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What makes an activist? Power and language in Singapore

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore
What makes an activist? Power and language in Singapore
#protip: If your work involves perpetuating existing power structures, then you're not an activist, and calling yourself one erases the power imbalances that people should oppose.

Language has power. Words have the ability to provoke emotions and craft narratives. They can frame issues in a variety of ways, producing different outcomes. One’s choice of words, phrasing of sentences and placement of paragraphs can construct lasting impressions in people’s minds.

You know who else has power? The People’s Action Party, or PAP. This political party has seen unbroken rule in Singapore for over half a century. As the government, it has been able to exert influence over the media, supposedly non-partisan statutory boards like the People’s Association, and many other aspects of Singaporeans’ lives. When it comes to Singaporean politics, the PAP's power is supreme: no political challenger can match it in terms of reach, funds, resources and control of the playing field. (See here and here for more on PAP's huge advantage in politics.)

Yet it's as if the PAP still thinks of itself as a progressive social movement, like it was in the 1950s when it rode the wave of leftist anti-colonialism. Perhaps that’s why we still see PAP volunteers and campaigners described as “activists”:

It's ridiculous to refer to PAP volunteers as activists. It is outrageous that the PAP uses the term, and embarrassing that the mainstream media picks it up.

Activism is about pushing for social change, whether it be something as broad and globally relevant as equal rights for LGBT people or something as local as fighting to save a neighbourhood landmark like a community centre. 

Power relations also lie at the heart of activism; the people who are pushing for change are generally fighting against a dominant power. Feminists, for example, fight against patriarchy, which hands disproportionate amounts of power and privilege in public and private life to men. Anti-poverty activists struggle against hyper-capitalism, which grants more power and reward to mega-corporations and employers rather than to workers through redistributive policies. Environmental activists might fight against governments or mega-corporations (or both), who have the power and ability to decide whether certain forests should be cleared or protected.

There's a simple and handy way to figure out if what you're doing can be called activism: if achieving your goal requires pushing back against someone or something that has more power than you, then you're probably an activist, because you want something to change from the status quo that the powerful have created.

If your core message is more along the lines of...