Journalist-turned-author, Simon Vincent recently launched his book, The Naysayer's Book Club: 26 Singaporeans You Need To Know, which shines a spotlight on the spectrum of naysaying in Singapore’s civil society, putting front and centre a life of ideas and imagination.
At the book launch event, Vincent moderated a short panel discussion with three of the personalities mentioned in the book: Tay Kheng Soon, an architect and adjunct professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Architecture School; Constance Singam, author and civil society activist; and Seelan Palay, artist and activist.
During the panel, Vincent and the panellists discussed the state of civil society activism in Singapore, the need for naysayers and the role of the youth in bringing about change.
Kicking off with a question on what they thought about being naysayers in Singapore, Tay and Singam both agreed that they didn’t quite like the term ‘naysayers’ to begin with. Jokingly, Tay suggested the term ‘troublemakers’ might suit them better instead.
On the recent call for more naysayers, Singam noted that she’s not sure that people from the establishments are sincere in their request, noting that if you’re a naysayer within an establishment, chances are high that you would be ignored or even denied a space. On the flip side, civil society activists have been ‘naysaying’ for years now, implying that this recent 'call for more naysayers' is also redundant.
As Palay then said, there has always been a need for activists and everyone is just part of that process. Different generations of activists are all connected in that same way and it’s not really a need but more of a natural consequence of the environment. After all, there would be no need for rebels or a revolution if everything was peachy.
When asked about how activists or even the public in general might engage stakeholders to invoke change, the panellists collectively agreed that there needs to be an openness from the public towards activists and activism.
Touching on one specific incident that seems to have eluded the public media, Tay spoke about how his architecture students at NUS told him how it was too expensive for them to live on campus and that the on-campus residents are limited to a certain percentage of students anyway. So together with his students, Tay came up with designs to create on-campus student accommodations using shipping containers.
As the ideas were being generated, Mr Tay was called in for a meeting by the minister. To his surprise, the minister was excited about the project and even wrote to the university to start a pilot. However, the project was eventually terminated by the Vice Chancellor of NUS, citing that the university funds were limited to projects that would improve academic ranking.
Just as Tay and his students thought that was the end of their container-housing project, one of his ex-students decided to pour in his own money to bring that concept from paper to reality. This incident reflects the power of individual involvement, proving that when there are good ideas on the table that are being rejected by those higher up on the ladder, one person with strong intentions really can make a difference.
In contrast, Ms Singam touched on ‘destruction of the intellectual and cultural life’ in Singapore where the strong focus on building an efficient and successful economy has led to a stifling of civil society activism and public interest in said activism. Though the situation may seem hopeless, however, Singam was cautiously optimistic. “We may not be able to overthrow our government but we can change them”, said Singam.
To wrap up, Vincent asked each panellist to state their wish for Singapore. Seelan said that he wishes for Singapore to one day achieve a ‘free market of ideas’, creating a horizontal landscape where people can express their views and others can discuss what they agree or disagree with.
Perhaps more poignantly, Tay and Singam echoed each other’s wish for Singaporeans to be more open towards and less dismissive of civil activists and that they take an active interest in what these people are saying with an open mind. This holds true especially for the younger generation who are by nature more open to new ideas and have easy access to unlimited information and spaces for sharing ideas that the generations before them did not.
The Naysayers Book Club is a book that you should read to learn about the people who are trying to make a difference in a society where all odds are stacked against them. At best, this book will inspire you to take that leap into making an active contribution in the effort for positive change. And at the very least, you will learn the stories and convictions behind some of Singapore’s loudest voices for change.
The book, The Naysayer's Book Club: 26 Singaporeans You Need to Know, is available for purchase online at Epigram Books.