Thursday, 11 September 2014

* We must embrace with great urgency a non-partisan, politically proactive society

Pravin Prakash is pursuing his master’s degree in political science at the National University of Singapore, where he also tutors undergraduates.

Politics in post-independence Singapore has been kept solely in the domain of active electoral politics and, as such, handled only by members of political parties. In many ways, this has shaped a perception that political activity and advocacy should remain in the arena of electoral politics — a view that has evolved in recent years.

Since the 2011 General Election in particular, there has been a fundamental political shift that started from the roots of society as Singaporeans increasingly want a say in the political process and policies, without actually being involved as a politician.

In previous decades, many civil society initiatives, including the Roundtable, Association of Muslim Professionals, Sintercom and even the irreverent, came under great pressure from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) government, which viewed such political participation and interest with suspicious lenses.

The public chiding of writer Catherine Lim, in response to a critical essay written by her in 1994, is perhaps the most famous example. In its reply, the Prime Minister’s Office stated that novelists, short-story writers and theatre groups would not be allowed to set the political agenda from outside the political arena.

Today, the growth in Singapore’s civil society has little to do with partisan politics. And, unlike previous attempts that involved mostly educated professionals and smaller interest groups, this modern evolution of civil society has enjoyed the interest and participation of a much wider swathe of society.

The vociferous reaction towards the Population White Paper, the heated debate over the Pink Dot and Wear White movements and the furore over the National Library Board’s decision to withdraw three book titles are not influenced by partisan politics. Instead, they are reflective of a ground-up mobilisation that has almost zero electoral ambition.

This is characteristic of a population that is increasingly vocal and conscious of social issues, with strong opinions about what they consider to be acceptable norms and values. It also indicates a citizenry that increasingly wants to exercise its right to lobby the government in power over contentious issues and policies.

The expansion of political space in Singapore in the past few years is not vertical, targeted at diversifying or diluting power at the top, but rather a horizontal growth aimed at fostering diverse views and advocating change through bottom-up mobilisation.

But the growing advocacy movement in Singapore is one that those vying for traditional sources of political power must come to terms with.

It may be argued that the PAP and its government have found this expansion of civil society and the rise of advocacy groups uncomfortable. It is imperative that we contextualise this discomfort as one that arises from a need to shift away from a more paternalistic style of governance. It would be both inaccurate and unproductive to conclude that this discomfort arises because the government and civil society exist as adversaries.

However, the growth of civil society in Singapore cannot and should not be seen as being adverse to the sustenance of the PAP government or as being in support of opposition parties. This is a commonly suggested fallacy that the incumbent party, opposition parties and society must avoid.
It is worth noting that opposition parties in Singapore have struggled as much as, if not more than, the PAP, with regards to taking positions on contentious, divisive issues such as those pertaining to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

The positive effects of such difficulty has been that the major contentious issues brought up by civil society has not been painted in the colours of any particular political parties and have instead been debated as issues of national interest. This is a trend that must be advocated and indeed protected.

German philosopher Jurgen Habermas noted that increasingly affluent and educated societies tend to develop a public sphere that would grow into a vibrant space in which state authority was publicly monitored through informed and critical discourse by the people. This is indicative of a socially-conscious, interested and proactive populace, and will serve only to strengthen the political structures in Singapore if they are tapped into with a positive perspective.

This public sphere should debate policies and issues and offer critiques without inherent partisan bias. Both the PAP and the opposition parties will be critically evaluated and examined, not by those with rival political ambitions, but by a concerned civil society, hoping to advocate change when necessary and support policies that achieve these aims.

It is essential that this public sphere must evolve with little government interference, in order for it to function as an independent socio-political space, with original and autonomous ideas.

However, for this to exist, civil society must develop self-governing mechanisms that embrace diversity of ideas, while rejecting and censoring extremist ideas and groups that promote hate speech and discrimination.

Groups can take opposite positions, debate them vociferously, but must do so with the implicit understanding that while debate is welcome, derision and discrimination are not. Groups that engage in these actions must be censured, not by the government, but by the collective voice of the public sphere. This will strengthen civil society and give it the moral authority to debate public issues.

Political parties must accept this public sphere and find avenues to increasingly engage it, despite the noise and chaos that it will surely bring. This is because an evolving society with a growing political and social consciousness will, over time, demand greater discourse and debate over the issues that concern them.

A non-partisan, politically proactive Singaporean society is now probable and, hence, one that we must embrace with great urgency.

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