Debating Civil Society

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Debating Civil Society


Beyond economics, another issue that arose in 1998 which was managed carefully by the state was the public debate about civil society --- its scope and growth in, and its impact on, Singapore. Interest in the issue cropped up in mid-March when the National University of Singapore's Political Science Society organized a forum, with the topic: "Is there a future for civil society in Singapore?" The forum drew an audience of some 300 university students and lecturers, and was addressed by a panel of four speakers, including well-known local novelist and neurosurgeon, Dr Gopal Baratham. In the ensuing discussion, Baratham and some members of the audience came to the conclusion that there was little room for the growth of civil society in Singapore as long as there was a climate of "fear". That view was especially articulated by a few students, one of whom even asserted that she could not speak her mind at the forum when policemen on campus were, according to her, checking on participants attending the forum.21 It was unclear whether hers was a factual statement, but what was significant was that the pro-Establishment press reported her remarks.

Continuing the debate on civil society, in early May, the Institute of Policy Studies, a think-tank set up by the government in 1987 to do research work on domestic economic, political and social issues, staged a major conference on "Civil Society: Harnessing State-Society Synergies". This was a landmark conference, drawing keen interest from members of the public and sparking a lively debate in the press and elsewhere on the desirability of civil society taking root firmly in Singapore. It is fair to note, however, that the conference, instead of clarifying the definitional concept of civil society, may --- inadvertently or otherwise --- have obscured it. From what transpired at the conference and the subsequent debate in the press, it was clear that the conference had divided participants and the more politically and socially conscious members of the public into two camps. In one camp were the conference organizers and members of the government, who chose to see the government playing some sort of role in the cultivation and guidance of civil society, and hence the conference's sub-heading, "Harnessing State-Society Synergies". …

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