New book chronicles Singapore civil society's journey

In the past, the bodies of Aids sufferers had to be cremated within 24 hours of dying and their families were denied a proper send-off.

For four years, the Action for Aids group lobbied against this rule, finally succeeding in 2000.

The policy was among several changed following the work of activists who spent years championing the rights of marginalised groups and causes.

Highlights from the journeys of 37 such activists have now been chronicled in a 344-page book, The Art Of Advocacy In Singapore, launched at the Singapore Writers Festival yesterday.

It is aimed at the layman and traces the development of civil society across issues and topics such as ageing, animal welfare, culture and faith, health, heritage and the environment, human rights, literature and theatre, the media, migrant workers, sex workers and women.

One chapter by conservationists Ho Hua Chew and Shawn Lum tells of how Chek Jawa, an inter-tidal habitat on Pulau Ubin initially slated for reclamation for military use, was saved when the development plan was shelved days before its implementation. A vociferous campaign emphasising the area's unique biodiversity and ecological importance, supported by reports, experts and the public, secured its future, they wrote.

The book also includes personal pieces by activists such as Kirsten Han and Damien Chng, who are working for the abolition of the death penalty, among other things.

The Art Of Advocacy In Singapore was edited by former journalist Margaret Thomas (far left) and activist Constance Singam.
The Art Of Advocacy In Singapore was edited by former journalist Margaret Thomas (far left) and activist Constance Singam. ST PHOTO: MELODY ZACCHEUS

During a discussion at the book launch, attended by about 150 people, an attendee asked if activists merely build awareness and wait on the Government to achieve change. In response, activists and panellists said they are always trying to move the needle.

Speaking to The Straits Times, Nominated MP and Drama Box artistic director Kok Heng Leun, who contributed to the book, said: "Activists represent people and causes that are not necessarily mainstream but still important as they affect certain segments of society."

The book was edited by activist and former president of the Association of Women for Action and Research Constance Singam and former journalist Margaret Thomas.

Ms Singam described it as a "definitive history of civil society activism in the last 40 years or so", and said the book is evidence that advocacy can succeed in Singapore.

"Civil society activists live on the edge, forever struggling, meeting deadlines, struggling for lack of volunteers, for lack of financial resources, and at the same time often working full-time in paying jobs.

"But they were all prepared to contribute to the book, to jog their memories, to remember long-forgotten experiences, to do research just for this book, (with) all the work done voluntarily and joyfully."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2017, with the headline 'New book chronicles Singapore civil society's journey'. Subscribe