The following is a piece that was first published on my Byline page on 29 November 2016.
It’s been over a year since the general election in Singapore, but I still remember that collective sense of defeat and deflation that spread among many of my more liberal and progressive friends. Between the energy of the rallies and the echo chamber of our social media feeds we’d allowed ourselves to imagine that change was coming, that there would be more diversity in Parliament, and that Singapore was making steady progress towards a more contested political landscape and more opportunities for citizens to be heard.
The results, so different from what we’d expected, were crushing. It felt as if none of the efforts had paid off, and Singaporean civil society — from the independent online media to the opposition political parties and their many volunteers — had failed.
I’ve since met people who have given up, people who feel like nothing more can be done, and that the only answer is to seek a better life elsewhere. I’ve met people who are still frustrated, overwhelmed by the number of obstacles in the way, by the way power has been so centralised and so entrenched that it seems as if nothing could ever shake it. There is anger and exasperation, but also fear and disappointment: Will things be like this forever? Is there really no way for things to change?
I, like many I’ve met, have wondered what it is about Singapore and Singaporeans that keeps us from fighting for freedoms and civil liberties like other societies do. I’ve also looked at social movements around the world, made mental comparisons with the situation at home, and wondered, “What’s wrong with us? Why are we so hopeless?”
It’s a state of mind that is both depressing and disempowering. It convinces us that there we’re helpless, that it’s just too hard and we’re never going to be able to change a thing.
I’ve since decided that “what’s wrong with us?” isn’t the right question to be asking. Instead, we should be asking ourselves about the history of civil society and organising in Singapore, about the conditions that we live in today, and what our goals really are at this point.
As part of his Movement Action Plan, American political activist Bill Moyer argued that successful social movements go through eight stages, from status quo through to victory and a continuation of the struggle to further extend successes. In the early stages, opposition and activism is at a minimum, with most of the population either unaware or unconcerned about particular problems within society. It isn’t until later in the movement that a “trigger event” attracts public attention, building support for movements and campaigns and placing the issue front and centre in public discourse. It’s also this “trigger” that tends to bring people out into the streets, creating the events that we’re used to seeing in the news, and associate with activism and social movements.
When I look at Moyer’s description of the eight stages and match it against my experience observing and participating in Singapore civil society, it’s clear that, when it comes to issues like political rights, civil liberties, democracy and human rights, we’re at a fairly early stage. Recognising this immediately makes one realise the absurdity of trying to compare Singaporean civil society to that of more politically mature and developed societies.
There is no point in feeling disheartened about not seeing Singaporeans as a whole resisting authoritarianism more, nor there is any use in seeing the Singaporean aversion to peaceful protest and public assembly as a failure. If that was the goal, then of course we’ve failed; we’ve not even created the conditions to achieve such a goal yet.
Regardless of one’s opinion of the government, the fact is that life in Singapore is, generally, relatively good. Compared to many other countries, we still have a better standard of living, and a number of other things to boast about. There might be some grouses here and there, but most Singaporeans find that life isn’t that bad, as long as one can go to work, collect one’s pay packet, and still shop and dine in air-conditioned malls. Issues like due process, checks and balances in the political system, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, detention without trial, the death penalty, gender justice, inequality and exploitation (particularly of migrant workers) tend to seem abstract and divorced from everyday life. That’s why we continue to see a focus on “bread and butter issues” during election-time, even though the distinction between an issues like housing and an issue like political rights is completely false.
The challenge, then, is for progressives — not just the activists who are already involved in various organisations and campaigns, but also everyone else who takes an interest — to convince the rest of the population that these issues are connected, that there is a problem, and that everyone should be concerned.
Our goal right now is not to mobilise thousands to go marching in the streets. Our goal right now is to reach out to people, to build relationships, networks, trust and solidarity. It’s easier said than done, but it’s necessary, and there’s a role for everyone. There are so many access points, so many ways for us to exercise our democratic muscle, and to encourage others to do the same.
It can be as easy as setting up a reading group with a bunch of friends, creating a space for people to discuss and debate, to get used to disagreeing and arguing in good faith. It can be contacting one’s Member of Parliament to discuss more than just local town council issues, but to lobby on matters of national or even foreign policy; after all, that is why MPs are elected to Parliament. It can be about educating ourselves, and our friends and family, about aspects of Singapore’s history that have been left out of the establishment narrative, about why they have been left out, and what we can learn from them. It can even be about supporting the work of others, whether it’s donating to independent media or an organisation, or standing in solidarity with and speaking out for people who have suffered unjust treatment at the hands of the powerful. Activism and speaking out can sometimes be a scary thing, and the threat of repercussion is real. Knowing that there is solidarity and support from others makes a big difference.
It might not sound or seem like much, but this is important work. Singaporeans need to get used to participating in the processes and occupying the spaces that are already available to us, and to use this to push for more. A lot can get done if everyone were to figure out what they’re comfortable doing, then take a step or two further out of that zone. And if the proper channels and processes don’t work as they should, or if we run into repression or unjustifiable obstacles, then they need to be documented, because this information is important in educating the wider public about the problems in our society and how they affect people’s lives. If we want more democracy in Singapore, then we have to get used to expecting, rather than hoping, for our democratic rights to be respected.
Things have looked far more encouraging ever since I stopped trying to compare activism in Singapore with social movements elsewhere, hoping for more freedoms, more resources and more capacity to do more. It’s turned out to be far more empowering to think about what we can do now to educate ourselves and change mindsets, and to create the conditions for future campaigns, movements and activists to build upon.
It’s still going to be a very long road, but the journey doesn’t look so bleak anymore.