Singapore's civil society journey chronicled in new book

SINGAPORE - In the past, people diagnosed with HIV/Aids 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, succeeding finally in 2000 when the Health Ministry allowed bereaved families up to three days to hold a funeral.

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 new 344-page book - The Art Of Advocacy In Singapore - which was launched at the Singapore Writers Festival on Sunday (Nov 5).

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

Contributions span the Nature Society - one of the oldest civil society organisations in Singapore - to personal pieces by young activists such as Damien Chng, who is working for the abolition of the death penalty, among other things.

One chapter by conservationists Dr Ho Hua Chew and Dr Shawn Lum chronicles how Chek Jawa, an inter-tidal habitat on Pulau Ubin initially slated for reclamation for interim military use, was saved when the Government's plan was shelved on the eve of its implementation.

The duo wrote that a vociferous campaign emphasising the area's unique biodiversity and ecological importance, supported by reports, experts and the public, secured its future.

Speaking to The Straits Times, Nominated MP and Drama Box artistic director Kok Heng Leun, who contributed to the book, said: "The book is a reflection of the change that has taken place over the years. We are making progress.

"Activists represent people and causes that are not necessarily mainstream but still important as they affect certain segments of society. It is our duty to get citizens not just to think for themselves but others as well."

Mr Kok wrote about how Drama Box has engaged in social theatre and tackled topics such as marginalisation. In his essay, he discusses how the non-profit contemporary theatre company has been censored on occasion.

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.

She added: "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, all the work done voluntarily and joyfully."

Published by Ethos Books, The Art Of Advocacy In Singapore can be purchased online at and at major bookstores from Nov 13, priced at $30 before GST.