operative term: Identity through diversity, not singularity.

Third, funding does not come from the government or public coffers, although the steering committee did not rule out seeking funding from SG50 for the whole initiative. Rather, the team will be seeking donations from the public and corporate sponsors, a very different approach from SG50. Operative term: Ground-up initiative.

Indeed, if you have read recent stories about SG50, you might begin to wonder how that initiative could ever be considered something that speaks to the core of Singapore. We have four government agencies goading students to profile companies, because for some odd reason, the government does not seem to think that, even for once, the Singapore story can be divorced from the nation state’s economic imperative, to the extent that even government agencies have to be involved.

There is now even a government-led special committee set up to coordinate how the Malay/Muslim community can contribute to SG50.

We also have a very public call for companies to take part in the celebrations, even if it means slapping celebratory messages on a can of sardines. Now, I have a healthy respect for Ayam Brand products, but there might be more than one Singaporean who thinks this idea should be canned.

But how Project 50/100 is different from SG50 is no reason for us to support it. What, then, makes it worth our attention?

In a very real sense, Project 50/100 was born from civil society. Most if not all of its key members are involved in advocacy, spearheading initiatives that test the edges of tolerance in Singapore society. Those who attended the briefing have also had their fair share of such experiences.

These efforts are seldom at one with the positions espoused by the government, and for this reason a number of them would have invariably found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

To a greater extent, this hearkens back to the days where activists were banded as criminals, arrested and detained for their beliefs. Indeed, it is unfortunate that such violence exhibited by the state had an adverse effect on civil society. Those pushing for positive change in society withdrew in fear, and activism took a serious dent.

Only in recent years did the “criminals” begin to voice out, seeding thoughts that our history might be a lot more different than what we knew through the media or history textbooks. In recent years, we have seen civil society, still careful but more sure of itself, venturing forth to press for the social change that they believe Singapore needs.

There would be those who press for more authoritative action from the ground. In fact, at the briefing, some participants asked if the Project 50/100 committee would consider proposals that might run afoul of the law. Even today, we still see our society living in fear that something might go wrong, such was the strength of the fear that was seeded many years ago, striking at the very heart of Singapore’s civil society.

Yet for all the diverse opinions in what actions can be taken, what we are seeing today might, perhaps, be a maturing of civil society. Like those who have been incarcerated, those who continued to carry the flame have been uncompromising in their values, in what they belief to be the right cause. Unlike those who were incarcerated, they had to compromise on their actions, to ensure that the flame continues to burn.

That has been the key to the survival of civil society in Singapore, and might just as well be the key to its revival. There is no need to do battle with those who oppose our strongest believes. Rather, it is more important to achieve an understanding, that values do not destroy a nation, but actions would. What kind of action, then, does the state want to encourage, rather than reject? And what would activists be willing to take up or let go, such that their values are not compromised at the expense of their actions?

It is for this next evolutionary step in civil society that I believe Project 50/100 has found it unique selling point. In many ways, Singapore civil society had found its own unique way to deal with challenges, and through the years developed commendable methods of coping, while constantly pushing at the edges. Our nation is currently at a nexus where either the people stand up, take action and show the way forward, or allow state-run action, no matter now well-intended, to continue dictating every single aspect of our lives.

Project 50/100 is not about leading a charge, to do battle against the norm, state apparatus, national consensus – whatever you wish to call it. It is about bringing to the front what has been achieved on the ground, silently and without the fireworks that come with national policies, to take this country forward in ways that matter to people. In demonstrating what can be achieved outside the “national narrative”, we truly gain our independence as a nation.

So maybe, if you are not inclined to turn a tin can into a birthday cake, perhaps consider supporting Project 50/100, either with funding or with a project proposal. It might not get you a lot of attention, or that Public Service Medal you have been hankering after. But it will be truly something new, and it will give you a glimpse of Singapore you never knew existed.

Find out how you can contribute to Project 50/100. If you already have some ideas, or just want to help out, express your interest to the team, or download and return the form, here.

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