story Koh Wei Jie, Guest Columnist
I will be voting for the first time in the upcoming Singapore General Elections on Sep. 11, but my best option may be to void my vote. After Nomination Day, I may find myself in the awkward position of having to choose between the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and the National Solidarity Party, neither of which I support. Voters like myself who hold strong views about specific, yet consequential issues, such as the role of the sedition act or low-skilled migrant workers’ rights, often feel that the current political process is a poor platform for us to act on them, leaving us frustrated or apathetic. But rather than pin our hopes on electoral politics to protect the marginalized, we should also take individual and collective action in our power as citizens to build a more vibrant civil society. Political leadership is necessary, but we should not overlook how we can contribute to society through issue-based activism.
Some may pin their hopes on the opposition to champion civil society issues in parliament. It is important to recognize that opposition parties are diverse and do not all hold the same views—there are in fact as many as nine opposition parties with vastly different proposals, candidates, and histories, so some are more likely to address such issues than others. Opposition parties have varying priorities and may also lack the capacity to advocate for these specific issues effectively. Not only do they have to focus on winning seats, they also have to invest resources into policy proposals that may not address these unpopular, yet important issues.
Moreover, in the current political landscape, elections alone are not enough to solve social problems. PAP and opposition politicians who have the incentive to stay in power, may end up weighing what is politically expedient over what they believe is right, especially regarding controversial issues such as whether marital rape should be criminalized, or whether we should reform stigmatizing and abstinence-based sexuality education programs in public schools. Voters who hold nuanced and specific political views may end up feeling that nothing can change the status quo. Nevertheless, we can free ourselves from the various dilemmas that we may find ourselves in if we work towards strong and vibrant civil society activism.
In Singapore, civil society organizations are non-governmental, non-partisan and primarily characterized by individuals and organizations that work on issues in ways that challenge, directly or indirectly, hegemonic power structures and institutions. Such organizations include those that champion migrant workers’ rights or LGBTQ rights. While many of these groups challenge the status quo, not all civil society organizations necessarily work on controversial issues or oppose the government’s policy stances. In fact, it is precisely the diversity of thought and practice in civil society that make civil society valuable. Civil society directly empowers the marginalized, raises neglected issues to the public eye and pressures the government to take action.
It is also important to note that civil society groups have, like political institutions, made their fair share of trade-offs for the sake of expediency. Yet, as they do not need the public mandate as much as politicians do, they have more freedom to focus on issues instead of their own popularity.
One criticism of advocacy groups is that they focus too narrowly on specific issues and do not address the bigger picture. However, these groups do not have the obligation to provide broad solutions like the government does, and it is also exactly because general approaches cater to the majority of society that they often neglect marginalized groups.
As busy students, we are not necessarily able to directly participate in civil society. Nor is civil society work easy—real change can take years. On the other hand, it is exactly because we have the privilege of education and opportunity in this college that we can give ourselves and others greater choice and agency in civic and political participation. We will soon find ourselves inundated with news and debates about the upcoming general election. But let us keep the bigger picture in sight and understand local politics as it is—necessary and flawed, but not the only path we can take.