Singapore: Active Citizenship' And Passive Civil Society

1999

Dr Garry Rodan

In April this year, 'Singapore 21' was launched. It is a vison statement that is the product of nearly two years' work by a committee headed by Minister for Education and Second Minister for Defence, Teo Chee Hean. Among its recommendations, the emphasis on the need for 'active citizenship' is the most significant. The idea has added impetus to attempts by individuals and groups pushing for a more expansive civil society. But the very meaning and purpose of civil society is something over which the state, through the concept of 'active citizenship', is attempting to keep within strict bounds.

The essence of 'active citizenship' is the idea that civic groups combine in a 'positive and co-operative way' with the private and public sectors to assist in the improvement and implementation of public policy. Prime Minister Goh has even mooted 'citizens' ideas teams' as part of the new approach, while Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has talked about the need to 'involve and co-opt people and ideas at all levels, both inside and outside the Government'.

It is in this climate that The Working Committee (TWC) - an initiative by non-government organisations, artists and others - is conducting an ongoing series of forums and workshops to explore civil society possibilities. A wide range of interests and perspectives are represented in these deliberations, from social activists to apolitical community and cultural organisations. It is apparent that while a minority is seriously exploring the means for opening up genuinely independent political space, most are nervous about this direction.

The division is effectively over whether civil society should give expression to political pluralism, including political competition, or simply accept ruling party political hegemony. Internalisation of state paternalism runs deep in Singapore. Nominated MP Simon Tay, a leading figure in the civil society debate, criticised the government in parliament for a lack of detailed plans to foster active citizenship. Even government backbencher Davinder Singh was quick to spot the irony, observing that, by its nature, civil society was supposed to be spontaneous and autonomous.

But Prime Minister Goh has made his position clear: active citizenship is not an invitation for a free-for-all debate and those who are out to undermine the government or wrest control from the ruling party can expect 'an extremely robust' response. Nor does the new model signify a right to consultation by virtue of being affected by policy. Instead, it is good knowledge of a subject that the government is seeking. This vision of 'civil society', it seems, has quite instrumentalist objectives and should not be confused with an enhancement of citizenship rights.

WATCHPOINT: The impact of current protests by the Nature Society of Singapore over the government's calling for tenders to start recreational boating on wetlands in Sungei Nature Park.

 

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