Singaporean Civil Society to Date

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Singaporean Civil Society to Date


Prime Minister Goh's call in 1997 for civil society did not come in a complete vacuum. The relationship between state and civil society in Singapore may be broadly traced through four periods. These correspond to the social and political developments of the times.

The first stage relates to pre-independence Singapore.14 At that time, civil society was indigenous and strong, given the propensity of ethnic groups to organize self-help organizations, such as the Chinese clan associations, and the equal propensity of the colonial government to provide little in the way of social services and welfare.

The second stage of Singapore civil society may be characterized by the movement towards independence in the 1950s and 1960s. The call for Merdeka awoke not only political society but also quickened the pulse of civil associations, such as trade unions and student groups.15 The women's movement in this period was active and led to a successful campaign for steps towards equality, such as the abolition of polygamy, and the passing of the Women's Charter in 1961.16

The third stage for Singapore civil society corresponds to the dominance of the PAP in the 1970s and 1980s. The PAP government, as part of a then prevailing socialist-democratic ethos, began to provide housing, welfare, and a range of other services well beyond that provided by the colonial government. It thereby reduced the scope of needs met previously by self-organized civil society groups. The focus of the time, moreover, was the politics of economic survival and progress.17 Accordingly, as one Cabinet minister explained, the nation "went through a centralizing phase because we had to build a nation".18

Civil society organizations such as trade unions and the professions were to form co-operative relationships with the PAP government. Others were co-opted, curtailed, or legally circumscribed. The space for civil society shrank. Politics in this period of economic survival and progress cooled down. The dominant political analysis in this period and its aftermath suggested that politics in Singapore was not to be found in the contest between political parties but had been submerged in the bureaucracy.19

The fourth stage of state-civil society relations in Singapore is present and still unfolding. It can be said to have started in the late 1980s, with the pending accession of a second-generation leadership and the politics of consultation. In 1990, then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong promised, as one of three goals for the 1990s, to "practise a more constructive, participatory-style democracy".20 On assuming the office of prime minister, he pledged to expand intellectual and creative space by fostering intellectual discussion.21

Institutions for consultation and participation were set up, both in the run-up to Goh's succession to the office of prime minister, and in the early years of his tenure. These included Town Councils, which devolved local administration of public housing areas to allow for more participation by residents. Institutions established specifically for consultation were the Feedback Unit and the Institute of Policy Studies. While the term "civil society" was not specifically mentioned, it was clearly implied as part of the politics of consultation. The government would consult people either as individuals or, more often, as organized associations or sectors; that is to say, civil society groups.

In 1991, Minister for Information and the Arts, Brigadier-General George Yeo gave a speech specifically on civil society.22 Although preferring the term "civic society", minister Yeo clearly identified the strata of institutions between the state and the individual.23 Most significantly, perhaps, his speech identified the PAP government as a "banyan tree" which did not allow other civil (or civic) institutions to grow in its imposing shade and had therefore to be pruned.24 The minister recognized:25

For our civic institutions to grow, the state must withdraw a little and provide more space for local initiative. …

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