"Communities are the backbone of civil society activism" | Meeting in the Middle | Doing & Being: Intersections of Community Organising

Captioned recording of Doing & Being: Intersections of Community Organising

Doing & Being: Intersections of Community Organising took place over zoom on 26 March 2022. You can access the recording above and the full transcript of the programme below. Portions of the transcript have been edited for clarity. 


Petitioning, art-making, twitter-threading & more – what are the different vehicles that allow us to participate in civil society, and how might they interact and evolve with each other to affect change? Join us for a panel with Constance Singam, Mysara Aljaru and Rachel Tey, moderated by Jolene Tan as they discuss what it means to participate in civil society at different levels, and through different mediums and roles: How can examining the multitude ways of doing civil society work -- from the women’s rights movements in the 1980s to anti-racist and climate crisis campaigns of the 2020s -- inform a way forward for us as collective, concerned citizenry?

You can find the speaker bios at the bottom of this page. Enjoy the conversation!


 meeting in the middle panel photo

Photo of the speakers (left to right, top to bottom): Constance Singam, Jolene Tan, Rachel Tey, Mysara Aljaru 


Jolene: It’s really great to be able to talk to a panel with such diverse experiences about community organising and civil society in Singapore. It’s obviously a topic that could fill hours if we wanted to, but hopefully this session will give us a nice insight into some of the activities that have been going on in Singapore for change-making and involving the community.

And I’m really glad to be able to join you all. Last year, we managed to have Meeting in the Middle in-person. This year it’s gone to an online format. I’m just going to start by kind of setting the scene: changemaking in Singapore civil society, community organising. All of these things obviously are not entirely the same thing, but very closely related. 

I was hoping that, to begin with, the panelists could give us a little bit more about how specifically they’ve been organised and involved in organising community to make change in Singapore. There’s so many rich experiences, but perhaps each of you could share with the audiences just one example which shows really the flavour of what you do. 

Who’s in the community you interact with, what does organising look like with this community? And also—I’m always very interested in this question—what does success look like? What would be different if the change you seek came about? I’m going to begin by arrowing Mysara! Can you tell us more? 

Mysara: Good evening, everyone. So that’s a good question, I think I would say I started out in this idea of community by accident. As a minority woman living in Singapore, you are always trying to seek your community, whatever this idea of community is. You're trying to seek people who share the same lived experience. You’re trying to get your own experience validated.

When you were younger, you assume this is something normal, the experience that you go through. And then, when you grow older, you realise it’s not right and you try and seek out people you feel like might understand what you're going through. I think especially when I was working as a journalist and the narratives that you hear about minorities in Singapore or the marginalised. 

When I left, I decided that I wanted to do something about it. And the first group of people that I came into contact with were a group of Malay-Muslim women or women who grew up from Muslim households who formed their own circles for Penawar, Beyond the Hijab, I think some of you might have heard of them, and that’s how it got started.

I was very much invested in breaking the narrative about Malay-Muslim women in Singapore and what we know of them. I guess, for me at least, for us, organising means creating a safe space without feeling like we need to fulfill expectations of those outside the community. Because one thing I've realised is that even within the civil society movements, there's a lot of misunderstandings and a lot more communication that needs to be done. 

We assume that we have a space and that's perfect for everyone, right? We don’t necessarily take the time to reflect whether that space is accessible to marginalised communities. So I think to answer your question about what success looks like, for me, it’s really having that space for the community to feel like “Oh, I can actually express myself”. I think that’s the first step. We always have these big dreams but we don't realise, for some people, even expressing themselves is the biggest thing that they could do at the moment.

And to feel like I can say what I’ve gone through without having my experience invalidated. And to have a proper understanding of what this idea of solidarity is. And to be able to just hold on to your identity without feeling like I need to give up a part of something for the majority to accept me. 

Jolene: That’s great, thank you. Maybe we could now hear from Connie, the same questions. Give us an example of the work you’ve been involved in, with whom, what does it look like and what would success look like.

Constance: Well, for over thirty-odd years I've been involved in many communities and many organisations, in helping to set up many groups and... perhaps one of the successes I can talk about is TWC2, for instance, which was set up as a result of a horrific case of maid abuse. A group of us got together and started talking about it and we ran a one-year programme and gathered the community. 

This is where you have diversity of interactions between various communities. The arts communities, the theatre groups and so on joined us in highlighting the problems of maid abuse that year. 

At the end of that year, TWC2 was set up as a registered organisation, so they have been working at looking at issues of rights of foreign workers and rights of domestic workers. So that’s a success. But I also found that one of the worries when I first started was that people were working in their silos and those were the days when civil society activism was something difficult to do and individuals and groups were not connecting with each other and not getting to know each other.

Worse, they were suspicious of each other. So we needed to build a community of trust—trusting each other, empowering each other. And so I was involved in TWC1 which brought together across and that was the first attempt in our history to bring together the different players in civil society. It was hard work, but in the end we did manage to get a lot of people together. So that was another one. People became friends and they started working across their different organisations. The last one which was what I was involved in five years ago was the Singapore National Advocacy Awards, which again over three years brought people together.

I was amazed at the work that was going on that a lot of people don’t know about, again, because of a lack of interaction. So then, for me, the success is getting to know people in civil society. Getting to feel empowered and inspired by each other's work. The more people get to know about civil society, you won’t worry about too much. Because we all do a lot of stuff without worrying, and we don't get into trouble all the time but we get things done anyway because we are among friends and people who hold the same values. 

So, of course there was AWARE, which has been going on for thirty-two years, and which I was part of, so that is my special community. One of the things I have always talked about is the importance of community. Because when you're individual or just a few people, it is a bit worrying, you don't know how to act. You don’t know, you worry about what you’re going to say, what you can't say, but when you have a group, a community of like-minded people, you empower each other and you find strength in each other, which has been my experience over thirty-odd years. 

And it has never failed me. Sometimes communities stay for long stretches. Sometimes you get together for a particular project and then you move on to something else. But communities are the backbone of civil society activism. 

Jolene: Thanks for that, Connie. I've actually got more questions about this concept of community which hopefully we’ll get back to later. But I'm now just going to pass the mic over to Rachel, to give an introduction, to give a flavour of what it is that you do, who’s in this community, what does it look like, what does success look like. 

Rachel: Thanks Jolene, and thank you Connie and Mysara. I think when I was listening to you guys share, I was like, “Wow.” So many things resonated with me. When Connie said, “We are amongst friends”, I swear I got goosebumps and I think this is what community looks like. We have not met in person but I feel this sense of solidarity and warmth that is emitting through my screen. 

To answer the question about how community organisation in my life looks like, I think I started off as someone concerned with environmental change and the climate crisis. As my years of work unfolded, I slowly understood that any sort of change of any nature always causes a conversation of what is the intersection between change and power, what are the dominant narratives that are creating certain harms and problems that we see, and these bring about pain.

This pain is what brings people together. And I think what Mysara said about breaking narratives, breaking expectations… When we come to realise that certain rhetorics that we have been fed about the amount of power and autonomy we have, the agency we have, in the society we are a part of, community then looks like coming together and putting that on the spot, questioning what we have been fed. And understanding which spaces include and exclude people. How we can have these important conversations that are able to shift that power. 

To be a bit more specific about the work behind Students for a Fossil Free Future (S4F), in January this year, I’m part of a team that published a long report highlighting the link between fossil fuel industries and universities in Singapore. And our team is made up of students from most of the universities in Singapore.

After that publishing came a two-week campaign where we brought this awareness into our different schools. And I think that, for me, opened a space where people started questioning the way that education institutions create their systems and continue with these systems. And who is included or excluded in certain conversations about our transition away from fossil fuels and into renewable energy. 

Most importantly the idea of community is, at the end of the two weeks, we were able to look at each other and say that maybe the most powerful thing that we’ve created is a space where we all feel like we have been seen as individuals. And that our strengths can fit into a wider network of change where humans come together and make a better world. 

I’ll continue sharing as other questions come along.

Jolene: Thanks so much everyone. Like I said at the beginning and of course feel even more now that we’ve heard from all of you, really very rich and diverse set of experiences. And for me, really  interesting to hear about all the different work that’s being done. 

As promised, I actually wanted to delve a bit deeper into this question of what actually community means; it's something that was on the description of this event and it’s something that was in many of the responses that you gave.

Connie has already said a few things for instance, about how it’s about staying together. Rachel also said it’s about coming together to question some of the rhetoric. And Mysara also talked about it being space where people can express themselves and there’s a  description of the community you work with being women who’ve grown up in these Muslim circles and have this commonality of being subjected to particular narratives. 

I just wanted to ask a little bit more about this because there’s different strands here, right? There's the common experiences. That’s clearly one part, there’s also been some talk about friendship, about being together. But what actually does community mean? What sorts of groupings of people ‘qualify’? 

I find myself thinking: people who have gone through similar experiences but who have never exchanged any communication with one another, we probably wouldn’t call that a community. People who are friends and have a barbeque together every week, that may be some kind of community. 

But how is that distinguished from the kind of community you’re talking about here, with changemaking? Or I might see people every day in the office or at my educational institution. Is that necessarily a community? I guess I just wanted to dig a bit deeper on what makes a community? What sort of community are we talking about when we discuss changemaking in the spaces you’ve been working in? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on that. And because Connie had quite a bit to say about the nature of community earlier, maybe I’ll start with you, Connie. What are your thoughts about this?

Constance: I can only talk about my own experiences. I know one of the things about starting to work in civil societies thirty-two, thirty-four years ago is that besides the few people you've heard of, everybody’s a stranger.

Because that was the time civil society activism was re-emerging after a period of silence, you know, and also after some of the historical episodes we know about, that people were afraid of each other. And people are afraid, even now. 

Jolene: Is it Operation Spectrum, you mean? 

Constance: Yes. For 14 years after independence we didn't even have a woman in parliament. All civil society activism was silenced;  there was nothing very much happening there because the state decided they wanted to do everything. 

When AWARE was set up and challenging public policies for the first time, we were not in a comfortable space because everybody was questioning the reasons for us challenging them. And not just that, because people were afraid of what would happen if we challenged public policies. For the longest time that was a real fear. By that time I had established myself as an activist; I gathered people, like-minded people. I was lucky in that sense; I had established myself. 

When we set up TWC1, I did contact a few people who I knew, like Alvin Tan, Leon Perera, Ching Wee, Chong Kee. We set up TWC1 for the purpose of bringing civil society activists together. And we had to talk to each individual, each organisation, to build trust. That was a one-year programme and that was the first time as I said. Once you have a community—I’m not talking about a community where you know each other personally, but an extended community of civil society activists who believe in working towards change.

You may not know people personally but they are still part of the community that wants to change the way things are being done, and that in itself is a definition of community. The other definition of community is people you work closely with together. And another definition of community is people you have trusted and worked together and went through difficulties over a period of time.

There are different definitions of community. I can now claim that I do know a lot of people, many who are active. Like Rachel and Mysara. You are new, but you have become part of that wider community now, the community that I know believes in the same thing for Singapore. Maybe we are using different tactics, different vehicles, but we are a community so all those projects that I have been involved in, I have met with new people like I'm meeting the two of you now. New people, young people, who are passionate and who I had no idea was out there, till we came together. 

I think that's important to come together and talk about activities because you inspire each other and you empower each other. And you begin with conversations, Rachel. Get yourself a group of people who believe in the same things you do. And you’d be surprised you can get through your four people and that will expand because the network expands. 

And then you will get a bigger group of people, you will be sharing values and you will be talking what you want to do and that's how you build up a more stable community. And then you register yourself to become a registered organisation. That’s how communities get built up and I am a very proud member of that community, not just of the AWARE community but as the wider community.

Because Mysara, this is something I’ve learnt, one of the things about civil society is that you suspend race, you suspend age, you suspend class. You work for a cause. And you don’t care. You don't particularly mind as long as the person beside you, talking beside you holds the same values as you do. And that's the power of civil society, that kind of trust. You may not agree with the same thing all the time, but you can, you will hold on to that relationship in spite of difficult times.

Jolene: Thanks, Connie. That element that you talked about, values and beliefs which sounds like the “secret sauce” for you, is definitely not something that I mentioned earlier so that’s definitely hopefully something that Rachel and Mysara will build on as well.

I’d be interested in hearing your kind of responses, reflections, particularly because we’ve also been talking a bit about differences, and inclusion, exclusion. So then this question about “Does civil society suspend these factors or not?” is also interesting to me to ask about. But maybe, I’ll shut up now. Rachel, can you tell us: what are your thoughts to this question of community? 

Rachel: Yeah, definitely. These days, in the space of civil society and civil action, a lot of the conversation is around how do we maintain resilience and momentum in the work that we do. And I always notice that in conversations and panels that I’ve sat in, it's always a question that comes up right. I think the answer lies in this word ‘community’, where people are like, I am in a space with people that I enjoy, and that gives me energy. That gives me motivation to keep doing the work I do. 

I really appreciated Connie’s perspective on community. I think it’s something I haven't been as much exposed to as she has, and I’m very much looking forward to it. So I think that my take might be slightly different. When I think about community, I think about how I think most people have this want in them to make a difference. I think everyone wants to do good and everyone craves belonging. They want to be seen.

They want to feel like they own a part of something and be a stake in something. Combining the two together, I think something that's very important to me is creating a space where every single individual feels like their strengths and their being and their uniqueness, every inch of who they are, plays a crucial part in building the new community that we want to build. I think mobilisation is such a crucial part of the work that I do and that I've seen. When I think about the campaign and look back at the work that has brought us up to be people that we’re proud to be. 

I think about the little things, like whenever we’re in a Zoom meeting,  the opportunity to private message someone a joke and then just laugh about it. The little things like, someone’s in quarantine, can we send them food? I heard the food isn’t that great. Little things like going on a nature walk this weekend. Not everybody can make it. But let’s just do it, let’s just try, even though it’s early and we’ll be sweaty. 

I just think it's very beautiful to see people coming together and feeling like they have a stake in something and that's what community is to me. I think at the same time, I am also careful to not romanticise the idea of people coming together. Because when there’s identity, sometimes it’s unintentional exclusion, like, this is who you are and who you’re not.

I was in discussion yesterday about climate anxiety and someone brought up the idea of the lack of trust within the environmental space as something that has been making them feel worried, because it’s a movement that has grown so huge. People have such different views about what change should look like - what has been done well, what has not been done well. 

Sometimes, in being convicted about what we think is right, that creates a divide. We can say that, yeah, we all want to do good for the planet, but we can also feel hurt and angry by certain things that are happening in the space. I think something I'm still trying to figure out is how do we navigate these disagreements, how can we humble ourselves to have difficult conversations about things that don’t align in the community. Can we be willing to go past "I'm intimidated by this person, I feel they don't respect my work, I don't feel I can resonate with them", how will it look like to transcend these boundaries that we have set for ourselves? Something that I'm interested and invested in further understanding in my time moving forward.

Jolene: Thank you Rachel. And, Mysara, do you want to add your views on delving deeper into this idea about community? 

Mysara: Yea, I think, especially what Connie said is a lot for me to reflect on. But to build on what Rachel said about the small things, I think that’s very important. Sometimes when we form a community we are very much obsessed about the big things but it's the small things that matter as well. I was just thinking about when I first started doing Brown is Haram (BIH).

At first it was just between me and Kristian. And then eventually when we did a second staging of the performance lecture we had Yan (Myle Yan Tay), our friend who directed. And then we also had Alfian Sa’at. And then we had Tini Aliman. So it became an indirect community and people who resonated with the stories that we shared in our performance lecture also, in a sense, became part of the community. I’ve come to see community as something that's also flexible.

It's not something that’s just built on one ideology alone. It’s about making people feel comfortable, to what extent are they able to contribute. And then that’s where people feel more comfortable to contribute more and things like that. And I think the thing that struck me the most over time is that the idea of community being not fixed. You can indirectly or unconsciously form your community through one piece of work.

Jolene: Thank you. 

Constance: As Rachel was talking I was thinking that the environmental issues are so huge, there are so many aspects of it, one of the ways of addressing it is to focus on one single thing. Like plastic bags, for instance? That way, you might be able to agree because you get a few people together who worry about that because that’s a huge thing for the environment. The difficulty is having too many things in your mind and how do you focus, you know?

Sorry, Jolene, I interrupted.

Jolene: No, please, go ahead. Actually a lot of what's been said was  making me think about the next question that I wanted to ask. I was very interested, Rachel, in your use of the word “mobilisation”. Because when I think about something that is a very striking example of community organising that we’ve seen in recent times, for me, it was the fact that a whole load of delivery riders and drivers gathered at a Meet the People Session (MPS) in order to basically advocate for themselves after there was a series of moves like the banning of personal motorised vehicles (PMDs). 

And it seemed to me that this was the ultimate example of people having a stake in something; those are the words you used. They very much had a stake in that. But what was striking about it, of course, was that it’s not something we see a lot in Singapore. We don't think of the Meet the People Session as a space for collective action. It’s traditionally thought of by a lot of people as a space where people go with their individual concerns. And this makes me think about the question of space. I'm very interested in what the spaces are for changemaking in Singapore. Obviously this was made particularly vivid with the high-profile denial by The Arts House (TAC) of a venue for the launch of Connie's memoir. They also actually withdrew a booking that I had last year for the launch of my novel as well. 

But, you know, all of you have worked with spaces, perhaps Mysara you have exhibited or performed in spaces. Rachel had a very interesting, intriguing line in her bio about walking to school, which is also about a relationship to space. So I think I’d be interested in hearing more about what spaces you think there are that you’ve had for your work, and what spaces Singapore needs, and what spaces are missing or need to be pushed open right now. So I’d be interested in hearing from each of you about that. 

Constance: Well, I can start since I have experienced this. The trouble with Singapore is the lack of independent space. In our very early work of activism and getting people, mobilising people together, The Substation was very helpful. I found Substation’s space was open then and somehow slowly over the years it continued reaching out to people. Oh, we can use the space there, so that was really helpful. It's no longer there, but I’m hopeful that when they form the independent Substation company (I’m not quite sure what direction they’re going) they might be able to also then get independent space.

One of the huge problems in Singapore, of course, is the cost of spaces. So NGOs, civil society can’t afford to own properties, which is where the government should come in. That's a way to respect the work that civil society is doing. It’s to offer independent spaces for independent action. And you would hope that places like TAC is independent but apparently it's not.

It's a huge problem. I'm not sure how we can overcome that. Some of the older organisations are fortunate that they have been around for a long time and have been able to acquire spaces, but the new organisations—I mean, even for the ones that a group of us initiated, the meeting place was the homes of the members. Mostly my home because I'm the only one in this house. We can’t. That’s one huge area that is inhibiting civil society engagement and action. 

Mysara: I think what you said about the delivery riders also struck me of a moment when three podcasters—three Malay men—were called out for their misogyny in their podcast here in Singapore. You actually saw a lot of Malay women who were not in civil society speaking up online. 

They were activating and they were calling out the misogyny and that was, to me, quite amazing, because there's the idea of a Malay woman that you have to go through a certain route—like university and stuff—would be the ones to speak out, but no. You have a lot of Malay women speaking up that this is not right, to the point where the president had to call [the men] out as well.

Online spaces have become, especially for my generation and Rachel’s generation, a space to activate and mobilise ourselves. To what Connie said about The Substation, definitely—that’s where Brown Is Haram started. I think The Substation is not just for civil society or artists who want to do critical work. I’m not sure if many remember but it’s also a space for a lot of people in the punk scene, which were mostly made up of Malay men, working-class Malay men, who were into the scene.

So I think having that space to just exist. An independent space, like what Connie said, is important. It’s very obvious that it's being clamped down. I guess that's why you see more younger generations going online as a way to express themselves. But I think, over time in my work, I had other spaces that were kind enough. Like Objectifs, I did my first exhibition there. To me it wasn’t just about the physical space. Speaking to the team at Objectifs and  my curator Hui, we had honest conversations about my work and they were willing to listen and learn. I think that is also very important - who you work with.

When you talk about space you always think about physical space but it actually goes beyond that. If you’re running a space, how do you work with others, how do you make the space accessible, I think Objectifs did an amazing job when I first started out. I had the privilege of staging a show with a good friend at the Substation. And I think we definitely need more of that kind of space.

Constance: I just want to add to what Mysara reminded me of: the virtual space. There can also be a virtual community. Social media has expanded in that sense that it has expanded our reach. And maybe we’re not making better use of it. This is great. There is a community out there listening and here we are. I can recognise that it does exist, yeah.

Jolene: Part of me wants to probe, especially at this question on what independence is, a bit further. And I’ve got half an eye on the time and we need to move to Q&A soon so I wanted to give Rachel a chance to also talk about this question of space. And then maybe we can pick up some of these threads a bit later in the Q&A, in addition to answering the audience questions. 

Rachel: Thanks Jolene. When Connie was talking about spaces of organisation at her house, Mysara was talking about digital spaces of organisation. It was interesting to me to then begin to see how private spaces start to become spaces where we view the most agency to create change for the public. Especially when we think about changemaking in the most recent years, it looks like petitions. Petitions that take the form of a website, change.org 

Most strikingly for me, a few years ago when Greta Thunberg first did her school climate strike in the European areas and then it became a global movement. People in Singapore were like, “Where’s our strike, where can we skip school, how can we tell the government this is something we care about”. And immediately we turned to the digital space. So how it looked like was taking up that digital space with content that aligned with the global movement.

It's also at this point quite timely for me to explain the sentence in my bio about walking to school. I thought it was quite amusing that Jolene assumed that it meant a literal walking to school. I think the context behind why walking to school has such a significant part of my understanding of civil society is, in a response to our campaign in January, there was a Facebook post that came out from Ho Ching and she reposted our feature on Channel NewsAsia with a caption that conveyed something like, “I wonder if the students behind this campaign don’t use electricity, don't use fossil fuels in their daily lives and walk to school.”

It was just a simple sentence, but for me it then it was very telling of the kind of attitude that the institution takes towards new voices wanting to open conversations about how things are done and how things have been done. In that sense it’s a space that—it’s not physical, it’s not digital as well. But where is the space for these voices of alternative narratives? Where is the space for minority communities who have needs and interests that differ from the dominant one?

I'm still trying to figure it out, understanding which are the best spaces where change can occur. I think also, quite close to my heart, I study in Yale-NUS College. And when we have conversations about divestment, and how changemaking works in different universities, we always acknowledge that I have been very privileged to be in a community where our physical space does not face much bureaucracy. 

We’re able to set up booths, put up banners. There isn't that barrier to enter that space. But following the announcement in August that the college will be merging / closing down / I don’t know, it's also a stripping away of that space and it’s devastating.

Jolene: Thanks for sharing that, and I have to say, it’s one hundred percent true. I didn't realise that by picking up on “walking to school” I had inadvertently stumbled into this controversy. 

But to me that’s so interesting, that again it goes back, for me, to that example again of the delivery riders because that was a space that was seen as just for individuals to go, and it was so unusual for there to be a collective use of that space. And then, conversely in the response to you, when you’re calling for the collective space of Singapore to do something, the response is, “But have you sacrificed your individual space yet?”

As if that space doesn't belong to us all and we don’t legitimately have a place there. Thanks to all the panellists for this discussion, I’m just conscious of time, I think we need to move on to address the audience questions now and we’ve got quite a few questions in the audience, so that’s great. Thank you.

I’m going to go with the will of the people—there are the most upvotes for a question from Kristian. Kristian says: “How do we resist the co-optation of 'community' or 'community building?' Here, I'm thinking about laws mandating registration, or needing funding from sources, et cetera.” Does anybody want to respond to that?

Constance: The big problem about funding is our government controls most of the resources, including funding resources. So NGOs have to work very hard to raise their own funds. Which takes a lot of energy to—what was the first part of the question? Sorry Jolene, I missed that. 

Jolene: It was about how we resist the co-optation of this notion of community and community building, and I actually think this might tie in to what I was saying earlier, when you and Mysara were talking about the need for independent spaces and that’s also what Rachel was saying about not facing bureaucracy. So I think the question may be how to resist the co-optation of ‘community’ or ‘community building’, maybe another way to put it is: How do we keep communities and community building independent? What does that mean? How do we resist it? 

Perhaps is it the case that if you’re required to register and you’re required to get funding from certain sources you then lose that independence? Is what I’m taking away from this question. I hope I’m reading it correctly.

Constance: You can! You can have independent action without registering, for a period. You can do that. Because my own experience has been that, for three years, five years, the award committee managed to, without registering. And we raised funds by approaching individuals. Because we were awarding the winners some cash money as well because we wanted to help the organisation. So, it’s possible. If you don't have very big ambitions but you want to change society, you can change society by having conversations.

And that doesn't need registration. Over the many years we’ve had people getting together and talking. Just having conversations, you know? Because having conversations you acquire knowledge, you empower yourself, you inspire yourself. And you build that community—you know, the biblical thing about the mustard seed, that community can grow. And whatever changes we've had work, it worked because the community—people—changed attitudes.

When you change attitudes then you can advocate for change more successfully. Any change that has happened in Singapore happened because people advocated. Remember the 2011 election, there was no registered organisation as such but people were meeting in Hong Lim Park, individuals were organising in Hong Lim Park, holding rallies talking about the problems of poverty, overpopulation and so on.

So during the 2011 election, people were protesting against public policies. And it changed soon after that. Policies changed - HDB policies changed, immigration policies changed. The silver health scheme was rolled out. You know, I’m so glad, because I gained in that pioneer generation. All that happened because people were angry and they expressed their anger and they didn't have to have an organisation to do that. So it is possible.

Jolene: Thanks, Connie. I don’t know if, Mysara, is there anything you that want to add about this question of co-optation, or communities losing independence? 

Mysara: I mean, obviously when you do a piece of work, one thing I realised is you definitely will have comments from people from the state who are like, “Ooh I read your work and I agree with you” for some reason, right? And there’s always that… maybe you might start off as very optimistic. Like, okay, yes, maybe they want to listen to you but I think it's worth also taking a step back, you know? And that’s why history is so important, like what Connie shared, to realise that, you know, people have always resisted for a very long time. 

One thing that I've often heard from skeptics is “Oh Singapore has no history of resistance”, which is not true. That has been something that I've been holding on for quite a while, that this history of resistance has existed in Singapore for a very long time. It may be very tempting to think “I need money to do something”, but is there a way around it? I think that's something that, over time especially when I do shows and exhibitions, is there a way for me to do what I want to do and resist structures that have been put in place?

Of course it takes a while and it takes some sort of telling yourself that you can do it, but yeah. It’s that idea of resisting being co-opted, really for me at least, goes back to telling myself that we’ve always had a history of resistance. 

Jolene: Thanks for that. Just looking at the other questions that have been submitted by the audience. The next most popular question is about whether the panel has struggled with the tension of being—and this is put in quotes—"privileged", whether it’s in terms of race or education and I’m assuming there could be many other kinds that’s implied here, and then taking up too much space in the activism? It’s interesting, just now we were talking about the lack of space and now we’re asked, “Do we take up too much space?” Anybody wants to take this one on?

Rachel: I can start with a non-answer. This is the thought that keeps me up at night. I struggle with the tension a lot. Being able to be seen as a changemaker or what we describe as an activist is in itself a privilege and it's a privilege that I'm very aware of and I'm very grateful for and I think that also comes with the responsibility. And to me I comprehend the responsibility as one that I never want to take on myself to represent anyone else.

When we talk about things like justice and in the work that I’m most familiar with, environmental injustice, the tendency to refer to my activism work as representing the voices of people who aren't in a position to be heard is a tendency that I find myself falling into. But I remind myself that I'm never in a position where I can represent someone else and I can represent their experiences. And I cannot speak to those and how it would then look like to give power to these voices. I think it is an intentional move from the groups that I've seen around me, to move from representing to inviting these voices into the space.

For instance, I have a close friend who is part of the group called GreenCheck. GreenCheck brings environmental groups from spaces that are directly impacted by climate devastation or MAPA, most affected places and areas, into conversations that perhaps have more spaces for these topics to be brought up. So how this might look like is to have a panel where people from different countries whose backgrounds and experiences with the climate can differ. And one of the more local examples is a group that I very much respect, SG Climate Rally. They held a talk a few years ago where they invited survivors of a fire that was going on in Thailand, if I’m not wrong, to share about how it’s like on the ground.

I think always remembering that power is something that is fluid, should never stay at the same place for the sake of stability and convenience and ease. That's what I have in my head at the moment and I’m very interested to hear what the other panelists think.

Jolene: Thanks Rachel, so just a reminder, the question was about whether you ever struggled with this idea that [you’re] privileged and might be taking too much space in activism.

Constance: I don't know about taking too much space. We’re always fighting, struggling to be heard. About being in a privileged position, you know, civil society activism especially organised activism and advocacy work was always a middle-class thing. You don't have to be poor or rich to be able to be compassionate and understand human rights issues.

In that sense, about advocating for better human rights of domestic workers and foreign workers, they don't have the rights to do that, but we have, as citizens. We have the responsibility to do that. We can't speak for poor women, women living day-to-day, their concern is just surviving. And so it has always been those people who had the time, maybe not the time, some of the resources.

We all worked very hard to speak up for those who have no voice. So I don't feel that I'm privileged, I feel I'm privileged because I can articulate these ideas. But I feel a sense of responsibility for fellow human beings. And an obligation because of my privilege to speak up. 

Jolene: Thanks Connie, and what you said about how people are able, more able to access a lot of advocacy if they’re middle class, I mean I also think about, you know, if you have a march and—we don’t really march in Singapore—but for example, gender-specific [things] right, like who’s holding the baby? Well, a lot of people go off to march—

Constance: There are stories elsewhere—I remember hearing stories when we first started work. Do you remember the story of these women who were trying to save trees in India (Chipko movement)? They were cutting down trees to develop the area, but poor women depended on these trees for firewood, for instance. And their husbands don't understand that either because it’s the women who cook and feed the children who understand that need. And so these poor women went and tied themselves to the trees and they saved the trees; it's quite a famous example. 

Another one was domestic violence, where women came together—again, this is an Indian story in the village. And whenever they heard a woman being beaten up, the women got together in their kitchens, they took the pots and pans and started banging [them] together. And so embarrassed the person who was abusing his partner. So you can, they can take action and they do take action especially when it affects their personal lives. Which other people don't understand, like saving the forests for instance, because women depend on firewood.

Jolene: Mysara, do you want to address this question about privilege and space? 

Mysara: Definitely. As someone involved in the scene, who grew up working class but my family eventually went through social mobility, that has been a very interesting experience because some things that people have said to me would be an assumption that I grew up middle class. 

“You’re middle class Malay, you’re articulate”, like what Connie said, right, we have the privilege of being articulate so people assume that you grew up middle-class or upper-class.

It also comes from the biases of what we assume of marginalised identities; that they are not articulate, they are not intelligent enough, and things like that. I remember the podcast I did for New Naratif with PJ Thum, I said, “I know I have the privilege that Chinese people would listen to me because I’m articulate.” They wouldn't listen to a working class Malay man or working class Tamil man so I have that privilege of education. 

But, that said, I would say my biggest support would come from my mum. She didn't go to university, she only has the O Levels. She may not understand issues in the same way I do, but I would say I have the best conversations about social issues with her, because she grew up less privileged than I did. So there’s always this assumption that, oh, someone who is articulate or understands issues must be educated, which is to me not true.

Different people have different ways of understanding issues. So, like food delivery drivers, they would understand the issue of class differently from us. But that doesn't mean that the way they talk about it is any less intelligent, any less important than what we do.

Constance: Thank you.

Jolene: Yeah, thanks for that. Going on to the next question, and maybe this relates to again what we’ve been discussing about bandwidth and people’s—the amount of space people have in their lives: How do we encourage people to care about these issues when there are competing priorities in their daily lives. And the question then says: rather than just “preaching to the choir”? So, does anybody want to take this question on?

Constance: That’s always the danger, preaching to the choir. And every time we hold a meeting or we have a forum or we are talking, we are preaching to the choir. And who are the ones who are listening to us? People who are interested in these topics.

So the huge question that advocates have for advocacy work is: how do we reach people we need to reach? How do we do that? Mass media helps, but we don't have very much of that. 

We talked about social networking, the virtual space, but again virtual space is a privileged space. Even people who are of a certain age we don't reach. And we tend to all live in a silo of like-minded people. Which is where mass media—media—can help with the discussions, and debates, and have open debates and open discussions.

And that's a way of educating citizens. We have a disadvantage here. So I don't know, you young people have ideas.

Rachel: Yeah, I'm also reminded of the previous question. I think to care is also a privilege in itself. I think I see a lot of things as continuing intersections to power and privilege. When Connie was sharing about media, I'm also reminded of how the media is also saturated or controlled by a certain group or a certain community. And they themselves hold their own prejudices or their own agendas in bringing content to the space.

With relation to the climate action movement, for instance, the fact that fossil fuel companies are able to fund advertising, fund scientists to actively and intentionally change the way that people saw environmental harm. So it's difficult when we’re pushing for narratives that are running against the current of those that are dominant, and those who are powerful and who have the economic control that we don't.

Unfortunately in this world economic control gives you a lot of power. But aside from that, when the question came up about how do we get people to care about these issues of competing priorities, something that occurred to me a few years ago was that the essence of being human is that we care for some things or some people in our lives. Even the biggest bully in school has a soft spot, and understanding how these issues that we care about have impact or overlap with the people that they love.

We talk about gender rights, and how gender is an identity that people in everyone’s lives will hold. Your mum, your sister, your friend, for environmental issues. No one can run away from these things, and what helps for me is to think of these issues in relation to different things that different people care about and breaking down what action will look like in a way that’s accessible, in a way that everyone can do, which is still challenging in itself.

Constance: Something that occurred to me while we were talking about the media. The media is also subjected to laws just like civil society is, and over the years when you start worrying about what constrains you, you normalise those constraints and sometimes, of course, I’m just remembering what the media was like before. There was an act that came which meant they were always under threat of closure.

Jolene: Yeah, the licensing regime. In the ‘70s, I think it was.

Constance: Yeah, that’s right. In the late ‘70s, yeah. And also, of course, quite a number of journalists were, in turn, especially the journalists from the Chinese media, more independent, interned under the Internal Security Act (ISA), through the 1970s. So there is always a history of the way the institutions are; it’s a history we have to address and we have to go back and challenge those. 

We’re all trapped, including the government, because they don't know what to do. We’re all trapped in a culture that they created, and they don't know how to get out of it.

Jolene: Mysara, do you want to add anything on this question of how we reach people? 

Mysara: Yeah, I think whenever people ask me about my works—my writings, or my installations, films, is that… If a makcik down the road cannot understand what I'm trying to say, I have failed.

Language has always been very important in the work I do, whether it's in terms of the medium that I use or even the language that I use when I write. Of course, you realise that when you do a piece of work sometimes it reaches out to the same group of people because these are the group of people who are actively seeking out to educate themselves or things like that.

Of course, when you grow up working class, I am very much aware that my parents’ priorities differ from me, especially when they were my age. But that doesn't mean they don't care. Then the question would lie in: are we doing enough to make our language (in the works we do whether it’s civil society, art, whatever it is) accessible to them in the first place? Sometimes we think to ourselves, “Why don't these people care”, but do they even understand what we’re trying to say in the first place? I think that is very important to me, the language that we use, sometimes we’re preaching to the choir because only that choir understands us. 

Rachel: Just to quickly jump in, I think also, with relation to what we talk about community, sometimes preaching to the choir is what brings the community together, right? When there are these events that you know you’ll see the same people again, you say goodbye but you know there’ll always be these people to fall back on, and I think that’s really the idea itself.

Constance: They make you feel good. But the community grows, and that’s important. Since I started civil society activism, it has grown! And there are more and more young people like yourself for instance involved. And ten, fifteen years ago people didn’t even understand the concept of civil society. Now everybody speaks openly about civil society, so it is changing. 

Jolene: Yeah, I mean, just to butt in here, and bang the drum again a little bit. I mean I haven't done this for a long time now, but I remember when I was at AWARE and we were working on issues of single mothers’ access to housing. One of the things that became very apparent was that you can’t ask single parents to participate in anything unless you provide child care. So that's a very simple example of identifying a barrier that prevents people from participating in something that they actually very much have lots of thoughts, views and, in many ways, almost always the best knowledge about, and there are things they would like to do.

But there's a practical reason why they may not see getting involved in a collective action to create change as feasible. And my suspicion is that that's very much true across every single possible kind of change that we might want to be looking at in society that there’s often very material reasons why people who are most affected actually need support to participate. 

Constance: Also, I think in Singapore we have to realise that the state is the biggest employer and your employment contract limits activism. And then the state is also the biggest property owner. The state is in your face every day. And so just by having conversations like this empowers us to break loose from those kinds of control that we fear. “I might lose my job, I might lose my HDB flat”, whatever. And laws keep changing so you can't even depend on the legal system to stay where it is now. It might change tomorrow.

And what I say today may not be amenable or acceptable, so those kind of fears. But the thing about civil society activism is you live through those fears. And you force change. Over the thirty, forty years, it has changed. In spite of all those draconian laws. You know, we have more laws now than ever before. Young people are coming out and speaking up.

Jolene: You are like a mind reader, Connie, because this was the next question was: How do you cope with the fear of being an activist in Singapore? Like, it might affect your career or even be blacklisted by the state. I mean, this is, we probably only have time to get to answer this question and then we’ll have to call it a night.

Constance: Let me just say. The more of us speak up, the less likely are we to be sacked. You can't sack everybody in the office. 

Rachel: Sometimes I have this dream that everybody can do something together. We get the whole school to stand at the lawn, they can't expel everyone. But everyone has the same thought right: what if I do it but other people don’t? And this question reminded me of this tension that I have been thinking about between working within the boundaries and recognising that these boundaries that are established by the state and the institution are underlyingly undemocratic.

They are unjust in some of the values that they propagate. And wanting, as a side, kind of resisting these structures that bind us. I think fear has been mitigated with the former. When we stay safe, we play under the rules. We don't call it a sign-making event, we call it an art expression event. Everyone can make art but not everyone can make signs and protests. But at the same time understanding that when we make that decision to play with the rules of the game, we’re also being complicit to the injustices that it seeks to perpetuate.

One way that manifests in my work in school, I recognise an overwhelming majority of locals participating in these nature events as compared to internationals, because locals, we’re citizens of this country, they can't send us anywhere, but internationals are like, “We can’t be deported” essentially. And I think it's been interesting going through that process of looking through the rule book and into its nitty gritty and inviting legal experts to tell us which lines we can cross and which lines we can’t. And again, this reminds me of how challenging it is to reclaim our power as people. Our power as agents who want to take ownership over our future and how that resistance can unfold and take place.

Constance: I have a story to tell, do you have time? 

Jolene: I was hoping that we could give Mysara a chance to answer, then we might be into the last few minutes. How about Mysara, you go, and then we’ll see. 

Mysara: A quick one, I think. Obviously the fear will always be there but I think it's about overcoming it. That's where the community comes in, right. Who is there for you and who can you fall back on when things get difficult? And I guess at the end of the day also knowing that if there's some sort of resistance from the state, then you are doing the right thing. 

Constance: Short story! Because we were talking about—we are privileged, and I remember a project that Drama Box did. A group of artists from Drama Box was involved in a HDB block, and I forget where it was but it involved, it engaged. It was a year long project, it wasn’t easy. It engaged the residents. So it’s a community where you have lots of Malays, Chinese, Indians living in the same block and they go about their life as strangers to each other, but this project brought them together.

They shared food, they shared experiences, they shared evenings together and then also the community was involved in decorating the void deck. It became a lively place for the community to get together and meet. It was organised by civil society activists. But it directly impacted residents of a particular block, and Drama Box and other organisations do that kind of work. So there's a lot of work going on which directly addresses problems in the community with the community. Thank you. 

I thought it was important because we often think of ourselves as a separate group. We are not a separate group, we are working with the communities, in this case, to bring people together. We have this public policy about having so many percentage Malays, so many percentage Indians and so many percentage… but we don't know each other, so we have to have these kinds of projects that an outside organisation can do to bring people together.

Jolene: Okay, well, I'm afraid time has flown, we seem to be pretty much at the end of our schedule but I just wanted to thank everybody on the panel for this really rich and engaging discussion. Also to thank the audience for your interesting questions and for staying with us through this event. I hope that you found it rewarding to attend. 

Constance: Thank you, Rachel and Mysara, I have to thank them because I learned so much from them and I'm so impressed that you have young people coming up and doing the work they do. Thank you so much, yeah. Thanks, Jolene.


About Meeting in the Middle

Meeting in the Middle is an annual women-led conversation organised by Ethos Books as part of International Women's Day. These conversations focus on various intersections of identities, expertise and literature.

About the Speakers

Constance Singam is a writer and civil society activist. Constance has led women’s organisations, co-founded civil society groups, been a columnist in national publications, and co-edited several books. Her nonfiction works include Re-Presenting Singapore Women (2004) and The Art of Advocacy in Singapore (2017). She has written two memoirs including Never Leave Home Without Your Chilli Sauce (2016), and three children’s books including Porter the Adventurous Otter (2021). She was inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame in 2015. (Photo credit: Ore Huiying)

Dana Lam is a visual artist and writer, and an Associate Artist with Checkpoint Theatre. In 2019, she wrote and performed Still Life, a monologue developed with Claire Wong of Checkpoint Theatre that incorporated a year of painting as process. Her writing credits include the book, Days of Being Wild: GE2006 Walking the Line with the Opposition (Ethos Books, 2006). Her visual art has been shown in the Singapore Art Museum and the Substation Gallery. Her 500-piece installation work, When Bellies Speak: You are your own work of art was held at Hong Lim Park on 8 March 2015. Outside of performance, Dana has volunteered with AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research), serving as its President from 2000-2002 and again, from 2009-2011. (Photo credit: Goodman Arts Centre, Nik Voon)

Mysara Aljaru is a lens-based practitioner, writer, researcher and educator. Mysara was previously a journalist and documentary producer with Mediacorp and has also worked with various research institutions such as Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA) and The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS). An artist and writer herself, Mysara has showcased and performed at Objectifs, The Substation, ArtScience Museum and Singapore Art Week 2022.

Rachel Tey (she/her) is a student concerned by the disproportionate and unjust distribution of climate harm. Driven by the conviction of those around her, Rachel strives to tap on the strengths and energies in the community to create change. In Students For a Fossil Free Future (S4F), Rachel and her team unpack how the story of their student activism is told. In crafting and refining their campaign strategy, she finds herself in conversations about navigating power in Singapore, the existence of our species and walking to school. She is intentional about creating a space that is regenerative and recognises the value that each individual brings.

About the Moderator

Jolene Tan is a writer from Singapore, whose fiction includes the novels After the Inquiry (Ethos Books, 2021), A Certain Exposure (Epigram Books, 2014), short fiction published in The Manchester Review, and a children's picture book, Saturday's Surprisingly Super-Duper Lesson (Epigram Books, 2020). She has also written numerous non-fiction articles, principally on equality and human rights, for publications such as New Naratif, The Online Citizen, The F Word, The Birthday Book, CNA and The Straits Times. She can be found at www.jolenetan.org