TOC speaks with Dr. Vincent Wijeysingha on his views on civil society in Singapore.

Dr. Vincent Wijeysingha, 43 was a member of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) 2010 to 2013. He served as the party’s Treasurer and stood as a parliamentary candidate for the party 2011 general election. He was also Singapore’s first openly gay politician.

Later in August 2013, Wijeysingha announced that he was resigning from the SDP, stating that he wished to focus his efforts on pursuing his work in civil society.

Photo of Vincent by Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss
Photo of Vincent by Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss

1) How would you evaluate the current status and progress of civil society in Singapore, particularly the LGBT movement?

The term ‘civil society’ simply refers to the space between the individual and the state so in a sense the structure of your question if slightly inaccurate. But I won’t pretend I don’t know what you mean: speaking in terms of civil activism, civil society has made significant inroads into government policy and legal innovation. For example, the new rules around the death penalty which will spare many young people the noose are a direct result of the hard work of the anti-death penalty campaigns fronted by Rachel Zeng, M Ravi and others. In the labour field, Jolovan Wham and his colleagues in the migrant labour NGOs have also brought about improvements in the quality of life and work for our low-waged migrant workers. The Bukit Brown campaign has done an immense service by raising the importance of that cemetery to the national consciousness. And, of course, the bloggers have exploded the public debate in ways unimaginable in the previous decade.

The LGBT activist scene occupies a slightly different position and it is largely hamstrung on that account. It concerns a moral question and the government has always treaded carefully on certain moral questions, particularly those which touch on religion or ethnicity: the moral objection to homosexuality is founded in religious teachings. So, the government has always taken an extremely cautious position with some contradictory statements from time to time.

The government is easing up on LGBT social, cultural, and welfare activism while remaining strict on advocacy. People Like Us (PLU), the first LGBT advocacy organisation has tried several times to register as a society but has been turned down while welfare groups like Oogachaga have been allowed to exist. That the Registrar of Society has not allowed PLU to register is actually a contravention of the law found in Article 14 of the Constitution; consequently, the Registrar has broken the law.

We also note that raids on social venues are no longer happening. But the government is facing a conundrum: it cannot on the one hand say that homosexuality is genetic, that it allows the welfare and social groups to function, that there are no bars to the employment of LGBT people in the civil service, and yet continue to refuse to register advocacy organisations or ban positive portrayals of homosexuality in the media.

So, the LGBT activist scene is progressing within the social, cultural, and welfare domains together with the constitutional challenges against Section 377a and appears to be making headway, even if very slowly. Perhaps the time has come to test the constitutionality of the non-registration of PLU which, as I said, is illegal. The Registrar will struggle to make a coherent case for non-registration in the present climate and it will be insufficient for him to site ‘national interest’ or ‘national security’ any more than he will be able to invoke the PM’s “agree to differ” dictum. The moment a constitutional challenge is taken to court the situation will be exposed in all its contradiction.


2) Do you think that people today are hesitant to get involved in civil society, and why?
We still have a much skewed civil activism scene where welfare and social organisations have the approbation of government, not to mention a healthy fundraising climate, while advocacy organisations struggle to attract volunteers and donors. This is a direct result of the government’s treatment of civil society individuals and organisations that have challenged it or the historical discourse sanctioned by it.

The trend can be traced to the clampdown on activist newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s, the various ISA operations (such as Coldstore, Pechah and Spectrum), the suing and bankrupting of politicians, and the then PM’s famous spat with Catherine Lim, from which arose his intellectually unsupportable claim that only politicians can comment on political matters. People became genuinely frightened of being involved in public debate. However, thankfully, this is changing and while the government may bring in control mechanisms by the backdoor such as the recent MDA regulations and targeting individuals like Han Hui Hui and Leslie Chew, largely the government is unable any longer to use the control mechanisms of the past.

My view is that this is a direct result of the ubiquity of information via the internet which the first PM didn’t have to contend with. He was very much aware that the way to control a people’s mind is by controlling information flows. Today this is impossible so the modus operandi is to discredit individual information practitioners such as bloggers.

But we must bear in mind that it was not always so. The prevalent view is that Singaporeans are non-confrontational. This is entirely untrue. In the period of the 1930s to 1960s, civil society was vibrant and confrontational; without it, we would never have obtained independence so easily. The non-confrontational situation is a direct result of PAP bullying, legal innovation, and information control.


3) How would you encourage people who are still thinking about whether or not to get involved in civil society?

Well, people must look into their hearts and ask themselves if they are satisfied to merely exist and accumulate or whether they want a more meaningful life, which involves looking outwards to the community and the nation. We highlight what is going on and then leave it to individuals to make their own moral judgment about whether to get involved.

There is, of course, a price to pay for civil society involvement in terms of time, money, and other resources. I think our younger generation especially are more outward-looking, more community-oriented and more compassionate. They are looking for meaningful ways to expend their resources. My only advice would be to suggest they look forward into the future and ask themselves if, when they have reached the end of their life, they would be satisfied with the five Cs or if they want to be able to say that they helped remake our society for the better. We now know from neuroscientific research, that there are chemicals in the brain that are activated when one does a good deed, so civil society activism has a definite biological, rather than merely ethical, basis.


4) “If you want to have a say, join a political party” – What do you make of that old saying and how has civil society changed that?

As I mentioned above, this binary formulation was posited by the first PM. It is a pseudo-intellectual and self-serving claim that has only benefited the PAP. The world ‘politics’ has its roots in the Greek for ‘city’. The implication is that whatever happens in the city, ie society, concerns everybody and therefore everybody has a right – in fact, a duty – to participate.

In a healthy, fully-functioning society, academia, the media, advocacy groups, welfare organisations, and political parties all work together for the good. But in Singapore, the government has done three things,

  • (a) silence the information practitioners (ie the media and academia);
  • (b) punished civil activists, and
  • (c) harassed the political parties.

This has resulted in a situation of divide et impera which has served the PAP hegemony well. For example, academia in Singapore has been thoroughly tamed and until recently, with the advent of people like Irene Ng and P J Thum, academics have been entirely silent about issues of civil liberty. In fact, last week, I was told by an NUS lecturer that academics in Singapore do not tell the truth; this individual did not seem uncomfortable with the admission.

Civil society, as I said, simply means the space between the individual and the state. Hence, political parties not in government are very much a part of that domain. In the past (in fact it still is the case), many, otherwise vocal, civil society activists are unwilling to make common cause with the political parties, especially the Singapore Democratic Party, because they have read the situation concerning the government’s attitude to the SDP.


5) So what do you feel you can contribute to civil society?

The government and its machinations don’t really frighten me so perhaps I can try to tell the truth as I see it. But is not this the responsibility of every citizen, that he or she tells the emperor he is not wearing any clothes?


6) Would the political sphere not be a better place to push through reforms that benefit marginalised groups?

This claim is based on a view of power as being purely processual and administrative, that only those with the power to do so ie legislators can change the law. But before something reaches the floor of parliament, it is subject to debate in the public domain. Here is where civil society comes in, to initiate the debate, provide the necessary data, and galvanise public support. Slowly, legislators take notice of the groundswell and are forced to engage with the issue. If you look back over history you will notice that social progress has never been due to enlightened legislators but to civil society activism: colonial independence; the abolition of slavery; votes for women; black civil rights; LGBT rights; employment right, etc. They were all midwifed in civil society.

Stephen Lukes suggests that power is a far more complex movement than the straightforward binary we are accustomed to. It is not simply the power to change but also the power to pose the questions that lead to change; the great activists understood this instinctively.

We must also recognise that government has varied priorities, contested claims and vested interests. It cannot be expected to deal effectively with every social issue, much less to recognise the multifarious concerns of the citizenry. We should also remember that members of the government don’t operate only as government, they need to be situated in their socio-cultural and political-economic station.

When we recognise this, we will recognise that legislators also have their own priorities, prejudices and biases which they will try to defend in the legislative process. We cannot and should not trust the government to govern in the interests of everybody: only civil society can ensure that the debate is as wide as possible in order to ensure that every human being is served and every experience honoured as legitimate. Civil society has nothing to lose and everything to gain; legislators, on the other hand, have everything to lose and nothing to gain by espousing minority causes.


7) What do you think should be the actions taken by the government, private sector and society so as to move together as a country while maintaining the delicate balance of interests? 

Of course, as a nation, we must prioritise our economic and socio-political stability, particularly a country like Singapore with such limited internal resources. As Minister Rajaratnam once said only slightly tongue-in-cheek, if we face an economic crisis citizens will be reduced to eating one another since they cannot go back to the hinterland to grow their own food! So, we all have a responsibility to contribute to the development of the country.

But we must also interrogate what this ‘balance of interests’ implies. The world over, it has been understood as being to govern in the interest of the most powerful and that is equally the case in Singapore. It is not an accident of history that the PM earns $800 an hour while his poorest electors earn less than that in a month. It is neither an accident that those who challenge the status quo the loudest are those who are dealt with the harshest. So, we must depart from the idea that government (and indeed the private sector) are moving in the same direction as the ordinary people.

The national interest is, and can only ever be, the outcome of public exploration. How do you arbitrate this? Again, the key is public debate. Not the farcical and stage-managed process like what we saw with the ‘Ask the PM’ show this week but a real debate which engages with the lived reality of each and every Singaporean.

Another highly searching question is this notion of stability. The PAP has made much of it during its time in office but citizens must ask themselves at what price is stability bought. Our economy has no doubt benefited from social stability, which is an outcome of strict PAP control, but the recent research on poverty and old age have shown us that we are betraying the nation-building generation by consigning them to an experience of poverty and deprivation that no country with the wealth such as we have should ever have had to. And this is not even to touch on the economic and social policy stalemate as the government flounders from one policy disaster to another without much of a clue as to the general direction our country should take in the period to come.


8) What would you do if you were to choose to champion civil society in Singapore? 

Again, I think the framework of your question is wrong. Civil society is simply the space between the state and the individual. One doesn’t champion civil society as if it were a creature outside and beyond our lived experience. Every time I switch on Facebook and read what is happening in the world, each letter I write to the Forum page, each email I send to a minister, each public talk I attend, each dollar I donate to a good cause, each volunteer action I take, is the lived experience of citizens and the stuff of civil society. To ‘champion’ civil society is simply to live each day as a self-respecting citizen, aware of and concerned for the situation of our neighbours and willing to do something to improve it.


9) What would you think should be the main motivation for civil society groups, so that they take root and succeed in Singapore?

Three values: human dignity, compassion for animals, and the sustainability of the environment. And let me repeat: there is no question of civil society taking root in Singapore, it is already here. It simply depends on the goodwill of citizens for it to continue. A nation without a flourishing civil society is merely a commercial enterprise which may be how the PAP prefers it but one which our citizens will not allow to come to pass; of this I am 100% certain.


10) Ok here’s the question most would be really interested to know about you. Although it is only a very short period of time since you joined and resigned from SDP, do you have any plans to get back into politics in the future or have you given any thoughts about it?

The whole question of my refocusing from political to civil society work was the subject of intense thinking and discussion over several months. For the moment, I am exploring how I can best be of service. Whether I do so in a political party, a civil society organisation, or indeed as a lone wolf commenting from the margins is, in a sense, immaterial.

As Karl Marx said in his The German Ideology, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways: the point, however, is to change it.” I’ll simply take my place as one of the many who are trying to change the world. As I reel of the names the stars of our socio-political firmament, I feel equally humbled and excited to join them in their search for a better Singapore.

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