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  Today Online 17 Sep 07
Civil society making its mark, quietly
But dialogue with public is crucial, says think-tank researcher
Sheralyn Tay sheralyn@mediacorp.com.sg

PUBLIC protests in Singapore are rare, but this particular one held last month was rarer still: A hodgepodge of toy robots, superheroes and aliens, together with a handful of anime fans assembled at the Youth Park, to protest against anime distributor Odex.

The police turned up, with four anti-riot vans, but nobody was arrested, although names and videos of the protest were taken.

In a way, the event is a microcosm of the state of civil society in Singapore, according to Dr Gillian Koh, senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies.

Ordinary citizens seem to get away with more than political party members.

Citing another example, Dr Koh pointed to the elections period last year, during which the Singapore Democratic Party was made to remove its audio files and podcasts on the web. "(But) ordinary citizens got away with whatever they put up (online) civil society discussing politics," she said at a forum last week on leadership transitions in South-east Asia and the impact on civil society.

Civil society groups in Singapore are also making their mark.

Extra-territorial laws to target sex offenders, rest days in the employment contracts for maids and amendments to the law for spousal rape are some examples of their success.

Although, noted Dr Koh, these are also areas where international scrutiny and pressure is greatest.

So, is this the vibrant civil society Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about during his swearing-in speech, posed Dr Koh, or a "carefully-managed civic society"?

There have been instances where she thinks the "light touch" approach has not been so light, for example, the Martyn See film Zahari's 17 Years, which was banned, and forums like 'Sexual Orientation in the International Law: The Case in Asia', which was refused a licence.

But some leeway has been given, she said, a view echoed by former Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts director and Member of Parliament Baey Yam Kheng.

"Certainly it has moved on with regards to the arts scene, it's more progressive now," he said, and cited recent theatre performances that have explored a number of sexually-orientated plays such as 251 and Asian Boys.

In a way, said Mr Baey, allowing limited explorations of some "so-called undesirable" subjects points to the growing maturity of society.

For Mr John Gee, president of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), the fact that their organisation lobbied successfully to some extent to recognise the right of a rest day for domestic workers, is a good sign.

"Other organisations can take heart from that," said Mr Gee, even as he noted that sometimes, "things may not move as fast as we'd like, but it's still a step forward".

But, it does not mean that Singapore civil society has come of age.

"There are those who say that civil society activism on political issues seems to have waned. But of other substantive policy issues not relating to political development, there has been quite a lot of movement. So it depends on what sectors you are talking about," said Dr Koh.

Also, civil groups sometimes undertake "quiet advocacy" going through government channels directly for faster rewards, she said.

But this means a critical stakeholder the public is not engaged in the issues.

Agreeing, Mr Gee said: "Some organisations may think it's best to go about things quietly and consult in private so that it is more non-confrontational.

"But if there's no dialogue, the public will not feel included, and the organisation becomes government-orientated rather than people-orientated. It becomes a bit self-defeating."

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