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Power and civil society in Singapore

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore
Power and civil society in Singapore
The Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill was passed by Parliament after a seven-hour debate on 15 August. For those of us who campaigned against it, it was an expected disappointment. But this experience has been a great reminder about politics, power, collaboration and organising.

It started in the same way so many sociopolitical campaigns in Singapore do: a bill/policy introduced to the country, its virtues touted by a mainstream media that does little more than reproduce the platitudes handed out by a minister. A period of inaction during which members of civil society are interested and concerned, but are too occupied with day jobs, family obligations and existing campaigns/issues to get to it immediately. Then someone finally manages to organise a forum, and everyone attends, we all collectively realise this is Really Bad Indeed, and a small group of people get together to do something about it.

There was little time by then, only about 16 days to the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill's second reading in Parliament. Still, we pulled together a petition to be submitting to Parliament, a long shot hoping to delay the passage of the Bill and buy time for the public campaign. We set up a blog and a Facebook page. We put out posts and graphics to raise awareness of our concerns. We even made a Bill Bingo, a cheeky way to pre-empt arguments that the Law Minister would be likely to make in Parliament. (He made quite a few of those arguments, but I didn't get a bingo.)

All that was not enough to stop or even delay the Bill, of course. No amount of Facebook shares or petitions were going to be able to stand against the might of the People's Action Party's overwhelming parliamentary majority. But two things surprised us:

1) The Workers' Party, sometimes seen by civil society as overly-conservative or cautious, came out very strongly against the Bill, echoing our points in many areas and going even further than we did in our petition by opposing the Bill entirely.

2) The three Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) – Mahdev Mohan, Kuik Shiao Yin and Kok Heng Leun – who tabled amendments to the Bill, withdrew the amendments and, even more shockingly, voted for the Bill.

The ship has now sailed; the Bill has been passed into law. But that doesn't mean that public education and awareness comes to a halt. It's as important as ever for the Singaporean public to learn about the clauses in the Bill – and, when the Hansard is published, the supposed clarifications that Law Minister K Shanmugam made during the debate – and to understand their implications for freedom of speech, activism, journalism and accountability in Singapore.

This campaign, and what's happened, has also been instructive in the way power functions in Singapore, how it exerts itself and the impact it has upon those trying to push back.

The lack of diversity in Parliament

As already mentioned, the PAP has an overwhelming majority in Parliament. Its numbers alone allow the government to pass any and every bill they want to in Parliament – about five bills were passed in Parliament the day after the Administration of Justice (Protection) bill debate. Parliamentary debates exert next to no pressure on the ruling party; no matter how strident the criticism from the opposition, they know they'll win the vote at the end of the day. Even when it came to this "marathon" debate, Shanmugam would surely have known that he was going to win the day.

Without more political diversity in the House, the most the opposition can give us are satisfying speeches to share on social media, and a record of their dissatisfaction in the Hansard for posterity. But while it's gratifying to be able to highlight excerpts of a speech for my Facebook page, or to know that historians down the line will be able to see that objections were registered, all that is cold comfort compared to the fact that we will have to live with the effects of such a Bill now.

Negotiating with power

Parliamentary majority is not the only way the ruling elite exercise power in Singapore. Just take a look at what happened with the NMPs. The fact that they had tabled amendments, and given speeches asking incisive questions, signalled to any reasonable observer that they had worries and reservations about the Bill, and would be unlikely to endorse it. Yet when it came down to the vote, these three did not even abstain; they actually voted in favour.

Two NMPs, Kok Heng Leun and Kuik Shiao-yin, have since written posts on Facebook explaining their decision. As I said in a Facebook post, it seems as if they were put into a situation where they felt they were getting the best deal they could by agreeing to vote for the Bill because of clarifications. Unfortunately, the clarifications don't give us very much at all, and is nowhere near as significant as actual amendments to the Bill would have been. So the Law Minister was able to have the satisfaction of being able to say that the NMPs were won over by voting for the Bill, without having to give up very much at all.

This is how power works. When the playing field is so skewed, those in less powerful positions find themselves thinking that any concession they can wrest from their opponent is a reassuring win. Yet their opponent holds all the cards in this game. In this case, the Ministry of Law didn't need anything from the NMPs; they knew that the Bill would pass regardless of what the NMPs said. The NMPs knew this too, and made the calculation that it was better to get clarifications than stick by their amendments and get nothing at all. But of course, we now see that this calculation meant handing the government the ability to argue that the Bill is not so bad after all, that even the worried NMPs were persuaded in the end, further masking the fact that this Bill hands the state more power than it had under the common law.

Divide and rule

The fall-out has also been useful for the powerful. In the days following the passage of the Bill, we've seen recriminations heaped upon the NMPs, as if their betrayal, instead of the PAP majority, had lost us the battle. Plenty of time, energy and space has been spent on analysing the NMPs decision, and pushing blame around. 

All this hand-wringing and anger, while completely understandable – I've engaged in a fair amount of it myself these days – has shifted focus away from other (more) important questions:

- Why was the Law Minister so determined to get the Bill passed on the same day as the second reading? Is it really good for Singapore for bill to be pushed through Parliament so quickly?

- The Law Minster said that the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill had been six years in the making. Be that as it may, the fact remains that the Bill was only introduced to the public on 11 July, a little more than a month ago. Has there really been enough time for the public to first hear of the Bill, then study and understand its implications? 

- What sort of public consultation did the Ministry of Law conduct for this Bill? The Law Minister said that stakeholders were consulted: who were these stakeholders? What did they say? How was their feedback processed and considered?  Which bits made it into the Bill? Which bits didn't make it into the Bill? How public is a public consultation when we don't even know these things?

- Why was the Bill on put on the government's own feedback portal, REACH, on 12 July, after it was already introduced in Parliament? Again, what sort of public consultation is this if it was only done after the Bill was already through its first reading?

- Is this really the government's standard protocol when they come up with policies or draft Bills? If so, what happened to openness, transparency and accountability?

A situation in which we continue to be focused on the NMPs' vote only benefits the elite, because then we're not demanding answers to these questions.

How do we move forward?

There are many things that I'm proud of when I look back at the past few weeks of the Don't Kena Contempt campaign. I'm proud to have worked with smart, mature, dedicated people who stepped up to the plate even when most people in Singapore wouldn't even have noticed if they just sat back and did nothing. I'm proud that we were able to generate some awareness, and perhaps force a bit more media coverage than the Bill would have received if there hadn't been a campaign.

But there's lots to consider moving forward, whether it's Don't Kena Contempt, or some other campaign/issue (and there will be more.)


We were caught off-guard by the introduction of the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill. But civil society is almost always caught off-guard in Singapore. Activism in Singapore is often reactive, rather than pro-active: the government springs something on us, then we try to come up with something to push back. There has got to be a better way to do this.

Perhaps we couldn't have anticipated the Bill, but what if we already had networks between activists, lawyers and other volunteers ready to spring into action to scrutinise the Bill and come up with a reaction? What if we'd already had workshops on how to go through parliamentary processes, such as submitting petitions, so that we wouldn't have to learn how to write a petition according to the Parliamentary Standing Orders overnight?

Could we have mobilised more quickly? Don't Kena Contempt wasn't too shabby for a 16-day effort. What more could we have done, if we had a month, more training and more people?

Communication and collaboration

Friends recently asked why the campaign had not formed a "tag-team" with the Workers' Party (WP), since we shared so many similar concerns. The truth is that we had no idea that WP was going to come out so strongly against the Bill until the day itself. 

Would things have been drastically different if we had known, and had teamed up? I'm not sure, but it's possible. But major collaborations between civil society and the main opposition party in Singapore have been few and far between (actually, I can't really think of any). The political environment in Singapore means that there's a lot of wariness and distrust; WP might see working with activists as a liability that could alienate their more conservative voters, while civil society groups shy away from opposition parties for fear of being accused of partisanship.

It's yet another effective divide-and-rule tactic, and something that opposition parties and civil society groups alike should challenge. There's no requirement to agree on all issues, but where interests do converge, it makes sense to build strength upon strength. We don't even need to have direct collaborations like shared campaigns, but building channels of communication to allow for coordination and the sharing of resources (like research) could be helpful.

Another point about communication: none of us knew that the NMPs were going to vote for the Bill until it was done. None of us know who, what, when and how the Ministry of Law consulted stakeholders. Closed-door meetings with the government, where things are said and deals are struck in secret, cut us off from one another. It sows distrust and hampers solidarity-building. It forces us to play into the "good activist/bad activist" trope, which almost always works out in the elite's favour.

It's probably unrealistic to expect all members of civil society to reject closed-door sessions with the government, because there are times when this proves to be effective, but we should request for as many meetings with the state to be on public record, just so the powerful are aware that we are no longer content with having private audiences bestowed upon us. We've got to talk and be clear about our goals, so that even if we get stuck in a situation where a closed-door meeting is necessary, everyone is clear about what we want, how we want it, and what we're willing to concede to get it. No one should be blindsided by decisions made by colleagues in closed-door sessions, and those who do go into closed-door sessions – because not all of us are granted this access – shouldn't end up in situations where they are put on the spot and forced to make decisions without peer support. We've also got to build more trust in each other, and show ourselves to be worthy of that trust.

Political education

Civil society is small in Singapore. Tiny, even. You see the same people at events all the time; almost everyone knows everyone. We've fought for causes the wider public has sneered at. We've been trolled, slammed, flamed and generally ignored.

It's easy to close ranks in such a climate, to feel like we're the only people who care in this whole country, to mock 'the 70%' and think that it's hopeless to reach out to them. 

But there are many reasons why so many Singaporeans are apathetic. The lack of political education is one. There is a lack of understanding of how Parliament works, why it's important to have diversity within Parliament, and how having Bills rushed through Parliament hurts us all in the end. Not enough people realise that Parliament works for them, that it is public and has to be held to account. Even fewer people appreciate that they have a part to play too, and that there are ways to exercise their democratic rights apart from putting a cross on a ballot paper once every five years.

Civil society groups tend to stick to their own areas of interest: environment, migrant workers, detention without trial, death penalty, gender equality, etc. There is reason for this atomisation, but it's high time we all realised that the lack of political education (as well as freedom of speech, transparency and accountability) affect all our causes, and work together to get Singaporeans more aware of how politics works for the public, not for the ruling class.

What we need, more than ever, is to draw connections and stick together, rather than split apart.

#singapore, #civil society, #politics, #power, #don't kena contempt, #parliament, #activism