Civil Society in Singapore: Popular Discourses and Concepts

By Chong, Terence | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Civil Society in Singapore: Popular Discourses and Concepts


Chong, Terence, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


The character of a civil society is largely dependent on contemporary political conditions, the nature of the state, and the manner of society-state relations, thus infusing the term with a hermeneutic instability that is reflected in the broader literature. For Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith, 18th century British philosopher and economist, respectively, "civil society" was envisaged as a regulatory and socializing force that curbed man's unstable nature in order to protect market practices, property rights, and the flourish of capitalism. Hegel, however, drew clear distinctions between civil society, family, and the state (Ehrenberg 1999). According to Hegel, civil society was itself a product of the modern state, without which there could be no civil society. Made up of diverse competing interests, the occasional socio-political discord that played out "led Hegel to view civil society as prone to instability and conflict, despite its natural tendency towards a natural equilibrium. To ensure "civility" and stability, he concluded, the state--which in his view was the only entity capable of representing the unity of society and furthering the freedom of citizens--had to order civil society. Hence, state intervention to guide and govern civil society was legitimate" (Alagappa 2004, p. 28).

Gramsci, writing in the 1930s, sought to excavate Marxist civil society from the depths of the economic base by referring to civil society as a group of associations and organizations between the economic structure and the state. Though Gramscian civil society was an essential site in which cultural and ideological support ensured the legitimacy of European capitalism values, it was also responsible for the emergence of counter-hegemony narratives that expressed themselves through the competition of ideas (Gramsci 1999; Ehrenberg 1999). The Gramscian civil society was necessarily fragmented, demarcated by different interests, and highly competitive, in contrast to a Marxist civil society framed rigorously by class-based conflict, and together with institutions of the economic sphere such as employers' associations and trade unions, institutions like churches, parties, professional associations, educational, and cultural bodies formed the constellation of a civil society with the dual ability for ideological hegemony and contestation. This view of civil society was a breakaway from conventional Marxist suspicions of mechanisms such as an independent press, freedom of speech or assembly, and voting rights, which were seen by Marx as the forms through which only bourgeois power is consolidated, while the economic sphere itself, with its institutions such as firms and corporations responsible for organizing production, was not, by definition, part of Gramscian civil society.

Civil society was resuscitated in the 1970s during the "third wave of democratization" in East Europe (Huntington 1991). (1) The experiences of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, among others, consequently endowed civil society with ideas of conflict, resistance, and empowerment. The "East European-inspired conception of a conflict view of civil society" is dedicated to "empowering the individuals and disadvantaged groups and opening a space for them to organize, protect, and articulate their interests and well-being" and, "because of their distrust and fear of the state", regards "civil society as a necessary countervailing force to the state" (Lee 2005, p. 5). Although similar to the concept of a "liberal-pluralist civil society" in the way civil society groups were positioned diametrically to the state, the greater concern of Eastern European civil society was to liberate "society from the all-pervasive totalitarian ideology of the party-state, recover social autonomy, expand civil liberties and human rights, and create democratic space (in education, culture, media, and the like) outside the party-state" (Alagappa 2004, p. 31). The fundamental difference between the Eastern European civil society and the liberal-pluralist civil society is that the former did not set out to alter the party-state or to capture political power, but was instead more concerned with encouraging and nurturing the normative practice of democratic values within the sphere of civil society in contrast to existing heavy-handed state apparatuses and manoeuvres, while the latter, in neo-Tocquevillian fashion, saw the democratization of autocratic regimes and the influencing of government policy as its raison d'etre and is driven by the unshakeable belief that the link between its presence and the enshrinement of democracy is nonnegotiable. …

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