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Teoh Tian Jing
What is civil society? The idea of civil society is a product of civilization, with people coming together to achieve a common goal.
To quote Edmund Burke, an Irish political thinker: “To be attached to the subdivisions, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle of public affection. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.”
Involvement in civil society, is part of the process of getting to know your fellow Singaporeans better. The process of working together for a shared goal and to make this country a better place to live in will, on a subconscious level, forge a sense of belongingness to this place and the people.
Love for your country, for your fellow Singaporeans, is nothing which school can teach in all the years of formal education.
To make Singaporeans feel a part of the society, they must at least have a say in how things are done. Decision-making from the top must factor in the voice of the people for which these policies are made. Singaporean voices must count for something.
Free discussion about local social issues, current affairs and politics will create a better understanding of the different issues that affect society at large.
Open discussion must be allowed to take place to complement the private discussion that takes place over the dinner table, where uninformed opinions on issues often take place.
Civil society groups can persuade the government to reverse an unpopular decision that has been bulldozed through.
Civil society groups can and should discuss topics that are often not discussed under the pretext that such discussions will only serve to polarize society. It is not true that polarisation will occur with open discussion.
In fact, open discussions help to moderate society views and rational opinions are, more often than not, formed. It helps bond people and forge a sense of identity so lacking in our society.
But the current restrictive political climate we are in only serves to dampen the development of civil society. This is clearest when we consider that the first question that comes to everyone’s mind when we start out on an initiative, especially if it concerns socio-political issues, is whether the activity is illegal.
The situation in Singapore has come to a point where almost anything you do you have to look over your shoulder and see if it is illegal.
Those who have creative ideas are immediately curbed by draconian laws that restrict outdoor political activities, ban foreign speakers, curtail making of independent films, etc.
This creates a very unhealthy environment where Singaporeans toe the line drawn by the state even when the laws make no sense and work against their interest such as when their liberties and rights are curbed without any legitimate reason.
One sorry example is the prohibition of video-recording of a so-called illegal activity under the Public Order Act. The Government gives the excuse that such a law is to prevent terrorist activities.
But everyone knows that it is meant to curb activists from defying the ban on peaceful protests. The state belittles the common sense of people when such laws are used, all for the benefit of the few in power.
The state must give back the powers it has usurped from Singaporeans over the last few decades. We, the people, must demand for what rightly belongs to us.
To make this a better place to live in, we must stand up to make the change for the better, and strengthen the fabric of society with our individual involvement in civil society.
Every individual has the power to make a difference, and with our collective effort, change will come.
Teoh Tian Jing is a member of the Young Democrats. He wrote a moving piece, I found out what it means to be a citizen, about his personal experience during the WB-IMF protest (music video) at Hong Lim Park in Sept 2006, and his reflection on the Freedom Walk (music video) in Dec 2006.