If you want to get things done in Singapore, you need to know which side your bread is buttered and play the game accordingly. Don’t push too hard, don’t make too much trouble and maybe you will get what you want.
That’s what The Straits Times’ journalist Leonard Lim appears to be saying in his article ‘The way forward for State and civil society’ [paywall]. Exhorting the government’s “greater willingness” to listen to its people, he happily regurgitates the establishment’s stance on politics in Singapore: that individuals and groups need to be put in their place for “straying into the political arena” and that “political activism” should only be restricted to “party politics”.
Lim’s failure to cast a critical eye over these two claims achieves nothing more than highlighting his own ignorance of politics, activism and democracy.
The ‘political arena’
Singaporeans have long been conditioned to think of politics as 'someone else’s business'. We’re told that it’s something we don’t need to worry about; we can just leave it up to people who are smarter, better and more qualified than us to take care of it.
And it’s so easy to do, too; who has time to ponder politics when the stress of living in a fast-paced and expensive country like Singapore is piling higher and higher with every passing day?
Unfortunately for us Singaporeans, the truth is not so simple. Politics is not just a game for elites to play. It is something that affects us in every aspect of our lives. It affects what our children are taught in schools, the conditions in which we work and the way in which we live out our years of retirement. It also affects the way we deal with diversity in society, the way we treat marginalised groups and the way we protect our green spaces (or not).
All these things are affected by state policies, which is why the establishment’s stance is wrong. The ‘political arena’ should not be the sacred stomping ground of political parties. The ‘political arena’ should, and must, be the domain of all citizens, all the time.
Similarly, the claim that politics in Singapore should just be about party politics is misguided. While an important and integral part of politics and governance in any democratic country, party politics is only one aspect of the system. Restricting ourselves to just this one aspect limits our ability to build a vibrant society with a diversity of views.
The recent news of Vincent Wijeysingha leaving the Singapore Democratic Party can be seen as a prime example of this. In an interview with The Independent, he said, “If I remained in party politics, I would focus on mainstream issues, i.e. those at the political middle ground. This could result in sidelining of marginal concerns such as those faced by the gay community…”
While political parties should have the moral courage to take on “marginal concerns”, the fact remains that they are constantly playing for the favour of the electorate. Parties play up issues they believe will get them the most votes, often at the expense of other less “mainstream” issues. We’ve seen how the 2011 General Election was dominated by talk of bread-and-butter issues, with nary a moment’s consideration for other important topics like civil liberties and equality. If we were to really keep the ‘political arena’ strictly to party politics, issues like migrant workers’ rights, LGBT rights and the death penalty may never see the light of day.
This is why NGOs and advocacy groups are crucial to every democratic society. Activists may operate outside of the party system, but play a vital role in making sure that every “national conversation” is robust and comprehensive. The fact that we may not agree with everything they say does not mean that their presence is unnecessary.
These activists and groups exist to raise awareness and mobilise citizen involvement in the making of decisions that affect state policy and social norms. They do not exist as window-dressing for us to boast of inclusivity and public engagement. They do not exist to make things easy for the establishment, or to help the government “save face”. To pontificate to activists about the need to “play their cards right” and not be so confrontational is to completely miss the point.
The way forward for the State and civil society is not for us to perpetuate the idea of citizens as petitioners, reaching out for the goodwill and magnanimity of the government. It is not in the State deigning to listen while civil society scrapes and wheedles its way into the minister’s good graces. And it is certainly not in telling activists to quieten down.
The way forward for the State and civil society is in empowering the citizenry, making them see that they own their voice. It is in showing that ‘citizen engagement’ is more than official national dialogues and grassroots activities like picking up trash at East Coast Park. It is in realising that the ‘political arena’ does not just belong to the governing elite, but to each and every one of us.