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Mistrust on both sides: Harness or harvest?

Straits Times. April 7, 2000

The essays in the latest Singapore book on civil society offer both predictable and pertinent views. The thread running through many of them is the need for trust between the state and civil society

State-Society Relations In Singapore: Edited by Gillian Koh & Ooi Giok Ling. Institute of Policy Studies Oxford University Press, 2000.

THE idea of harnessing state-society synergies sounds like a harmless enough one.

It was the title of a conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies in May 1998, on which this latest volume of essays on civil society is based.

But as artistic director of the Substation T. Sasitharan notes in his essay, the harness is "an instrument of restraint and control".

It is a peripheral but interesting observation.

Metaphors are just words, but consider how a change of four letters from "harness" to "harvest" would have created a much more inviting image.

The essays in this latest book on the subject of civil society offer both predictable and pertinent views -- reflecting the fact that the topic of civil society is a perennial one which never goes out of fashion, but never quite becomes a hot topic either.

If there is one trend that runs through many of the essays, it is the need for trust between the state and civil society.

It is remarkable how often the mistrust between the two sectors is remarked upon in this volume.

All three writers asked to offer their thoughts in an epilogue summing up the proceedings of the conference referred to the need to build trust.

Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh said a new paradigm was needed between state and society, which remained locked in the legacy of the past.

Civil society groups should not view the bureaucracy as being "cold-hearted and unfriendly" or think the government are "evil and wicked people".

"My plea to the politicians is to be more tolerant, more willing to listen to those with whom you do not agree."

Lawyer and playwright Eleanor Wong noted the call for "trusted brokers" as one possible way of managing the rocky state-civil society relationship.

Sociologist Eddie Kuo highlighted the need to build social capital -- or mutual trust.

Apart from this concern that runs like a faint watermark through the volume, issues close to the heart of the liberal agenda are given considerable airing.

The role of the law and state regulations in protecting or restricting civil liberties is examined.

There are cogent analyses of the roles of the artist and intellectual in Singapore society, some insightful observations about the different types of groups that make up civil society and an abundance of thoughtful comment.

There are several essays on the ethnic-based groups which give a good overview of the development of Chinese clan and business groups and Muslim-based welfare societies, and offer some interpretations on why the strong civic tradition appears to have withered in modern Singapore.

The perennial issue about the so-called climate of fear is dusted down and given a new airing.

Just how much of this fear climate can be attributed to legal constraints on freedom, and how much attributed to oversensitivity, is given a kind of answer by law academic Simon Tay in a balanced essay on civil society and the law in Singapore.

Having surveyed the evidence judiciously, he offers some guidelines for creating a more "enabling climate" for civil society: a judicial approach that gives more generous interpretation to fundamental liberties and more scrutiny to laws that seek to limit them; more regulation of behaviour by social norms or civic groups rather than state-imposed regulation; and automatic permits to exercise fundamental liberties of speech, association and assembly.

Metaphors abound. There is the harness. Sociologist Chua Beng Huat describes the "unequal halves" of civil society -- one half sanctioned by the state and thus resource-rich, the other independent and resource-poor.

Politician Chan Soo Sen likens participation in political debate to the "green lane" of customs checkpoints -- if you have nothing to declare, fear not and just walk through calmly. If stopped, speak politely to the customs officer.

The central metaphors for civil society here has popularly belonged to horticulture, since Minister George Yeo's famous 1991 speech on the need to prune the banyan tree of the state not to overshadow other sectors.

This spawned a corresponding metaphor from Prof Tommy Koh. To him, the colonial government was like a royal palm tree -- ceremonial, offering little shade but allowing much overgrowth around it.

Post-Independence, the Singapore government was a banyan tree, with deep roots, offering much shade but crowding out others.

The tembusu tree was a better model for Singapore after 1990, when Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's government promised more consultation, suggested Prof Koh. Strong and deep-rooted like the banyan tree, the tembusu offered shelter, yet allowed other shrubs to bloom in its vicinity.

Perhaps another metaphor is apt for civil society, judging from the concerns raised in this volume: civil society here is like the orchid -- a delicate bloom that needs intensive cultivation and hothousing, all pervasive yet little remarked on, and ultimately viewed as a colourful and somewhat exotic extra.

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