The launch of a book on social advocacy offers a moment for reflection, given its remit of covering the history of civil society activism in the last 40 years. There is no doubt those cited made a difference to Singapore life in labouring for significant causes. Famously, people came together to save Chek Jawa from bulldozers ordered by the State to prepare the ground for military use. Who would have had the temerity then to place nipah palms, mantis shrimp and sea cucumbers above the solemn pursuit of national defence? Thankfully, a group of advocates did just that. Acting together, they showed how precious ecosystems and endangered species would be lost forever.
In pre-school education, the Lien Foundation's advocacy, articulated in its 2012 Starting Well study, helped to promote wider recognition of the critical importance of early childhood learning. Women's causes got a sustained boost from the Association of Women for Action and Research; the abuse of animals and illegal trafficking of wildlife were kept in the public eye by the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society; and the troubled among foreign workers got the attention of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics. Many other groups and individuals have also pushed the envelope in a host of areas like culture, heritage, the environment and the plight of those afflicted with HIV or Aids.
Activism brought under the rubric of "civil society" sounds good, as observed by commentator Krishan Kumar: "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?" The reality, of course, is that civil society has been conceived differently since Aristotle's time; there are different types of activists, and different methods are used by them. Consequently, the responses towards them have also varied over the years.
The book's publisher said that "advocacy is a tricky pursuit in Singapore... (as) your motives can be questioned, your activities monitored, and your scope for action limited". Some activists have claimed that the voice of civil society became muted in the post-Independence years. However, in a seminal speech in 1991, then Acting Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo called for individuals, families and a "whole array of civic organisations" to be more active in anchoring Singaporeans to the country.
To advance, civil society players have been encouraged to avoid tunnel vision. "It will do Singapore good if we also have more debate and peer review within civil society itself," observed Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam two years ago. Proposals advocated by supporters of causes often require trade-offs to be made which might impact other areas. These should be weighed objectively by all activists with an eye on the larger public good.