The world is changing. Can Singapore change?

by Constance Singam

Can we imagine a different Singapore emerging after a three-month lockdown, after the pandemic?

There is consensus that some situations have to change, most certainly. For instance, Singaporeans must and should imagine a more collaborative, if not collaborative, at least less hostile relationship between government and civil society?  Across the world and in Singapore during many conversations civil society is being appealed to as the key to political, social and economic change and success.

The most disturbing situation that had emerged during the pandemic is the health vulnerability of the migrant workers as a result of the failure of the government to listen to the warnings of non-governmental civil society activists. And Singaporeans are genuinely appalled by the government’s neglect and sympathetic to the workers. Consequence to that is the urgent call for more civil society participation and for the government to respect the work of civil society.

The pandemic has also forced us into a quieter period of our life, kept us locked indoors and forced us to think, or should have about, the most fundamental issues of our lives, our family, our way of life and our values. I keep hearing about discussions among groups of friends, certainly among the chattering classes everywhere about the changes we should make to the way we live.

We cannot go back, we say, they say. We certainly cannot at least not till a reliable vaccine is found. Till then our interactions will be limited and in that alone our lives would have changed. The times when workers showed up for work with a cold or cough is over. Fear will keep them away and fear will drive them away. If the virus has taught us anything it is that nobody is safe, till everybody is.

During the lockdown we have learnt that it is possible to work from home and employers can be more flexible, that it is possible to live with less, that family relationship and friendship networks are our most rewarding experiences, that there are many people showed compassion and generosity of spirit and joined forces to help people in need.

We have talked about the situation of the migrant workers and have questioned the heavy dependence on a foreign work force; we have talked about the gap in income and a need for a minimum wage; we have talked about racism of which there is an on-going discussion. Some of these we are talking about openly were unthinkable in our more ‘normal times’. Can we sustain this conversation? The need for a continued discussion is the first essential attribute of our desire for a better Singapore, a way of imagining a better, progressive, more compassionate culture.

This process of imagining a different Singapore suggests a need for radical thinking that challenges powerfully held beliefs and attitudes, which have been supported and reinforced by public policies. My own experience and research lead me to believe that it is, however, possible to forge a community which can envision a different society/culture, for the following reasons: people are not as powerless as they think they are and so need not feel trapped by official categorization, laws and public policies; historically, women have succeeded in challenging oppressive systems and patriarchal domination; and civil society groups, have succeeded in challenging dominant values and ideologies and forced changes in the laws.

Governments generally rebuff calls for radical changes. For instance our government has already rejected calls for the reduction of the number of migrant workers. But governments can be persuaded to change – during the elections, for instance, and governments can be made to alter its course when the culture of the country changes. Culture evolves when citizens decide to change and work towards making that happen. I have seen cultural changes, which have revolutionized our society in my own life time.

For instance, it is no longer okay to accept domestic violence as the fate of women and as a domestic problem only. A reluctant government was obligated to introduce laws to protect victims of violence.  Domestic workers are entitled to a day off as any worker is. Abuse of these workers is not tolerated.  Conservation and preservation of natural habitats is considered as part of our heritage as are many of our historical buildings.

Civil society as stakeholders in the making of a progressive Singapore

Singapore has a far richer history, almost 700 years, than we have been led to believe. Could we have imagined an annual Pink Dot event in Hong Lim Park or even discussions about the human rights of the homosexual community 20 years ago, or even 15 years ago? Could we have foreseen the criminalizing of marital rape? Government has ignored even denied the existence of poverty and for the longest time to talk about poverty was to invite censure. But activists raised awareness and government can no longer ignore poverty in the midst of plenty.

One of the most successful and revolutionary changes in our culture was led by a group of women who organized themselves and founded the Singapore Council of Women (SCW) in 1952. They imagined a Singapore without polygamy and abandoned women and children trapped in poverty and neglect.

These SCW women challenged the century-old traditional practices of polygamy in a very conservative society where men had complete control over their women. Women could be beaten; women and their children could be abandoned; women could not own property nor open a bank account; women and girls could be transferred from the keeping of their father to the keeping another man. Women were chattels to be bartered.

The SCW women challenged the establishment men to change their ways and abandon their privileges, a culture of privileges. That success is the most compelling argument for civil society activism in Singapore. Culture can change and it did change in the most fundamental way. It helped that during that period the politicians were struggling to win votes and they badly needed women’s votes, the votes that the women had won along with the men when Singapore gained independence.

The Women’s Charter of 1961, the result of civil society and political action, remains one of the most progressive charters anywhere in the world, gave women rights within marriage and outlawed polygamy.

Civil society activists appeal to the core decency of ordinary people when they address issues of common social problems and values, as we can see in Singaporeans’ concern for the welfare of migrant workers. The power of ordinary people to affect change is the belief that drives civil society activists. The SCW’s success took almost 10 years to reach parliament and changes in cultural practices followed.

Unlike the radical changes that followed the Charter most changes are accomplished slowly, incrementally through the patient work of activists that it is almost impossible to notice the cultural changes and changes in attitudes that take place.

A point I want to make here is that there is a lot of misunderstanding about civil society. Firstly, civil society is defined as a wide network of individuals and organizations; not just the organizations such as Aware and TWC2 who do advocacy work, but include independent academics, public intellectuals, business groups, writers, artists, the media and yes labour unions.

Collectively they form civil society. Secondly, they are not an opposition political party but stakeholders in the making of a progressive Singapore. Whatever political party holds power the role of civil society remains the same.

I come from almost 40 years of civil society activism. I have met and worked with many activists in the various sectors, especially from those sectors of civil society whose objective is to work towards change.

Across a diversity of activities and interests what defines the activists and unites them is their patriotism, their love of their country, their passion, their commitment to their country. They volunteer their time and energy and work hard and take risks to promote a different, a more compassionate and caring society.

We need these activists, their capacity to offer alternative ideas and ways of thinking, to break through the shackles of our imagination. We need the Jolovans, the Kirstan Hans, PJ Thums, Alex Aus, Alfian Saats, Kokilas, and Preetipls, to show us creative ways of thinking to stir us from our comfort zones. They are the SWC women of today.

Going forward:

  1. Our government must recognise the significance of independent civil society and work with them. Currently outdated even intimidating attitudes towards activists and regulatory frameworks stand in the way of a more open civil society space and freedom to work.
  2. The political landscape has to change. Civil society has to build capacity, form networks, build the ability to communicate across different areas of interest, communicate across a wider section of our population, train men and women in political lobbying skills, and promote participation in our political life. This too requires radical thinking on the part of civil society.Civil society may need new strategies and modes of organizing. Young people are already experimenting with these new modes.
  1. Imagine a larger debate about multi-culturalism and inequality, universal basic income, post LKY. These issues are very central to our questions about race, foreigners, poverty, minimum wage and the transformation of our society from a multi-racial to a multicultural society. These debates will speak to who we really are and who we want to become; it is about making sense of our place in the world and changing the culture of our country.
  2. Young people using new technology and social media to organize themselves should help to spread civil society messages more widely. Covd-19 lockdown has opened up the possibility of a wider community of people having access to forums and discussions like webinars with more people participating in community and political discussions and actions. These activities have to be sustained.

How these will play out in our society and against the state technology of control is anyone’s guess. But civil society is a growing force. Civil society will and can forge ahead with imagination, passion and hard work to help create a nation that puts our own human values in the forefront of our imagination and activism.

This will force changes in a culture that has thus far put too much importance on the economy over the welfare of its citizens. And our government will have to listen and they will.

Constance Singam is an author and civil society activist holding a Master’s degree in Literature, the former president of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE Singapore) and has also co-founded civil society groups, been a columnist in several national publications
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