The theme and concept of civil society as the sphere opposed to the state has made a global comeback in recent years, becoming one of the most employed term in contemporary politics. Post-crisis Southeast Asia, including the global(ising) city-state of Singapore, is no exception. The notion of civil society, however, comes in various contours, forms and content, and as such is as ambiguous as it is popular. In Singapore, civil society is ‘introduced’ and prescribed by the government/state. This paper examines the Singapore idea(l) of civil society via its inception as ‘civic’ society (1991) and as a government vision statement calling for ‘active citizenship’ (Singapore 21, 1999). As my analysis will show, civil society in Singapore is really about engendering civility and/or a gracious society on the one hand, and a strategic attempt at policing political participation/dissenting voices under the rubric of ‘active citizenship’ on the other.
[A] prince must have the friendship of the common people; otherwise he will have no support in times of adversity. […] And, a wise prince should think of a method by which his citizens, at all times and every circumstances, will need the assistance of the state and of himself; and then they will always be loyal to him.
- Machiavelli, The Prince, 1979: 35-6.
In many parts of the world, the revival of interest in civil society both as an analytical concept and as a social revitalisation programme has much to do with the end of the Cold War, the virtual eradication of communist threats, and the beginnings of a global transition from authoritarianism to democracy which is closely aligned to the embrace of an open and free market economy (see for example Hewison and Rodan, 1996). The emergence of civil society in Asia has also coincided with transformations brought about by rapid modernisation, the rise of a ‘new rich’ middle class with demands for greater political participation and transparency (Robison and Goodman, 1996), and the heralding of the new information economy, a project that is being re-ignited with Asian economies recuperating from the economic flu of 1997.
Unlike conventional understanding, Singapore’s notion of civil society is rather confusing and somewhat ambiguous. Within officialdom, the term usually refers to an orderly and polite ‘civic society’, but at times to the non-state or non-governmental sphere of ‘civil society’. Other times, it is a conflation of both the civic and the civil. The confusion, if any, is dismissed and ‘de-politicised’ by George Yeo (1991, 1995), then Minister for Information and the Arts (now Minister for Trade and Industry). To Yeo, civic society in Singapore tends towards the act and conduct of civility as demonstrated by the 22-year-old annual Courtesy Campaign (see Singapore Courtesy Council, 1999), the 5-year-old Singapore Kindness Movement, and other ‘wholesome’ community activities (e.g. Use Your Hands Campaign).
Civil society on the other hand is couched by Yeo as a challenge for state and society to ‘bind’, ‘optimise’ and ‘exist together’ (Yeo, 2000: 26). That is why the Singapore 21 vision statement, unveiled nationwide in 1999, is entitled ‘Together, We Make the Difference’. In other words, civil society is not just about citizenship in the form of voting rights and the right to carry a Singapore passport, it is more so about a sense of togetherness marked by the embodiment of emotional and ideological attachment to Singapore (Yeo, 1991: 2), what Singaporean sociologist Chua Beng Huat has referred to as communitarian culture and ideology (Chua, 1995). The political dimension of civil society promises opportunities for citizens to become stakeholders and joint owners in the social, cultural and economic milieus of the country (Koh and Ooi, 2000: 13)
Singapore’s emphasis on civic society thus aims to remove links with the potentially destabilising ‘politicking’ practices of civil society. One novel way is to stress on the term ‘civic’ to suggest how citizens ought to behave and conduct themselves. The ‘trick’ is to keep citizens occupied in activities that are deemed civic – as in civic-mindedness, ‘cultured’ and civilised activities – so that they would keep a safe distance away from real and possibly violent political activities. As Chua Beng Huat notes most cogently:
[civic society] is preferred by the government for its emphasis on the ‘civic’ responsibilities of citizens as opposed to that of the ‘rights’ of citizenship emphasized in the conventional understanding of the concept of ‘civil society’. This shift of emphasis is consistent with the PAP’s language of politics (Chua, 2000: 63).
The employment of a ‘language of politics’ by the ruling People Action’s Party (PAP) government to describe civic and civil society makes the entire discourse deeply political. Like most aspects of politics and culture in Singapore, civic or civil society has its own ‘special meanings’, explicable only by the ruling PAP government (see Yao, 1996; and, Lee and Birch, 2000). As such, I suggest that there is no consistency in the way the terms civic and civil society is used and circulated within Singaporean public discourse. The government allows debates to continue simply because it holds the final authority as to the precise shape and function of what has become known generically as ‘civil society’ in Singapore.
The likelihood of a dialogic and participatory non-state civil society materialising in Singapore remains questionable. This can be attributed, among other things, to an extremely low rate of political participation, especially in public feedback. From a civic perspective, citizens tend to exhibit a general unwillingness to sign up as members of interests groups or volunteer themselves for social work (Chiang, 2000: 191-3).1 Some even shun groups that are not politically endorsed. Much has been said about how Singapore polity resonates with a climate of fear (see Gomez, 2000; and, Tremewan, 1994), to the extent that many avoid, even vilify, participation in public activities. After all, most Singaporeans are well aware of their ‘rightful’ place within a society that demands utility via docility (à la Foucault, 1977). As Singaporean political scientist Ho Khai Leong suggests:
[T]he extent to which Singapore’s citizens can influence policy making depends on the extent to which the PAP allows it to happen. The basic ground rules are set from above and citizenry is merely passively reacting to those regulations (Ho, 2000: 447).
Although Ho’s statement represents a popular conception of Singapore, it is also a generalised misconception. To say that the Singaporean citizenry is ‘merely passive’ to state regulations is too simplistic and reductive. Not only does it dismiss the possibility of a truly non-state civil society, it also negates efforts to open up new spaces for different levels of political participation, whether these are passive or active.
The early work of Carole Pateman, better known for her ground-breaking feminist work The Sexual Contract, stresses political participation as a key foundation of democracy (Pateman, 1970). Rather than dwelling on the popular dichotomy between active versus passive participation, Pateman proposes three different participatory situations: ‘pseudo’, ‘partial’ and ‘full’ participation. The first, pseudo participation, is restricted to such processes as informing and endorsement of a pre-determined decision. In this model, no participation in decision-making in fact takes place; rather, a feeling of participation is created using what Pateman calls ‘a technique of persuasion’. A good example of this is the recent rise in global public relations consultancy and media management. The second, partial participation, gives the participant some opportunities for exercising influence, but reserves final power and authority to the key decision-maker. The third model is a situation of full participation where each individual is accorded equal power to determine the outcome of decisions (Pateman, 1970: 70-1). The third model of full participation, which smacks of undesirably ‘Western’ ideals of individualism and human rights, is clearly unworkable in paternalistic Singapore. However, both pseudo and partial participatory models might work, especially within the context of Singapore’s vision splendid: Singapore 21: ‘Together We Make The Difference (1999). The next section introduces the ‘active citizenship’ aspect of this ‘new’ and exciting vision.
Active citizenship and participation
In 1999, Singapore’s vision for the 21st century entitled Singapore 21: Together We Make The Difference, was unveiled by the Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Published as a glossy hardback document, Singapore 21 became the latest national vision statement put forward by the Singapore Government; it is preceded most prominently by Singapore: The Next Lap (1991) and Vision 1999 (1984). The primary objective of this project is to build and strengthen the ‘heartware’ of Singapore in the 21st century. ‘Heartware’, a term coined by Prime Minister Goh at the Rally Speech, is the Singapore Government’s attempt to re-define citizenship as embodying a ‘sense of ownership’. To achieve ‘heartware’ and other grand social and cultural objectives, the authorities appointed a centralised Singapore 21 Committee and five subject committees with a total of 83 members drawn from all walks of life.2 The issues for deliberation were posed – by the political leaders themselves – as five dilemmas. The job of each subject committee was to offer practical recommendations to ‘resolve’ their respective dilemmas.3 The five dilemmas and their corresponding proposals, presented as the five pillars of Singapore 21, are summarised in the following table:
Singapore 21 – The Five Dilemmas and Their Corresponding ‘ Solutions’
- Proposed Solutions (Pillars of Singapore 21)
Less stressful life
- Vs Retaining the drive Every Singaporean Matters
Needs of senior citizens
- Vs Aspirations of the Young Strong Families: Our Foundation and Our Future
- Vs Looking after Singaporeans Opportunities For All
- Vs Singapore as home The Singapore Heartbeat
Consultation and consensus
Vs Decisiveness and quick action Active Citizens: Making a Difference to Society
The emphasis of this article is on the fifth dilemma/solution which pits consultation and consensus against decisiveness and quick action. It is evident that the government wants to maintain maximum control whilst attempting to open up channels of public consultation and communication. The response to this ‘dilemma’, according to the Singapore 21 vision, is to encourage citizens to be actively involved – not in politics or political activities, but in social services and other civic deeds. Indeed, Singapore 21 has been referred to as a ‘new social contract’ between the government and citizens, aimed at building social capital for citizens to stay cohesive and rooted to Singapore and to give (muted) ‘voice’ to all Singaporeans. David Lim, the Minister of State for Information and the Arts, declared in a speech to commemorate the first ‘anniversary’ of Singapore 21:
[W]e believe the Singapore 21 can grow: Not by a top-down directive and push, but rather through bottom-up initiative and association. We believe that Singapore 21 can be a sustaining and empowering idea, if those who believe in it come forward to identify with the idea, and to claim this as their foundation for the future. By their example, others will be encouraged to follow (The Straits Times, Aug 7, 2000: 6).
The contradiction here is that the very foundation of Singapore 21 – the five dilemmas and the specially-picked committee members – were laid primarily in a top-down fashion. Although Singapore 21 is couched, from the outset, as a large-scale consultative exercise involving some 6000 ordinary Singaporeans (Preface to Singapore 21, 1999), it is perceived by many as yet another motherhood statement of the self-proclaimed all-knowing Singapore Government. In other words, Singapore 21 is deemed an exercise in pseudo participation. Despite massive publicity given to the grand vision statement, Singaporeans remain negative, politically apathetic, passive and/or fearful of repercussions.4
The framing of ‘Active citizenship: Making a Difference to Society’, the fifth pillar of Singapore 21, is both a measured response and a subtle attempt at addressing this long-standing problem of political apathy and passivity. According to Singapore 21:
Active citizenship means taking an active part, as a citizen, in making the country a better place to live. It means realising that every citizen has a stake in this country. […] Active citizens keep themselves well informed of issues and challenges facing the country. Instead of leaving it to the Government to do all the thinking, they offer feedback and suggestions founded on thoughtful consideration, with the aim of making things better. And more importantly, they take action and assume responsibility, rolling up their sleeves to help implement what they envision or suggest (Singapore 21, 1999: 51).
Interestingly, this definition of ‘active citizenship’ draws upon all three levels of political participation put forth by Pateman (1970). Keeping oneself ‘well informed of issues and challenges facing the country’ is an obvious form of pseudo participation. Offering ‘feedback and suggestions’ takes it a step further into the realm of partial participation, while ‘rolling up sleeves to help implement’ contains elements of full participation. Due to its political connotations, the question of active participation and citizenship has become one of the most discussed and contested element of Singapore 21. The ongoing media, and thus public, attention to the cultivation of civil society in Singapore is a direct result of the call for ‘active citizenship’. For the authorities, its willingness to engage in civil society talk is really an attempt to engender a pro-establishment understanding of active citizenship in the hope of appeasing demands for increased political participation and to deal with increasing political alienation of the citizenry (Ooi, Tan and Koh, 1999; Tan and Chiew, 1990).
It comes as little surprise that many civic groups seized the opportunity to publicly announce new agendas. ‘The Working Committee’ (TWC), a civil society advocate group without government links, proclaimed in October 1999 that they were going online to promote civil society (Lim, 1999).5 Even informal associations such as ‘People Like Us’ (PLU), a gay rights group which operates primarily over the Internet, have ‘rolled up their sleeves’, so to speak, and taken the Government to task over their roles in society. In May 2000, an application by PLU to hold a public forum on ‘Gays and Lesbians within Singapore 21’ was rejected by the Police Public Entertainment Licensing Unit (PELU) on the grounds that “the mainstream moral values of Singaporeans are conservative” and that Singapore’s Penal Code has provisions against certain homosexual practices (Ng, 2000b/c).6 PLU’s attempt to capitalise on the ‘momentum’ of Singapore 21 for the advancement of gay rights, barely a year after the unveiling of the Vision, was curtly dismissed by the authorities. This episode sparked a short-lived controversy within the pages of local newspapers. More importantly, it sent a pointed reminder – or more appropriately, a stern warning – that active citizenship and participation in the Singapore context not only has legal, social and cultural limits, it comes also with political and ideological boundaries that can and will be strictly enforced at the sole discretion of the authorities.
With the final word always resting upon the power-holders, political and/or public participation in Singapore is at best partial and at worst pseudo, but never full. In other words, there is no mistake in the framing of the fifth Singapore 21 dilemma: ‘Consensus and Consultation Vs Decisiveness and Quick Action’. The ‘new’ rhetoric or gestures about cultivating civil society and active citizenship is, in effect, an empty public relations exercise aimed at establishing a credo endorsing the presence of political boundaries under the umbrella of ‘decisiveness and quick action’, particularly when bureaucratic efficiency is preferred or when Singapore’s ‘competitive advantage in the global economy’ is at stake (Summary of the Deliberations, 1999: 16). The corollary is that ‘consensus and consultation’, the hallmarks of genuine participation, can be conveniently and tactically dismissed. As a result, political boundaries in Singapore – euphemistically termed ‘OB markers’, or ‘out-of-bounds markers’ – remain firmly etched in the minds of many Singaporean residents.7
OB-markers are invoked to limit political engagement, civic action and participation, and anything remotely linked to politics (Tan, 2000: 103). Of course, what at any time constitutes ‘politics’ remains unclear, and deliberately so. What is most problematic is that the PAP government uses a curious combination of political forms and practices to accommodate greater socio-cultural plurality on the one hand, while concurrently using both suppressive and auto-regulatory structures to limit its growth and development on the other (see Rodan, 1996b: 114; and Lee and Birch, 2000). Auto-regulation, as a disciplinary tactic to ensure an automatic functioning of power and control (Foucault, 1977), enables the formation and operation of what I term ‘gestural politics’.
The Singaporean idea of civil society is an excellent example of gestural politics: on the one hand, citizens are encouraged to harness the positive energies of the Singapore 21 vision, especially with regard to becoming active and participatory citizens; but on the other hand, stern warnings are issued at regular intervals to remind people of the existence of OB markers and other state-defined conditions. For example, in a June 2000 interview with Singapore’s main Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao, unambiguously entitled ‘Views count, but they don’t enslave policy’, Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng argues that because the government makes the right decisions most of the time, it has the mandate from voters, and therefore the right and responsibility, to ‘judge and choose from public views’ (reported in The Straits Times Interactive, Jun 28, 2000). Minister Wong made it lucidly clear that ‘while the government listens to public opinion, it will not let popular opinion sway policy decisions’ (ibid.). The justification for such an admonition is, of course, the long-term interest of Singapore(ans).
One of the most recent examples of gestural politics is the opening of a 6,000 square metres Speakers’ Corner at Singapore’s Hong Lim Park from September 1, 2000. Loosely modelled after London’s Hyde Park, the decision to allow Singapore’s first-ever free-speech venue was to ‘help develop civil society’ by making active citizenship ‘more visible’ (Koh, 2000: 10). Although no special permits are required, speakers are required to register – preferably up to 30 days in advance – at an adjacent police post and show proof of his/her Singaporean citizenship. Aspiring speakers are also advised that all existing Singapore laws, along with the cryptic ‘OB markers’ which bars the discussion of racial, religious and sensitive political issues, apply unconditionally (Yap, 2000: 3; Lim, 2000b: 4). While supporters hailed the decision as a positive move towards encouraging ‘participatory citizenship’, detractors and political opponents considered the soapbox a political farce, arguing that the performance makes a mockery of Singapore’s constitutional right to free speech.
Arguably, the most noteworthy and most overlooked explanation of the Speaker’s Corner came from Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong when he described the decision to allow the public airing of views as having ‘emblematic’ rather than practical, significance (Ng, 2000a). In other words, the Speaker’s Corner is purely gestural, a political strategy aimed at ‘silencing’ opponents who have been campaigning for the right to open and free speech, and at the same time, luring Internet-based dissent out in the open. Indeed, as The Straits Times reported on 12 November 2000, less than three months after its opening, the novelty of Speakers’ Corner is fast fading away with few regular speakers and a sparse, disinterested crowd of listeners (Yeoh, 2000). Arguably, the deliberate lack of political attention given to issues articulated by speakers will ensure its demise in due course.
‘Civil society’ sounds good; it has a good feel to it; it has the look of a fine old wine, full of depth and complexity. Who could possibly object to it, who would not wish for its fulfilment? (Kumar, 1993: 376).
Singapore is emblematic of a globally-savvy, well-plugged-in society that is highly adept at appropriating the latest management and information concepts and buzzwords. The concept and language of civic cum civil society is no exception. Like most other socio-cultural or political theories, however, each existing application of the theme of civil society is highly variegated, and as such, tends to exhibit its own peculiarities. But given its unique ability to take on board a whole range of problems – including, inter alia, political participation and active citizenry, ownership, social mores, values and civility – the concept and ideology/ies of civic and civil society will continue to be mobilised in Singapore, albeit under the terms and conditions of the existing political establishment. Like most policy and political decisions, the embrace of civil society will appease and appeal to those seeking greater political voice, at the same time leaving others highly sceptical. The strategies of co-optation and auto-regulation, so successfully executed by the PAP Government, is likely continue, even extended, but with greater finesse and subtlety. So as to ‘manage’ and proactively anticipate emerging social, cultural and political forces arising from a more well-informed and well-educated younger generation (Jones, 1998: 156; Rodan, 1996b: 95-6).
What will be the state of civil society in Singapore in the future? I would suggest, in view of the entrenchment of the PAP’s political management style, that not much will change in the short to medium term. Civic or civil society will continue to ‘sound good’ and ‘feel good’ to most citizens, and as such would find little resistance (Kumar, 1993: 376). But in the longer term, it is likely that civil society will find its own voice, the shape of which would be different from what the Singapore 21 vision has charted. For the time being however, the emphasis on active citizenry as Singapore’s idea of civil society will remain gestural.
This paper was first presented at WACC/CMP’s ‘Communication and Cultural Identity in Asia’ International Workshop, at Mt Tamborine, Queensland, Australia, from 27-29 November 2000. Research for this paper began while I was Visiting Scholar at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (RSPAS), The Australian National University, from August to October 2000. I am grateful to Dr Christopher Collier (Department of Political and Social Change, RSPAS) and Dr Greg McCarthy (Department of Politics, The University of Adelaide) for their insightful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. The usual disclaimers apply.
1. Abdullah Tarmugi, Singapore’s Minister for Community Development, noted at an Institute of Policy Studies conference in November 1998 that the rate of volunteerism in Singapore stands at about 10% (as compared with 39% in the United States and 25% in Japan). According to him, volunteerism has a crucial role to play in the development of a ‘civil society’ (in Ooi, 1998: 3).
2. The Singapore 21 subject committees comprised Members of Parliament, volunteers in welfare and community organisations, lawyers, unionists, technicians, teachers and many others ‘officially approved’ citizens. Their names are fine-printed on the inside front and back cover of the Singapore 21 document.
3. The deliberations of all five subject committees were summarised and published as five separate booklets. The booklets were then consolidated into a folder entitled Summary of the Deliberations of the Subject Committees to the Singapore 21 Committee (1999) and submitted to the Main Committee.
4. See study done by Ooi, Tan and Koh (1999) on the extent of political participation and policy involvement in Singapore. See also an earlier study by Tan and Chiew (1990); and, most recently, Ho (2000).
5. More information on ‘The Working Committee’ (TWC) can be found by accessing the Singapore Internet Community (SInterCom) website at: www.sintercom.org. SInterCom is another active civil society group dedicated to creating a virtual community of Singaporeans living all over the world.
6. Reference is made to Singapore’s Penal Code Sections 377 and 377(a) which clearly outlaw homosexual practices. For a summary of these legalities, as well as the history and activities of ‘People Like Us’, see PLU’s website at: http://www.geocities.com/plu-singapore (accessible as at April 2001).
7. The concept of the ‘OB-markers’ arose following 1994 episode dubbed ‘The Catherine Lim affair’. Catherine Lim, a popular Singaporean novelist, was rebuked by the government for suggesting in a commentary piece published in The Straits Times that Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s promise of an open and consultative style of rule was not kept. Following the incident, the arbitrary parameters of political debate and comments, ‘OB-markers’, were made public. For further reading on ‘The Catherine Lim affair’, see: Fernandez (1994), Tan, K. Y. L. (2000), Rodan (1996a/b), and Krishnan et al (1996).
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From July 2001, Terence Lee is Lecturer in Mass Communication and Cultural Studies at Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia. Prior to that, he was Lecturer at the School of Communication, Information and New Media, University of South Australia, Adelaide. He has also held research positions at Melbourne University and the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University, Canberra. He is completing his PhD at the Department of Politics, The University of Adelaide. Before relocating to Australia, Terence was an Executive with the Policy and Planning Division of the Singapore Broadcasting Authority where he worked on digital broadcasting policies and other related issues.