“I, we, and us make our society.” The Ground Speaks: Civil Society After GE2020
The Ground Speaks: Civil Society After GE2020 was livestreamed on the Ethos Books Facebook page on 26 July 2020. You can access the livestream here and the full transcript of the programme on this page. Portions of the transcript have been edited by the speakers for clarity.
This gathering of civil society brings together activists in the areas of gender equality, race relations, social inequality, the LGBTQ+ community, migrant workers and nationality, housing security, community social services, the climate crisis, politics and the arts. Join us as they discuss recent gains, what lies ahead and how we can each play our part.
You can find the speaker bios at the bottom of this page. Enjoy the conversation!
Photo of the panel on Zoom:
(Top row, left to right): Tim Min Jie, Teo You Yenn, Anthea Ong, Ranganayaki Thangavelu
(Middle row, left to right): Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, Ng Kok Hoe, Ching S. SIA, Alfian Sa'at
(Bottom row, left to right): Jolovan Wham, Margaret Thomas
Beginning of transcript.
ANTHEA ONG: Hello everyone, thank you all for joining us for this panel discussion hosted by Ethos Books. Welcome to this gathering of civil society here on the panel. I don't know how many of you are out there, I’m not looking at the Facebook numbers.
My name is Anthea Ong. I have the honour of being your moderator today, which I couldn't say no to because this evening will be like two years of raising all these issues in parliament, and having them heard and discussed with full gusto. So I want a front row seat when this is happening.
OK but seriously, why are we here? Just one word, really, this is the civil society's version of soul-searching, after GE or General Elections 2020. As much as the GE is a political event, it is also clearly an important barometer of social sentiments. It measures where the public pressures are, and what people hope to see.
Therefore while tonight's session is not concerned with analysing GE2020 campaign results—and please don’t—this post-GE moment is an excellent opportunity to reflect on how activism may have shaped people's attitudes and visions of our society, and also how far social causes have advanced or have been hindered. We must recognise both gains and losses.
This reflection also allows us to process our emotions and consolidate our thoughts and actions, both as individuals and as a society, and hopefully as a sector as well. Because we cannot deny that this GE has been emotional in so many ways, more so for some than others. All these feelings are valid. I hope having a conversation tonight will help us create a renewed sense of solidarity that will give hope to all and inspire many more of you to come forward and contribute to the causes that you care about.
As they say, we do not need unity in theory, but we do need solidarity in practice.
Let’s start this practice tonight, including all of you who are joining us on Facebook Live, by committing to respect, civility and nonviolent communication throughout this evening’s session. Embracing diversity doesn't mean we have to always agree with each other, but it definitely means we must be ready to listen sincerely to views that are different to ours.
This is how the next two hours will look like: we will kick off with the panellists sharing their responses to two questions, with the reflection theme that I talked about earlier, for 5 minutes each. I will share what these questions are in a bit. That should take us to the halfway mark, which will then leave us with about an hour for Q&A. You can pose your questions throughout the session on Facebook comments, and the Ethos team and our volunteers will help group the questions into major themes and issues raised. Because we don't think we are likely to be able to respond to individual questions given the audience size and also the constraint of time.
In the name of solidarity, we have also made accessibility arrangements for this evening’s panel. First, live captions to the discussions for our Deaf and Hard of Hearing friends will be provided by AI-Media. We’ll do our very best as speakers to enunciate as clearly as we can. Well I’m doing it, that’s why I am speaking a lot slower than normal.
For our blind and low vision friends, I will call each speaker by name before they speak, both during the sharing and later when we have our Q&A segment.
Should I forget, I hope my fellow speakers will also help to identify themselves before they speak. Our speakers may choose to also describe their appearance and surroundings when they first speak. Let me practice what I preach and start it off: I am zooming from a corner in my living room. Behind me is a black standing lamp of Parisien design. Above me, you can see part of a print version of Gustav Klimt’s Water Serpents II painting. I’m wearing a brown hat with a black top. I do sincerely hope that an increasing number of events will be accessible through adopting such practices.
Let me now present to you our large and illustrious panel of nine activists from a diverse range of causes that are also interrelated, of course. No social cause is ever truly siloed from another because society is a whole living human system. These nine Singaporeans with brilliant minds and big, brave hearts trudge the path less travelled so that new possibilities for stubborn problems in our society can be imagined. I cannot tell you how proud I am of the age, racial, gender and issues diversity of this panel.
Our panellists will be responding to two questions for five minutes each. The first one is reflecting on the recent GE, how far have activists in your field, your community or cause managed to shape the public and policy discourse? And the second question is, what more needs to be done as we look forward to the next GE and beyond?
They don’t need any introduction; you would have already seen their bios on the event page, and the trailer slides earlier. But they are also very Googleable. So I won't take up time to reread profiles. However, I thought it might be interesting for us to play the seven-word biography game so you get a glimpse of who they are. Their core, their essence, in just seven words. I think this is a much more intimate and definitely a more human connection, in my humble opinion.
So I’ll start off. Mine is: “A full-time human and part-time everything else.”
Now, let me hand over this invisible talking stick to Margie, or Margaret Thomas. Margie’s seven-word bio is: “Not O. Not Merdeka. Just a Singaporean.”
Margie, over to you.
MARGARET THOMAS: Thank you. Can you hear me now? Thanks, Anthea.
I should describe myself. I’m sitting in my study, you can see bookshelves behind me, and I'm wearing a pink AWARE T-shirt that looks white and it says [pans camera to show T-shirt] Rewrite the Rules.
Let me talk about gender equality. GE 2020 demonstrated both how much has been achieved in the quest for gender equality, and also how much work is still needed. On the plus side, women are now a significant part of our political process. We saw a record number of women candidates, 40, or 21% of the total. And a record number of them, 27, were elected. When Parliament reconvenes next month we will be just shy of the UN's 30% target for women in leadership positions. We would of course like to see an equal number of women in parliament. But 30% is a whole lot better than the 0% that we had from 1970 to 1984.
Significantly, during the campaign, gender issues got a fair amount of airtime. The PAP devoted two of its Straight Talk online chat shows to women's issues and so did the Workers' Party with its Hammer Show. I think this is partly because there are now more women in politics, so there is naturally greater interest in and understanding of these matters. But it’s also because of the considerable work done over the years by AWARE and others to highlight these issues, and to get conversations going about them.
Another positive sign: The Workers' Party manifesto had several proposals about gender, like closing the gender wage gap. The WP's proposals were nowhere near as comprehensive as those of AWARE’s Gender Equality Manifesto, but it's a good start. Also very welcome was the fact that one candidate who is now an elected MP—Raeesah Khan of the Workers’ Party—proudly described herself as a feminist, an intersectional feminist. Our women leaders have tended to fight shy of this term. It's OK, you know, feminist is not a dirty word.
Finally there was that astonishing development just a few days ago, when the PAP Women's Wing issued a statement expressing dismay about the lenient sentence meted out to the dentistry student who tried to strangle his former girlfriend. I think it's the first time that the Women's Wing has taken a stand on the outcome of a court case. In doing so, they were echoing the unhappiness of many about what appears to be a tendency for better educated offenders to be treated leniently. This augurs well for the PAP's efforts to reconnect with the people. And perhaps we can look forward to the women in white leading their party and the government fully into the 21st century.
However on the minus side, the PAP had that ill-advised reference to wife-beating in one of their statements during the campaign. Many people, and especially survivors of domestic violence, were very upset about this. The fact that the ruling party could so casually and carelessly use a domestic violence analogy to try to score a political point shows just how much more work is needed. There are still entrenched attitudes we need to challenge and try to change. And policies that we need to persuade politicians and civil servants to update and improve.
A major issue continues to be violence against women. Many still suffer in silence because seeking recourse and justice can be as traumatic as the assault. We need to further improve our systems for handling cases of sexual assault. And we need to get into the school curricula comprehensive and objective gender and sexuality education.
Another great need is better support for caregivers, who are usually women. Better support is also needed for women who want to return to the workforce after taking time off to have children or look after elderly relatives. There are many other needs that AWARE and others have been pointing to for a long time.
As pretty much everyone now agrees, GE2020 showed, without a doubt, that Singaporeans—whether they be boomers or zoomers—want a diversity of voices and choices.
In the area of gender equality, AWARE will continue to do what we have been doing for 35 years. And that is speak up, offer ideas and get conversations going. We look forward to the policymakers being ready to share their data more freely and fully, and being even more open to engaging with us in these conversations. Thank you.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you Margie. Let's move on now to Imran Taib. Imran’s seven-word bio is: “Listen to all voices. Even in disagreement.” Imran, please go ahead.
MOHAMED IMRAN TAIB: Thank you Anthea, Imran here, wearing a blue top with sakura wallpaper in my background.
I think we can’t deny that the issue of race has been at the forefront of the last General Elections. But we should not think that this is deliberate. Now we must not forget that there was already an ongoing public discourse on race, particularly on racism, over the last few years. Awareness of racism therefore, is high. It’s already high—thanks to constant raising of the issues by various advocates, particularly among youths and active consumers of social media. You probably remember the Tan Wu Meng saga with Alfian Sa’at happened just before the General Elections, and the uproar over brownface was pretty recent. Yet we do know that issues of race and religion remain tricky in every General Election.
Firstly, we are constantly reminded that race or religion should not be mixed with politics. This has been a long-standing policy since independence, and reinforced through legislation like the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. Second, we have seen the effects of race in General Elections. Jufrie Mahmood, Tang Liang Hong, et cetera. Hence, anyone bringing race or religion into political rallies, intentionally or not, must tread carefully. But I see that the recent General Elections has brought up some interesting observations.
Firstly, there was a clear backfire over the police report on Raeesah Khan. Now Raeesah was alleged to have promoted enmity between different groups on grounds of race and religion, according to section 298A of the Penal Code. With the outpouring of support for Raeesah Khan, does it mean that people are more accepting of divisive race or religious remarks? I don’t think so. What clearly happened is this: people now have greater sensitivity when race or religion are weaponised for political ends.
To think of it, this is certainly a good thing. It means that the government's own emphasis to not allow the politicisation of race or religion is working. It cuts both ways—saying something is divisive can in itself be a divisive act, with an intentional political end. This is something we have not seen before, which clearly speaks to greater civic political awareness.
Secondly, I saw that there was a clear shift in the discourse on race brought by the opposition candidates. Traditionally issues of race remain in the discursive sphere of minority candidates. Compare, therefore, the old and tired narrative peddled by the PAP Malay candidates about having made it from humble backgrounds to show how the system works. But the system clearly has failed many. Stories of hard work cuts no ice with those who continue to fall through the widening cracks.
Hence, the Workers' Party candidate Fadli Fawzi, for example, calling for socioeconomic issues of the Malays to be addressed at a structural level, and not through a racial lens, won quite a few respects from the non-Malay camps. It is not that the PAP had not looked at the Malay underdevelopment issues through a structural lens, but somehow they did not see a need to emphasise structural interventions for whatever reason. I see this as a failure in strategy. Clearly, also, the structural dimensions of minority underdevelopment issues have become more apparent. Again, something has worked in the civic political awareness of issues beyond the racial lens, and this is clearly the work of many advocates in this field.
What needs to be done as we look forward to the next General Elections and beyond? I think when it comes to racial discourse, we are at a maturing state. Although I would caution that we have only started, post-GE2020 activists and advocates dealing with this issue must put their minds together to think, what exactly is the end goal?
Is it to achieve a post-racial society where race or religion plays no role at all in society? Which I think is not possible. It’s naive and poses even greater problems. Or to continuously educate society on the pledge of regardless, not without, of race, language or religion. The good thing is, even the government now is aware of the crossroads we are in, in bringing issues of race, and racism in particular, at the forefront of citizenship education. Think of Ong Ye Kung’s recent statement for schools to engage in race discussions and for teachers to be equipped with bringing race issues into the classroom. And advocates should seize the space and develop something productive to bring the discourse to the next level.
Similarly, Shanmugam’s statement yesterday, about how individuals can bring forward ideas on how to engage on the issue, is much welcome. Although the boundaries now need to be discussed further. For me, personally, it shows that we must go beyond this idea of racial harmony. Harmony is about the status quo. But where racism exists, you cannot expect to bring the matter without bringing in some discomfort and even denials. This is to be expected. But how we calibrate this to be impactful and educational and not confrontational and offputting is a skill that advocates must be equipped with. It also means that you must go beyond just talking about casual racism and stereotypes but how these are actually lodged in systems and structures.
We must remember “regardless of race, language or religion” in our pledge does not end there. It continues with “to build a democratic society based on justice and equality.” Racial justice and equality is what we must continually strive for, in order to be a nation at peace with the plurality amidst us, not plurality only when it agrees with us. It brings me to the final point about how advocates must open up and lead conversations on the ground, not just in academia or closed circles, on the following three topics.
First, the idea of offence. The space for disagreements, the ways to disagree, dealing with offensive speech, dealing with offence at the individual level. Discussing this is important, to not allow the idea of offence to be weaponised by groups with an interest to shield and protect themselves against critics and imperatives to dialogue. Second is intersections. How race intersects with different lived experiences, and to be aware of the multiple layers of domination across and within the race or religion—along lines of class, sex, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, education background and many more.
Last but not least, to ask ourselves as advocates, what would interracial solidarity look like? To go beyond the majority/minority debate, and beyond the racialised categories of the CMIO, that unfortunately continues to frame how we respond to racism, even as we try to combat racism. These are some issues that I think are worth pursuing and thinking about for those who are engaging on the issues. Thank you.
ANTHEA ONG: Thanks very much, Imran.
Just a quick reminder to all speakers: because there is live captioning, I know it’s quite difficult but let's maybe slow down a little as we share our responses, and also to speak up a little bit as well. Raise your voice a little bit, as well as slow down.
Now we’re gonna go to Ching, Ching Sia. And Ching’s seven-word bio is: "Changing the world to avoid my PhD." Ching, please, go ahead.
CHING S SIA: I think my prof is listening, so sorry, prof.
Hi everyone. My name is Ching and I’m the lesbian-looking individual wearing a black top, sitting in my living room with pink lights and a Pride flag, as well as a portrait of Lee Kuan Yew by Sam Lo in the background. I’m gonna start.
We have seen from this GE that many political parties rather ignore sensitive issues like LGBTQ rights to avoid losing the conservative vote. This is quite evident in the recent party manifestos released by many parties during the General Election period. There have been various resources put up by community groups, such as Sayoni, that focus on individual politicians from various parties on what we have said before on LGBTQ-related issues the past 10 years. While individuals such as Heckin’ Unicorn have also synthesised specific points raised in different party manifestos on housing rights and lowering voting age, and other issues as well.
Leading up to the GE, we have also been creating social media content to inform our community—people who follow Pink Dot’s social media—on issues that matter to us. The engagement is actually all year round as well. There are also other community groups such as IndigNation, CAPE, Inter-Uni LGBT doing important work in churning out content to educate young voters. There’s also the queer trivia night under Prout, that I co-organise with my partner and my buddy—we call ourselves the Katong Queers—that also touches on political issues in a light-hearted and an educational manner, as a way to make folks a little less apathetic at the current state of affairs. All these resources and work by these individuals or groups of people contribute to raising awareness on political issues that we should care about.
We all know that none of the parties specifically address repealing section 377A, which was highly disappointing. But what we wanted to do was to look at what has been mentioned in these party manifestos that may still be relevant to the LGBTQ community, and what is not mentioned in these manifestos that are still important to the community. We provided specific points for people in the community who wanted to engage the political candidates.
It would be too simplistic and inward-looking if we were all to only ask for the repealing of section 377A. So we raised points on anti-discrimination laws that prohibit discrimination, against not just race and religion, but also on gender, age, people with disabilities, sexual orientation and gender identities. We also talked about lowering minimum age for buying public housing, which was mentioned in some party manifestos, media freedom on finally allowing neutral and positive portrayal of the LGBTQ community on free-to-air TV or the arts, on addressing bullying due to sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, training for medical professionals to treat LGBTQ patients with dignity and respect.
With these points that we have raised on our social media, we were able to equip the community with specific topics or questions that they would like to engage their political candidate with. This was important because none of the party manifestos tackled specific LGBTQ issues. But different political candidates may have different views. So the only way to learn your political candidates was really to engage them directly on specific issues or topics that concern you. Some may argue that LGBTQ issues are not bread-and-butter. But when you talk about anti-discrimination labour laws, housing, medical and so on, these are bread-and-butter issues that not only affect the LGBTQ community but also all Singaporeans.
We also listed a list of 16 new candidates from all parties, from the ruling party to the opposition, that our social media followers ‘stan’ [makes air quotes]. ‘Stan’ actually means you support, or you’re a fangirl or fanboy. We basically crowdsourced this list from our followers, for other followers who do not really keep in touch with General Election news, to be aware of these newer candidates, and for our followers who live in the specific GRCs and SMCs that these candidates were contesting in, to reach out to them. A number of them do respond to the questions our community posed to them. Some were a bit more straightforward than others, while others were a little less receptive. There were also a few who kind of backtracked their initially LGBTQ-affirming responses. Ultimately, we want to be able to provide these resources and let people make their own informed decisions on who to vote for, and why.
Not addressing issues like LGBTQ rights is glaring now. By the next election, not addressing these issues will be taken as a statement or position. The level of engagement that took place during the GE between citizens and political candidates will, and should continue. Because these newly elected politicians are representing you and your views in parliament, and in subsequent policies implemented. If we do not engage the politicians and share our views with them, they wouldn’t know. And based on these GE results, I’m certain that people on top do not want to be out of touch as well.
So I do encourage everyone, not just LGBTQ folks, to continue speaking to your political representatives. It is your right as a citizen to publicly participate in a meaningful manner, to enact, hopefully, some change in this democratic society in the place we call home. Thank you.
ANTHEA ONG: Thanks very much, Ching. That was wonderful..
Just a reminder to the audience out there on Facebook live: be sure to start posing your questions on the comments page so we can start to organise them. We’re coming to half way through the panel.
Next up we have You Yenn—Teo You Yenn—who needs no introduction. But I bet you didn’t know this about her. This is her seven-word bio: “Probably uses the word 'structural’ too much." Over to you, You Yenn.
TEO YOU YENN: Hi, everybody. My name is Teo You Yenn, I’m wearing blue and speaking from my home office. There is a bookshelf and books behind me.
The organisers’ prompt to us tonight is how we see the state of things, in the causes that we work on. On the effort to reduce income and wealth inequality, I think we can think of outcomes at three levels.
The first is the most straightforward to think about. The problem our society has is a high level of income and wealth inequality. To reduce it obviously means the distance between the top and the bottom layers of society have to be brought closer. This is the most difficult level of outcomes to achieve, and I think we have not yet seen significant improvements on this very direct front. This is not surprising because the gap has been generated over decades and is deeply systematised in how it is reproduced. Even when we don't see quick improvement on this front, keeping this in mind is important for staying focused on what the dream is.
This first outcome cannot be achieved without a second outcome. And that is a radical shift in institutional arrangements. In particular, public policy—how it is set up, what it rewards, what kind of family forms it privileges, what behaviours it punishes. These are very important for reproducing or disrupting patterns for the distribution of income and wealth. And on this front, we have seen much tweaking at edges, but no fundamental shifts in policy principles. More programs, and more people can come under programs, but this does not mean significant shift in terms of what practices are recognised as legible, what family forms are included and excluded, and how people's contributions to society are rewarded or not.
Again, despite not seeing much movement on this, one has to remember that this, too, is a major dream because the problem of income and wealth inequality is structural and requires systemic shifts. If goal number one is the destination, then goal number two is the train that will get us there. Finally, on the issue of income and wealth inequality, as on many other issues, there is a layer we can think of as cultural. This is the space of words, meanings, discourse, interpretation. The shorthand for thinking about this can be the questions, ‘what is thinkable and unthinkable? What is speakable and unspeakable?’ As a scholar, this is in some ways the layer I have the most direct input on. I put ideas into words, the words travel, other words by other people are generated, the words fight and dance. Together, they form a discursive context.
When enough that is unspeakable gets spoken, the unthinkable becomes thinkable. Vocabularies for thinking and talking about a subject or problem become part of how public conversations are conducted. On this, I have seen progress. When I first started doing research on poverty in 2013, poverty was not generally connected to inequality. My first papers and presentations about my research had only one point—when thinking about poverty, think about inequality. And now when I see references to poverty, it is almost always linked to inequality. This is sometimes window dressing, a mere semantic shift that is not followed through. But sometimes it is not. And that matters, because words matter. They shape how we think, how we diagnose problems, the solutions we can imagine. They put things on the agenda that were not there before. That has the potential for shifting the first two goals I outlined earlier.
Let me conclude by saying it is important to see activism and social movements as aiming at goals that exist at different levels, with different timelines. Because seeing goals this way reminds us that none of us can work alone and that change takes time. Different levels and pressure nodes mean that we need varying skills and capacities. We need opportunities for interacting with, or putting pressure on agents of power. In activism, as in many things in human life, we have to contribute individual efforts to larger, longer term projects that then become more than the sum of our parts.
Looking ahead, I think we need the same two things activists have always needed to keep working. We need patience, and we need friends. And both can be cultivated. Thank you.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you. I hope that there are a lot of friends here, not sure about patience yet, but we’ll keep at it.
Let's move on to Kok Hoe next. And Kok Hoe’s seven-word bio is: “Doing things otherwise unlikely to get done.”
NG KOK HOE: Thank you, Anthea. Can you hear me fine?
Hi, good evening. I’m wearing a short-sleeved shirt, seated at my dining table, against a plain white wall.
A lot of work has been done in the past few years in the area of housing security, whether people have access to stable and adequate housing. AWARE, for example, has looked at how housing policy treats different groups, such as single parents. I did a survey on living conditions in rental housing, and You Yenn also discusses this in her book. The Cassia Resettlement Team has looked into the social costs and inequalities of housing relocation, something we document in the book They Told Us to Move. Last year there was the nationwide homelessness street count.
Housing in the recent GE has surfaced as an issue. In several manifestos, there has been a focus on the lease decay issue. And there have been a couple of interesting proposals connecting the decay of leases to rental flat supply. But we look beyond the GE as well, and outside the GE, there have been changes in the last few years to housing policies and practices, such as the loosening of rules for single parents, the setting up of partitions in rental flats that single, unrelated tenants are required to share, the ramping up of homelessness outreach services and so on.
I’m actually quite glad that the street count was done before COVID-19, so that when the pandemic hit, we could focus on the work of housing people instead of arguing about whether these people are really homeless.
On the other hand, other proposals that activists have suggested, such as fairer eligibility rules in rental housing, the setting of space standards, the ending of the requirement for single tenants to share a one-room flat with a stranger, and larger rental flats to solve overcrowding, these have not yet been seriously considered.
On the whole, I would say progress has been slow, but visible.
In any field, I find that advocacy based on research goes through different stages, with different tasks at each stage. To make a policy demand with sufficient force, we need to answer three questions. The first is, what is happening? The second is, is it a problem? And the third is, should and can we do anything about it? I’ll give concrete examples.
First question, what is happening? It may seem straightforward to establish what is going on. But until fairly recently, it was not uncommon to hear things like “homelessness does not exist in Singapore”, “poverty has been eradicated”, or “there is no inequality among schools”. Advocacy begins with foundational empirical research like the street count, surveys and ethnographic work in public rental neighbourhoods, and so on, to find out what is going on.
The second question, is the situation a problem? Sometimes we hear that people sleeping outside in fact own housing, so they are not really homeless, they can just return home. Or we hear that single elderly tenants who have to share one-room rental flats with a stranger—they actually give positive feedback in housing surveys, so what is the problem? Here, research can go deeper to reveal people’s situations and difficulties, such as homeless people's low-wage and insecure work, family conflict, inability to afford and access public housing, problems for elderly tenants and families with children living in small rental flats and so on.
And then we arrive at the third question—should and could we do anything about it? Those who defend the status quo may say, as a nation, we cannot afford to give low-income rental tenants better housing conditions. Others may argue we should not, because homeowners work hard to buy their flats, and tenants who make bad decisions in life get the housing they deserve. Here, activists have been arguing that housing conditions affect tenants’ well-being and children's outcomes. Secure housing with adequate space and privacy is a basic right.
Where are we now, and what needs to be done? From my observation I would say we are somewhere between stages two and three, recognising there is a problem and we can do things to fix it. We need to help people understand that homelessness, problems in public rental housing, the lease decay issue, retirement security—these are all linked. And they originate from our public housing model that is premised on asset ownership rather than housing needs. This model is fraying. We can no longer take for granted that ownership will ensure retirement income security. At the same time, this insistence on ownership is supported by a rental housing sector that is under-resourced and out of step with the times, that seems to prioritise converting tenants into flat owners over meeting their basic needs.
We need to recognise that there is nothing natural or self-evident about the notion that people deserve the housing they can afford. We only have to compare this with education, where we hold the line very staunchly that money cannot buy anyone advantage in the public school system. We will never accept it if someone suggested that children deserve the quality of education that their parents can afford. Yet we accept this as normal when it comes to housing. The work for the next few years must focus on this, recognising there are problems, that we can do things about it, and there are alternatives and possibilities. Thank you.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you Kok Hoe.
Let’s move on to our next panellist. She’s very kindly asked me to just use her short name that we all know her as, but I’m going to give it a shot. We have Ranganayaki Thangavelu—I hope I did that well—or Ranga as we call her in short.
Ranga’s seven-word biography is: “I, we, and us make our society.” Over to Ranga.
RANGANAYAKI THANGAVELU: Thank you Anthea. Hi I’m Ranga, I’m wearing a pink top, sitting on a yellow chair against an off-white background.
Today I was asked to touch on community, social services and social inequality. I grouped my comments under three key words: context, community and collaboration.
The context we are in changes everything. COVID-19, Sengkang, more women in parliament, have changed our context. And we must seize the moment.
Issues of inequality, poverty, education, income, housing and rights of foreign workers have had increased attention in recent years due to the good work of colleagues who spoke before me. These are in greater focus during COVID-19.
As a community worker, I've had my eyes and ears open and hands really busy. There are so many opportunities for us to participate and work with community. There are examples of so many different groups of loosely put together networks that have done so much to support others.
Yesterday when the cabinet was announced, I noticed there were three ministers that are now on social policy and social services. Is it because these issues are in greater focus now, there’s more muscle behind it? I sure hope so. I also hope then, that there is a bigger space for civil society input, and not big government.
I was watching a panel the other day where Senior Minister Tharman spoke about shaping “a new compact between state and community for public purpose.” He mentioned how it will involve empowering community and nurturing social networks that allow towns to regenerate. I loved it because I think this is the vision—as a community connector and a community mobiliser—we should be looking at. The time is ripe now for us to contribute to research, writing, advocacy, campaigns and community action, whichever area of concern each of us pick.
My next two keywords—community and collaboration—cannot be taken apart. We all know the impact of COVID on low-income communities. What you may not know is, in these communities there are many who stepped forward to volunteer. They helped their neighbours and friends. How can they help when they themselves are affected, you may ask. It is because they are affected, they know what it’s like. They have naturally taken collective action in their own kampongs. And they don't really talk so much about it, maybe because they do not have the space.
This is civil society in action, especially when social service professionals could not have as much movement in the community. We could not visit the homes, we could not go and do our events. These local community volunteers stepped forward to take charge. They felt included. Inclusion in society is the first step towards correcting inequality.
So then I wonder, how will it look like if our grassroots are informal networks of active citizens who take action for the collective good? Social service agencies then widen their role, from resolving issues and attending only mainly to crisis, to stimulating individuals and communities, among the people they serve, to take action. There is nothing like someone experiencing these issues stepping forward to speak about what they are experiencing, that will cause real change.
I’ve also been privileged to be part of a collective of eight social service agencies and ground-up initiatives that make up what is called Mind the Gap. The tile based on the fact that there are people falling through the gap. This collective provides financial assistance to families that have been impacted by Covid-19. Such collective actions build strong bonds between social service providers. It fosters understanding, and helps people in a shorter time. We had to jump through some hoops, of course, to get it going. Three months and $480,000 of financial disbursements to 380 families later, we are very happy we did it. And, we have made a lot of friends in the process. More of such initiatives would not only be exciting; it will build a network of agencies. And, Minister Desmond Lee will be very happy we started the work towards social services integration before his work week starts tomorrow.
So what more can be done? Civil society plays a big part in shaping the agenda for policies.
The issues we are discussing need to be championed. Civil society needs to keep producing as much knowledge as possible. We have it and we live it every day. This means research on social inequality and how they intersect with other things too, like climate change, gender, race, for example. To do so, we need more data. And then we feed this data to MPs, and NMPs who can keep asking PQs (Parliamentary Questions) on this. Anthea knows this really well.
Civil society needs to launch more advocacy campaigns to accompany the research and knowledge produced. Perhaps the different organisations and individuals can consolidate our efforts together and launch campaigns to educate and influence the public in a variety of ways to maximise reach and engagement.
So it’s true. I, we, and us do make our society.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you, Ranga.
OK, we are getting to the last three panellists and the questions are just coming through fast and furiously. So thank you all in the audience out on Facebook sphere.
Next up we have Jolovan Wham and his seven-word biography is: "Freedom lover, human rights defender, prison survivor." Go ahead, Jolovan.
JOLOVAN WHAM: Hello everyone, thanks for having me here to share my experiences with migrant rights activism in the last 15 years. I am in my bedroom wearing a white T-shirt and I have a slogan that says—I was inspired by Margie to do this (pans camera to show T-shirt)—"Not a public assembly. Just an individual in a t-shirt." This is a T-shirt I got from Subhas, the rapper-musician, and it’s a comment on how even one-person public assemblies in Singapore are criminalised. I won’t be talking so much about that, so I will share more about what’s happening in the migrant rights space.
For many of us in the migrant rights space, the General Elections doesn’t really have any positive bearing on our work. The impact on the public policy and discourse has also been minimal, for the obvious reason that elections are not fought on the rights of migrants and foreigners. In fact, elections campaign rhetoric for the longest time has been quite anti-immigrant and anti-immigration rhetoric doesn’t really help our work. Because the government does respond by wanting to make a distinction between migrants and Singaporeans, even on issues of fundamental human rights. One example I can give is that the government has actually withdrawn subsidies for medical treatment for all foreigners in public hospitals. And this has affected the access of low-wage migrant workers—their access to treatment.
Reflecting on the work that has been done so far, despite the General Elections and despite the politics, we have made progress. Through a combination of approaches and tactics, providing direct services with advocacy has been effective for groups such as HOME (Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics) and TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too), I believe. Given the political situation at the time when these groups came up, I think combining charity work and direct services softens your advocacy. So you don’t just come across as making noise—though of course, I would qualify by saying that there is nothing wrong with just making noise. I think given the political situation at the time, it was a much safer approach if you were a young group that was just starting out.
A combination of closed-door dialogues, campaigns, public critiques has helped to shape the discourse here, and the NGOs have contributed a lot to that process. I’d also like to add that advocacy isn’t just about changing laws and policies, but also ensuring the existing laws and policies are enforced consistently and correctly. So playing the watchdog is an important role for NGOs to play in terms of how rules and regulations that are currently in existence.
One example that I can give is, in the early, early years, whenever manpower ministry officials mediated employment disputes, workers would pay for their own repatriation tickets. But this is actually against the law. So NGOs like HOME played a role in telling MOM, hey, you know your regulations say that the employees have to pay for the tickets, so then why are you asking the workers to pay?
All that was achieved through a lot of dialogue and casework. And that’s why today we don’t see situations where workers have to pay for their own air tickets, even though that regulation has been there for a very long time. And gathering evidence through direct services, casework, is an important strategy for us, and it lends immediacy to a policy that isn’t working or isn’t enforced, because the problems that workers face are urgent.
But apart from closed-door dialogues, public advocacy and campaigns are important and we’ve made achievements in terms of improving policies and laws there. For example, we didn’t use to have an anti-trafficking law. And in fact talking about human trafficking was quite taboo 15, 20 years ago. But now we have the dedicated anti-trafficking law.
Other policy changes that we’ve made progress on include the day-off for domestic workers—though there are a lot of problems there, but at least we have the law. Salary payment issues, criminalisation of kickbacks, forced repatriation of workers, and a more liberal policy now in terms of allowing workers to switch employers freely. Also in the area of work injury compensation claims, benefits and procedures, we’ve also seen quite a lot of improvements there.
In terms of shaping public opinion, I think active media engagement, whether it’s state media or social media—telling stories, I think, has been a very powerful way of raising awareness. I remember when I started out people were generally very puzzled about the types of problems that migrant workers faced, but now there’s a lot more awareness. That awareness has also led to the creation of many other ground-up groups, and I think that’s very encouraging. There are many other groups now, and they are quite diverse. There are groups doing charity work, and also others doing advocacy, and then there are others that are focused on the arts and sports. So the migrant workers space has become a lot more diverse and it is also very encouraging to see that some of these groups are actually led by the migrant workers themselves.
I’ll talk a little bit more about the challenges that I think we need to tackle and look at, for civil society in general. I think one important thing is how do we incorporate the promotion of civil and political rights in our work, regardless of issues that we care about. I say this because there is a lot of censorship, and self-censorship, there is a culture of fear and there’s a lot of issues relating to transparency of information and data. How do we work together to tackle these issues? How do we encourage greater risk-taking in advocacy? How can we support one another better in taking these risks? How do we create a culture where individuals and organisations which take risks and get in trouble don't get blamed or become a cautionary tale? How do we convince groups that charity is not enough, and we need justice, and we need to work for structural change?
To do all this, we really need to be in solidarity with one another. How do we achieve that without falling into the divide and rule tactic which the government and the ruling party often uses? Charity groups versus advocacy groups, good activists versus bad activists, good organisations versus bad organisations. So I think these are important things to talk about.
Within this migrant rights space, what we also need to talk about is how do we empower workers? Because within this space, oftentimes you see Singaporeans like myself. I’m speaking at this panel, but ideally it should be a migrant worker who’s able to speak freely, and can criticise government policies freely. But they can’t do that, because of the culture of fear, because they can lose their jobs very easily. They will be deported if they speak up and become too critical. They can’t even form their own unions. How can we give migrant workers agency? What are some of the things we need to do in order for them to truly be empowered, and not just rely on Singaporeans and those with more privilege to do it for them?
That’s all I have. Thank you.
ANTHEA ONG: Jolovan, thank you very much.
Let's now move on to Min Jie. Min Jie shared her seven-word bio with me and it says: "People say I am a quiet fire." Go ahead, quiet fire.
TIM MIN JIE: Hi everyone. I am Min Jie, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak on behalf of the climate movement today. I think reflecting on the recent elections, we can see that the climate crisis is definitely on the political agenda and is something that we are very heartened to see.
It is the first General Elections where the climate crisis is recognised as an electorally important issue. We see parties like the PAP, Workers' Party and SPP had a section dedicated to addressing this issue in their manifestos. SDP, Reform Party and Red Dot United had dedicated manifestos and policy papers to address the climate crisis. I think this really shows that the climate crisis is recognised as an issue that requires political will to effectively tackle. It cannot be solved simply by individual action like recycling or turning off your light bulb.
In terms of the area of policy, I think over the past few years, we definitely see an increase in environmental related parliamentary questions being asked. A total of 277 climate-related PQs have been asked in the 13th Parliament. Between 2018 to 2019, we see a spike in the number of PQs being asked from 33 to 93 and that is something that we are very happy to see.
Another significant shift in the area of policy is how Singapore's new climate target uses a new indicator. The new target says to have absolute peak emission level 65 megatons in 2030. The previous indicator that they used wasn’t absolute emissions, but emissions intensity, which is absolute emissions divided by GDP. This indicator means that even if emissions intensity were to decrease, absolute emissions will continue to rise as long as our GDP keeps increasing, which doesn’t make sense from a climate point of view.
This changed indicator is something that the movement had been explicitly calling for. So when that eventually happened, that’s definitely something that we are heartened to see. In terms of what needs to be done as we look forward to the next GE, I think even though this was quite an encouraging start, we are definitely still looking for parties to articulate more comprehensive plans on the climate crisis.Some of the key areas that we hope parties will address in greater depth is, one, their position on the fossil fuel industry which is our largest polluter in Singapore. Having a concrete plan for decarbonisation and having a transition plan with specific measures that will protect the livelihoods of those that’ll be affected by this transition.
Another area that I think us as a movement needs to do better on, and also for parties to address, is how to make environmentalism a much more intersectional issue. What I mean by intersectional environmentalism is an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of the people and the planet. I think this is very necessary because the same logic that is willing to exploit labourers to the bone and giving them very little wages, the same logic that is willing to disable human bodies and regard some bodies as unproductive and therefore unworthy, is the exact same logic that would continue extracting from our Earth, with no regard for whether our Earth can survive, and whether the communities around that area can survive that extraction.
Another reason I think that using an intersectional approach is very important is because without it, as a movement, we can very easily slip into advocating for change that only benefits a small, limited group of privileged people. For instance, the movement to ban single-use plastic straws is ableist to some extent because it ignores those who need such a tool to eat, and not everyone can pick up a cup or glass, and a metal straw is not a suitable alternative because it is simply too hard to be used. For these reasons, I think intersectionality is something that is very important to address in environmentalism, because the climate crisis in of itself is a global crisis and the people who have already been marginalised are going to be more affected by it. This is something that as a movement we need to do better in, and also for parties to address the kind of solutions that they propose.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you, Min Jie. That was very well presented, well done.
Alright, last but not least, we have Alfian Sa'at. No introduction needed. This is Alfian’s seven-word biography: “Poet, playwright, regular critic, occasional lightning rod.” [Laughs] Go ahead, lightning rod.
ALFIAN SA'AT: Thank you. Good evening. I’m wearing a dark blue shirt. I’m in my room and there’s a bookshelf in the background.
A few weeks before the elections, the Straits Times published a survey where 71% of the respondents chose ‘artist’ as the least essential job. This led to much anxiety over whether this could be taken as some empirical justification to reduce state funding for the arts in the future.
It was notable that there was neither a statement from the National Arts Council nor the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth to re-affirm the value of the arts and to re-state their commitment to support the sector. The most prominent defender came in the form of Professor Tommy Koh, who wrote an op-ed in the Straits Times. I have always considered it our blessing that we have someone like Tommy Koh in our midst. But it is also our tragedy that there is only one Tommy Koh.
Coming into the elections, many artists, most of them freelancers, were feeling both economically—and thanks to the survey—also socially vulnerable. An artist like myself also discovered how politically vulnerable we could be when I became embroiled in a PAP propaganda campaign to discredit Pritam Singh, the Secretary-General of the Workers’ Party. When Pritam spoke in Parliament urging the government not to selectively read my poems, the PAP did exactly that, by selectively going through my Facebook posts to paint me as a ‘pro-Malaysia activist’.
But that’s how unbridled power operates. It often does the opposite of what it is asked to do because there’s little to hold it accountable. Which is why I often question whether it is enough for artists and writers to speak truth to power. Because very often, power simply refuses to listen. I think it is much more effective to cultivate multiple centres of power. And this is the most compelling argument for voting the Opposition into Parliament.
At Wild Rice, we organised a panel where we evaluated the various party manifestos. Only 4 of them—the People’s Action Party, the Workers’ Party, the Progress Singapore Party and Red Dot United—mentioned Arts and Culture. We compared these manifestos with those from Indonesia and Malaysia, where the arts was spoken of as national identity, cultural heritage and the creative industries. In the Singapore manifestos, they were mostly motherhood statements. We gave WP and PSP a C—both of them argued for the liberalisation and depoliticization of arts policy—while the PAP and RDU received D’s. There was still a long way to go.
The question of how artists managed to shape the discourse in the recent elections is a very tricky one, because much of what we consider art is invisible. When Shanmugam speaks sourly about how ‘slick PR videos’ are not ‘honest to the soul of the PAP’, he is actually conceding how artless the PAP videos are. Any scriptwriter can also tell you that if every one of your candidates has a rags to riches story, they will come off as inauthentic and... scripted.
During the elections, some artists released a music video of Zubir Said’s Orang Singapura, featuring prominent Opposition politicians. Members of the theatre community came together to release ‘Your Vote Is Secret’ videos in Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and four Chinese dialects. Some of the most powerful images from these elections were produced by photographers like Edwin Koo and Chua Aik Beng, who were welcomed and given exclusive access by the Opposition. Lastly, in a campaign speech by WP Chairman Sylvia Lim, she said, “Imagine a Singapore, where artists, writers, actors and other creatives have the same respect they enjoy in other developed countries”. For a community that had felt bruised by the label of ‘nonessential’, this was surely balm to our souls.
Again, I cannot say with certainty how essential artists were to the 2020 elections. But I certainly would not risk ignoring artists not just as voters, but also campaigners, for future rounds of elections.
For the arts community, we are still in crisis mode at the moment. We are in the middle of a pandemic, theatres are still closed, and three arts institutions—The Necessary Stage, Intercultural Theatre Institute and the Substation are going to be made homeless or will lose part of their homes. It is slightly alarming that the new minister at MCCY, Edwin Tong, was on the POFMA committee and also the 2nd Minister for Law but we will have to wait and see.
I personally feel though that many artist friends I know have felt quite energised and inspired and are no longer hesitant about showing public support for the opposition. I think what’s important right now is to continue with voter or civic education, so that people are more aware of the secrecy of their votes, parliamentary processes, and how to separate the government from the party. I think artists can play a part in this through projects such as forum theatre, legislative theatre, community development and other rehearsals for democracy. The arts, I believe, remains essential in providing safe spaces for difficult conversations and where political and ideological diversity is not only tolerated but celebrated. Thank you.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you, Alfian.
ANTHEA ONG: OK, so we have come to the end of the first part of today's program. We are going to head into questions and answers now. Thank you so much for all the questions you have posed. I’m going to try my very best to go through as many as we can, we definitely won't be able to answer every one of them.
Let me just get straight into it. This I think would be directed to Margaret. Margie. This comes from someone who asks: ”Since the Yin Zi Qi case came out, I know that many felt the sense of injustice over his light sentence. They are asking about this way of petitioning for the law to consider appeals for stronger sentences and for the University to take stronger action. But he’s saying—or she’s saying—that the general vibe is that these petitions are frowned upon. How then can we voice this opinion so that we can actually be heard and taken seriously over legitimate matters such as light punishment for violence against women? Margie, do you want to take this?
MARGARET THOMAS: One way which anybody who’s got a view on any issue is: write letters, write to your MP, write to the media. Couch your arguments suitably, think through the issues, keeping in mind all these regulations, you know POFMAs and so on, mainly for accuracy.
You do have a voice, just speak up.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you, that's good. And totally, I am with you there.
And I think one of the things we need to look at is MPS—Meet the People sessions—are really not just for bread-and-butter issues to be raised. I do think that the elected representative is there for you to raise issues of concerns to him or her.
The next one, is directed to Imran. Imran mentioned navigating offence, how does one do that? So, the example someone gave is: “When I try engaging my parents on the Raeesah Khan issue, they would go ‘Oh, what she said was offensive.’ And the issue tends to end there with raised voices, no matter how I try to shift the discussion to the problem.
So Imran hinted, offence is—in good or bad faith—as some conversation disabler/jammer, things that we don’t really want to hear. I think the key question is how does one navigate offence.
MOHAMED IMRAN TAIB: In a short response, people will react to certain things based on their own life experience, what they’ve encountered. It's important for us to look into the life experiences of a person who has a certain sentiment over certain issues and not first dismiss it, “Why are you taking it so offensively? Why are you being sensitive to it?” But really to ask first: why do they feel offended and try to work through the issues slowly.
I don't have a short answer for that but I think it can be done with certain skill sets that are being developed in various workshops.
ANTHEA ONG: OK, thanks for that Imran.
We’ll put this next question to Ching. It wasn’t specifically directed at you, Ching, but the question is: “I notice there has been resistance from some quarters against what is perceived as Western liberal ideas. This seems to have arisen in the Raeesah Khan case for example, and the pushback against LGBTQ movement and feminism here. How do you think we can negotiate Western terminology and ideas and make these concepts more appealing and relevant for all individuals in our society? She or he wants to be clear that they do not subscribe to this rigid West/East binary, but they know people who are against civil movements on these grounds and they want to reach out to them.
Ching, any thoughts on that?
CHING S SIA: Firstly, I feel that the concept of equality is universal, whether it’s East or West. But the terms that we activists, academics , or even some of the more educated segments of society in say, sociology or gender studies, is often not so easily understood. It shouldn't take rocket science to understand equality. My best advice would be to share your personal stories, share stories of your friends being discriminated, that is a much more humanised way of putting a point across. Instead of having to explain, for example, to your grandparents what does intersectionality mean.
That is my personal opinion.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you. I’m gonna direct this question to You Yenn. You Yenn, if you don’t mind. Also because I saw the word structural, and it just speaks [to] you, right?
“There are increasing online discussions about discrimination and issues of inequality around us these days. How do we move beyond performative allyship to actively pressurising and pushing for structural change? Also, how do we move towards discussions that encourage diverse voices rather than one that creates an echo chamber of like-minded opinions? Is it important to establish such a space?”
TEO YOU YENN: Thank you for the question. Like I alluded to in my remarks, this is probably something that does take lots of us working at different levels and trying to apply pressure where we can, where different activists exist and what kind of access they have to different levers or potential levers of power and where they can apply that pressure.
The answer for the individual is partly about how they are situated, for example, what kind of industry they exist in, what advocacy group they work with, how and what kinds of roles they play as a member of society and what is available to them. So, from an individual perspective, it's about what is available to the person in that time.
But I think it is useful to think about it collectively, to imagine that we have many different roles. For example, just on this panel, there are people who work in direct advocacy groups and do a lot by way of producing specific asks in policy at specific times when there are opportunities for raising an issue, and asking policymakers to respond.
We have academics on the panel and our work is to say that this is a pressing issue and these are the contours of the issue, and this is how other countries have resolved this, and this is how we should be thinking about how this problem presents in our society and how we may approach it.
We also, importantly, have cultural producers on this panel. What Alfian was pointing to earlier is also very important--about how to get the message across to different audiences. Ching was alluding to this as well. Different audiences who respond to different kinds of language, not just literal language, but also different kinds of sensibilities, and will need different forms of communicating. So I think working together is very important. And when we work together, we create more space for more people to come into the space. I think that is very important.
Jolovan earlier pointed out that risk is a big problem we all face as activists, and trying to convince ourselves and each other to take more risks is one of our key collective action problems. When we are alone we are much more easily targeted. But when we an work together in concerted effort, taking risks and risk-taking, speaking together collectively when we can, I think that definitely allows us to amplify voices and allows people who maybe cannot be very public and take those risks very publicly, to also be part of the larger movement. Sometimes, not necessarily fronting it, but have their voice be part of the larger movement as well.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you. I do agree with you that this collective action that we have to take, it is a big part of the work. While I have you, there are a few questions and a few members out there in the audience who are keen on your take on progressive wage versus minimum wage. Do you want to just share a little bit on that?
TEO YOU YENN: [Laughs] Can I plug a group and a website I work with, which is Academia.sg.
Professor Linda Lim did an excellent podcast with a young PhD scholar who’s now at UCLA, Kwan Jin Yao. He runs a website called socialservice.sg. Professor Linda Lim gave an excellent interview on thinking about what the problem is with low wages as well as what are the different ways to think about what solutions are. She does a very good job of explicitly comparing minimum wage laws and the progressive wage model.
The transcript of the interview is on Academia.sg, so I would encourage you to go and have a look at that.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you for that.
Next, this is very directed at one of the panellists, it’s not a broad question, this is to Kok Hoe:
“You compared education with housing, saying that money should not determine the education of the child, and thus money should not determine the housing a person deserves. Where then do you draw the line in which greater access to money should lead to any differences?"
NG KOK HOE: Often I raise this mainly to provoke reflection—it’s a thinking exercise—because people say that obviously the kind of house you get should be based on how much money you have. Why is it obvious? Because in education, that's not obvious.
And both of these, I should point out, are basic needs. Why we keep insisting that every school is a good school is because we believe that every child has the right to not just education, but good quality education. Why is it that decent shelter, stable housing, which is obviously a basic need, is not thought of in these terms?
That’s the reason I normally bring up that example. How then do we go about this? Normally when I say this, people will ask: “So are you suggesting we give away housing for free?” Obviously not. Between that and what we have, there are a great number of options. I can outline a few.
The key principle is that we must re-centre the meeting of housing needs as a priority for the design of the public housing system. Not ownership, not asset accumulation, not profiting, but meeting basic housing needs. Once you do that, the specific policies that need to shift become quite obvious.
I’ll keep this brief. The immediate steps would be that housing policy needs to be more rational, transparent and fairer. For example, the income ceiling to qualify for public housing is currently $1,500. It has not been changed since the year 2003. It has not been changed for 17 years. It’s completely irrational and it makes no sense. I can think of no defence for it, and there isn’t. So, that should change. Obviously, the income ceiling should be in line with income standards in society. And furthermore, this income ceiling doesn’t take into account household size. Again, completely irrational. For one person it’s $1,500. For a household of five, it’s $1,500.
If we re-centre housing needs to treat people fairly, we have to assess housing needs transparently and then think about—if the concern is meeting people's basic needs, for a start, why don't we bring 3-room rental flats into the public rental housing system?
Just these few things: revise thresholds so they are up to date, enlarge the rental housing sector so larger families actually get the housing that they need to meet their basic shelter needs, and then we have a very good starting point.
ANTHEA ONG: OK. Thank you. That makes a lot of sense and thank you for also bringing up the $1,500 income ceiling which has been there for 17 years.
There are quite a number of intersectional questions coming through, which is wonderful, because as I shared earlier in the introduction, we can’t look at these causes and issues in silos.
I would invite Jolovan and Min Jie to give your thoughts on the question. This person is talking about how she is working on more rights to nature in Singapore and she’s been deeply moved by stories of migrant workers who have taken time to share their experiences and the intertwined relationship they have with our natural spaces in Singapore, even decrying the loss of natural wild spaces for constructed green spaces instead.
She sees them as strong allies in environmental advocacy work, but she is wondering if we would be exploitative if we amplify their voices for nature in Singapore without, in the process, doing anything more to help alleviate their existing problems.
What can environmental groups do for them actively?
Jolovan, do you wanna give your thoughts? And then Min Jie if you want to chime in please go ahead.
JOLOVAN WHAM: I can definitely see the intersections of environmentalism and migrant workers because this relentless need to build and develop has led to the destruction of the environment, and all this is also done on the backs of exploited migrant labour. In terms of how they can be allies, honestly, it is something I have not thought very deeply about. There definitely are opportunities for migrant workers to be involved in the environmental space. I think concerns about exploiting them—it really depends on how you do the engagement.
Not all migrant workers are also abused and exploited, though I would say that the system in general is abusive and exploitative, but there are also migrant workers who have a lot of agency and who are empowered and who might be interested in these kinds of issues. There are possibilities in terms of collaboration but I can’t go into anything too specific or concrete but I'm happy to talk about it, so if this person wants to reach out, I am happy to engage and continue the conversation.
ANTHEA ONG: Great. I can link you up. I know this person.
Min Jie, do you want to share anything? Any thoughts on your part?
TIM MIN JIE: Yeah, I will just share a little bit.
Before I start, I want to apologise for forgetting to describe what I was wearing just now. I am wearing a black top and sitting against a red sofa.
Yea, thank you for the question. It is something I have personally been thinking a lot myself. Before I joined the climate movement I was working on migrant workers issues. It was the anxiety to think about how there will be more people being displaced from their homes and forced to be migrants and have to live with these terrible conditions—that was my impetus to actually join the climate movement, because I see these intersections.
I do relate with the concern on whether it might be extractive and I echo Jolovan’s sentiments when he said that it depends on how it is done and I think if it is built on genuine relationships and the consent of the worker then I think that could be quite a regenerative thing to give them space to connect with nature in this way.
I think another point that I personally feel quite strongly about is—I think the climate movement cannot just be an environmental movement, it also has to be a labour movement.
On one hand, while we can reach out to migrant workers to ask if they want to participate in this type of activity, when we do our activism, we also must be fighting for labour rights and stand in solidarity with organisations that are fighting for migrant justice.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you. That is very refreshing to hear. I think it is important when you talked about it not just an environmental movement.
Jolovan, one question directed specifically at you so I will let you take this before we move back to some of the more intersectional questions.
“Should the government stop the segmentation of our workforce into migrant/local categories? From wages to housing accomodation, the economic and immigration vulnerability of migrant workers hinges on the continued legal and cultural Othering of migrant workers.
What are your thoughts on that?
JOLOVAN WHAM: We see that the government has deliberately done that, even in how they’ve reported COVID-19 numbers. They separated those from the community and those who are foreign workers. Definitely, I think this dichotomy is a false one. Migrant workers are part of the community so this continued segregation is something which is very concerning.
This deliberate segregation is also part of the system that has been created which is exploitative also. Even among migrants, they separate them to those who are foreign talents and those who are foreign workers. So, these kinds of social divisions are unnecessary and it’s important to change it.
If we don't tackle the exploitation created by the system itself, these divisions that we’re talking about cannot be dealt with. It cannot be discussed in isolation. It has to be something that we talk about together in order to tackle this issue of whether they should be discussed in separate terms or whether we should discuss them as members, as part of the community.
ANTHEA ONG: On that note, that segues really nicely to this question and I will make it open so any panellists who want to share their thoughts, please raise your hand, although I'm trying to see whether I can see all of you when you raise your hands.
The person asked—and this is relating to general advocacy and activism— is civil society something that will always be in a dichotomous position to the government or is there a model of collaboration by which the government can tap all the resources that civil society has to offer and vice versa?
So drawing a little bit on what Jolovan said. Would anyone like to have a go? Offering your thoughts on that?
No? [Laughs] Is there a model of collaboration?
RANGANAYAKI THANGAVELU: Yes, I will try. There is a Masters program at SMU that talks about tri-sector collaboration, which talks about the corporate, civil society and government coming together.
I think it is important to realise that we all play different roles and it is not, it need not be opposing, it should be adding so we can collaborate together for the greater good of society. It need not be, but I think it is civil society’s role to point out what is not working because government makes policies for larger groups of people who are impacted. So until you see it, like other movements have come about, whether it’s for special needs, for autism for instance, where very few children were affected by autism, or it was not recognised as a need—there were civil society groups and parents who came together to put a clear focus on it and then we have so many more resources right now.
I think we have to be clear about the roles that each of us play and if you are not in government and you are a civil society member, let's do something.
ANTHEA ONG: That's an interesting point. To actually understand from the point of view of policymakers, there is clearly that intent to cover the majority, and therefore it won't be complete coverage, so to speak, for everyone involved. Therefore, civil society really plays the role of highlighting this.
This is very topical, a current comment that came from Senior Minister Tharman, in that talk at LKY School of Public Policy recently.
This is for all panellists: “Tharman recently talked about the need for activism in government. Are you happy to hear that?” [Laughs] “To hear the word ‘activism’ from a senior government official? What would you tell him to focus on and how can that happen?”
How can that happen, practically speaking? Who would like to have a go?
MARGARET THOMAS: Just a question. What does he mean by activism? Some of us might feel that they should be a bit less active in some areas of government. Like issuing POFMAs and so on.
But to go back to the other point about how civil society and government can collaborate, a lot of it depends on whether the government sees the value of collaborating with civil society. Certainly in AWARE’s experience, every time we have had research or a position paper, we share it with all MPs. We work with MPs, NMPS, MPs of any stripe on PQs. We have noticed that sometimes the AWARE staff send out these bits of research and papers—we don't always get a response, we always end by saying we would be happy to meet with you and talk these things through and we don't usually get a response, but we do find that sometimes what we have given them finds its way into what is said in Parliament.
We are happy to continue to do that. Anthea, we have worked with you on framing various things and we would very much like to continue doing this with everybody in government.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you. Anyone else would like to chime in? That the word activism has been used... Are you happy? No? Let's move on to a question for Alfian.
There has been a lot of talk of cancel culture on social media—
ALFIAN SA'AT: Oh, gosh.
ANTHEA ONG: [Laughs] It’s directed at you so I’m not even arrowing you.
ALFIAN SA’AT: Yeah, I’ve already asked for it.
ANTHEA ONG: So there’s been a lot of talk of cancel culture on social media, and personally she feels she’s been frustrated trying to have conversations with her peers about how ‘cancel culture’ has been misused and why it’s not actually a productive term. Any thoughts on how to navigate these conversations and move towards a more productive public discourse instead?
ALFIAN SA'AT: Right. For me, I feel that cancel culture is one of those really slippery, chimeric things that have come from American political discourse that obscures more than it illuminates.
When you introduce this term into any kind of discussion, you are gonna end up discussing what the heck that term means. We have these things where it is like—‘political correctness’, words like ‘virtue signalling’, even words like ‘cultural appropriation’. Actually, they are very imprecise terms.
They draw the debate away from foundational and fundamental things, to other things. For example, political correctness. Actually, it should be a discussion about decency, ethics, moral behaviour. What’s the right thing to do? But people have the tendency, when you bring this term into the picture, it becomes about identity politics, it’s about the right to take offence or not be offended, and all these other...
So, I find that these words are very sneaky words that try to reframe discussions and I feel it is really best to avoid them. We have a vocabulary for people who are outraged and want to take action for example. There’s ‘backlash’, there’s ‘boycott’, this has been going on for a while and it is up to the companies, I think. It depends on what are their contracts with people they work with, what kind of policies they have. If these are rigorous enough, then no matter the volume of complaints that come in etc, they will stick to their policies.
This whole thing about cancelling, we need to put it not at the foot of this so-called lynch mob but also at panicky employers who then remove an employee and sometimes it is beneficial to them, right? You amputate this one so-called illiberal person to maintain this facade of liberalism. I think we should also take employers to account and ask, ‘OK what this person did, did it violate your employment conditions?’ Because if not, you are reacting unfairly to pressure.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you for that. I’ve just been alerted that You Yenn and Jolovan would like to give their comments on that question on how civil society can work with government?
Sorry, it's very hard to see everyone, I'm trying to have a few screens on my laptop.
JOLOVAN WHAM: I will say something very brief. I think the issue of collaboration, it is not done within a power vacuum. If we talk about wanting to collaborate, on whose terms are they on?
And I think for a lot of VWOs the government funds a lot of their programs, how much space and how much voice do they have to truly run the programs they want without the threat of a funding cut? I think we need to appreciate it within this context if we want to talk about collaboration, because it assumes an equal balance of power when there isn't.
And the question about the civil service, whether it can be more activist, if we’re talking about creating a culture of speaking up and being critical I honestly don't know how it can be because the civil service has only known one party in the past 50 years. The PAP culture and the civil service culture is so intertwined. How do even civil servants within the service itself begin to want to speak up, and the culture of fear I'm sure is very strong there because then it can affect your promotion prospects, your bosses might not be happy with you. It also depends where you lie on the hierarchy of the civil service. It's not the first time that people within the establishment have called for more ‘activist’ public servants.
I recall a couple of years back then Chan Heng Chee said that they wanted more naysayers. There has been a lot of such rhetoric, but how that translates into practice, nobody knows.
ANTHEA ONG: Yeah, that’s valuable insight.
TEO YOU YENN: I’d like to add to that. On the question of civil society, when power is very concentrated in the hands of the state, civil society doesn't get to answer the question of how the state is going to respond.
The question—is civil society always in conflict or in contradiction to the state—that often is not framed by civil society activists themselves. That is important to point out. We don't get to decide how the state responds to us. That question is probably better posed to a panel of state actors, that would be a more fair question to ask them, than to ask us.
The second is, I want to point out that words like activists and labour movements and unions, these words exist outside of Singapore as well and they have actual meanings that are important. These words have come about with specific historic roots in some ways, describe specific things. Activism and social movements very specifically describes a certain kind of speaking truth to power, collective action vis-a-vis holders of power, whether states or monarchies or whatever.
We should not perverse words because words are important and how we use them matter. And I think when we apply them loosely, then they lose their force. It's important to pay attention to how words are used in ways that already strip down what the essence of that word is and what those actions are meant to indicate.
So in a way, by definition, the state cannot be activist, is what I’m saying. Social movements cannot be things that governments do. These words exist outside of Singapore. We didn't invent those words.
ANTHEA ONG: I was going to ask you that but thank you for adding that last liner. I think it's an interesting question for all the panelists and that is: Do we think we are preaching to the choir here? How do we reach out to people who prefer to think there is nothing wrong in Singapore, or other countries have it worse?
And I think, in the same vein, someone else asks, how can conversations on these issues be made more accessible to the public and the majority?
Anyone wants to raise your hand for this? Let me just make sure I can see all of you. Are we preaching to the choir? Who would like to have a go?
CHING S SIA: I’d like to have a go, the second question especially. To begin with, this talk touches on LGBTQ issues, I would say that it should be on free-to-air TV, let people watch it, think about it, but me being a neutral or positive representative of my community, we are not likely to be shown on TV.
Having said that, I feel that the government should be more open, at the very least on youth engagement on difficult topics, difficult issues. I read on Straits Times today, they are likely to engage the youths on racial issues, and hey I mean if it’s not too difficult, you could include LGBTQ issues as well.
ANTHEA ONG: Thanks Ching. That's good. Free-to-air TV, let’s repeat that. Free-to-air TV.
Anyone else? Yup, Min Jie.
TIM MIN JIE: I think I would answer the second question on accessibility. I think the first thing is taking care to ensure the language we are using is accessible in the first place. In activist spaces we tend to slip into very academic language—intersectionality, systemic action, are big terms that need to be broken down. I think the second form of accessibility that I would like to speak more about, is a more specific accessibility for people with disabilities.
I think a lot of the information that we have been putting out there are not really made accessible, for instance, whether documents like PDFs are screen reader friendly, which means the document can be translated into speech or braille. And I think another form of accessibility is this way of writing called Easy Read, which is a way of writing that is accessible for people with learning disabilities. So these are just a few forms of accessibility that I recently learned myself, and I realised I have not been taking this into account for so many years, in the kind of things I have put out there in the public.
And my last point is for these spaces to be more accessible, we also need greater liberties in terms of what we can say in public and we need to have more space to organise as well. I think for issues that tend to be sidelined in society, we need to have these spaces to disrupt the mainstream consciousness and put it out there.
I think on one hand it is on us to increase the accessibility of our content, but on the other hand, we need legislative changes to make sure there is space for this to happen in the first place.
ANTHEA ONG: That is wonderfully put. I will put it out to the other panellists. Some questions have come in, relating to what Min Jie has touched on, and that is: “How can we overcome these limitations in the system? In this case the social sector, for more advocacy work.”
That is coming up as a common theme so I am putting it out there. How do we overcome those limitations?
Who would like to give it a go? Anyone? Ranga?
RANGANAYAKI THANGAVELU: I think I am also following on from what Min Jie said earlier, and Ching. I think having the people who are experiencing difficulties speak up in panels like this is very important and Jolovan mentioned that as well with the migrant workers. The migrant workers can’t do it because they are not citizens of this country and the laws will not protect them.
In the other issues, we have to make more of an effort to get members of our communities that we work with to be able to share openly about what they are experiencing. So, during the recent elections, it was a very short runway. We had a lot of youths from the 1- and 2-room rental estates voting for the first time. And they did not know what to do and did not know what the issues are, what are they voting for or how can they participate. So we had to take the initiative of calling for a conversation to share with them the different party manifestos and for them to ask questions and how it can impact, electing someone. What’s the structure of government? How do you elect people that you want to support so that they can support you into government?
I think that was an excellent conversation to have and this was the first time that we were doing it, so we’ll wait five more years and do it in a bigger way. In some instances, I think that is very important. And when Liyanna, she stood for elections—she wrote the book ‘Homeless’ and I think that was a big step. A lot of us in the social service sector who knew her were rooting for her because of who she is.
Whether she makes it in politics is not the point but the fact that she was given the opportunity to step forward and campaign and be part of the system was a big breakthrough. More and more, we include members who are affected in these discourses, it will bring about authentic views.
ANTHEA ONG: Anyone else? Thank you, Ranga.
Yes, Kok Hoe. Please.
NG KOK HOE: How do we overcome limitations? This question reminds me of what Jolovan mentioned earlier about the divide and rule tactic. As You Yenn also said, we all play different roles.
As a public policy researcher, I have always believed that I must act independently but be able to engage with policymakers. Because if I cannot get into a meeting room with them and talk to them about policy changes, then the work becomes very difficult. But I find it is very important to remember what to do once you get into the meeting room. It is an important opportunity, so what we do inside really matters.
I can think of two things: one is to create space for others, to bring in others, to say that there are other people working on the issue who know more than me, you must bring them into the conversation. If you manage to get into the meeting room, bring in others.
The other thing that I find useful is to not forget what I set out to do. Maybe on some level, psychologically—I'm not a psychologist—but on some level, we all want to be liked, right? We want to be agreeable. But it’s really important, once you get into the meeting room, to still be able to say no. We can have a very civil conversation, but if you want me to censor my research report, I will say no. And I will say no to you very nicely, but I will say no. That’s important, to remember what we get inside for.
I came across a news report about the UK government. It was a minor news report, so I don't know how many people saw it, which was that the new UK government became quite selective of which journalists to brief when Number 10 gave their press briefings. At one point, they only invited some journalists from certain papers and left out others. The news report said something quite remarkable, which is that when the other journalists that were invited into the briefing room saw that a few of their colleagues from other newspapers had been left out, they asked why. When the press person said there was no reason why, “we get to choose who we brief”, all the journalists walked out. “You either brief all of us or none of us.”
So when we talk about solidarity, what do we mean? We have to remember this. When we manage to get in, we bring in others. If you don't want to talk to all of us, then you don’t talk to any of us.
ANTHEA ONG: That’s powerful. Thank you for that. Anyone else?
ALFIAN SA'AT: Just to chime in for what I think is the important role of the media in the work of civil society in terms of amplifying messages and the question about whether we are preaching to the converted. It’s actually the mainstream or mass media that plays an important bridging role. I always feel it's important to cultivate a good relationship with certain journalists who can advocate for your position in the media.
That said though, sometimes the mainstream media does fail us, so what are the forms of alternative media we can cultivate by ourselves? And what kinds of media are reaching certain sections of the population? In the recent Raeesah Khan case, I do know that young people were designing specially tailored Boomer messages to be sent on WhatsApp, they were using all these designs like flowers, that started with ‘Good Morning’. They seem to be very sensitised to different messages for different audiences and I think the kind of awareness for multiple audiences will be helpful in the future.
ANTHEA ONG: Yes. I think that is absolutely true.
Imran, would you like to chime in on any of this?
MOHAMED IMRAN TAIB: Yeah, I just want to highlight the changing space of activism. Prior to the emergence of social media, people tended to mobilise themselves as movements and they form institutions, they form NGOs and organisations but, in the social media era, people can congregate online, it’s organic and it’s also sometimes temporary—they come together, advocate for a cause and they disperse.
I think there is a need to think about the long-term sustainability of civil society in the post-social media era and secondly, I think there is already a digital disconnect or digital divide between the old kind of social movements which operate with the structures and institutions compared to the post-social media ones which are particularly dominated by young people. It's important to have cross engagements with NGOs, established institutions and organisations, and those who are operating largely on social media because then the experiences will be different and can be shared across.
For example, those who are still operating within organisations and things like that, they are connected closer to the ground where people do not really use much social media. If people operating largely on social media can actually be participating within the established institutions and organisations, I think the message can be carried across better.
Similarly, for those working within organisational structures, to also learn to utilise social media better for advocacy for some of their causes and I think these two things are needed.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you, Imran. I am mindful of the time. We are at 9:53. Thanks so much to all the panelists.
We tried to cover as much as we could with the questions. Audience, please forgive us. Well, actually, it’s all me, if your questions did not get picked. We tried to group them into categories, so hopefully you got some of your questions answered as the panellists shared.
I do want to take the last few minutes to ask the panelists a last question and we will see if we have enough time to do a bit more questions.
I mentioned earlier in my introduction that all of the panellists trudge a path that is less travelled- as you’ve heard, in order to challenge the status quo and attack deeply-rooted problems. This is clearly not for the faint-hearted, but you are all also clearly human, so there must surely be many moments of emotional and mental challenges.
To inspire our audience members out there, especially when I saw questions asking about what we can do to support younger members of the civil society or those working in the social services sector. So, to inspire those out there who may be struggling to keep going in the face of challenges, can each of you share with us what keeps you going?
So, let's maybe go back to the same... Let's go the other way around. I will start with Alfian and we will go back in the order that we started. Alfian?
ALFIAN SA'AT: I thought I was going to be last. [Laughs]
What keeps me going? As someone who some might say is a lightning rod, it is a sense of history, it is a sense that there have been various dissidents, and I stand on the shoulders of people like the playwright and director Kuo Pao Kun, people like the writer Catherine Lim. To know that in any authoritarian regime, the writers and artists are gonna be the thorns in the flesh and this is going to be a role that I accept willingly, knowing full well the risks that come with the territory.
Knowing that the landscape has changed and I have social media, I have many ways in which I can make my voice and my redress heard which were not that available for people in the past. Actually, I do have it a lot better than some of my predecessors.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you for sharing. Min Jie, you’re next.
TIM MIN JIE: For me, two main things keep me going. The first is recognising that I am in this for the long term and this has allowed me to take time off and take stock before continuing the work. I think working in the climate movement, the sense of urgency is very scary. I think reminding myself that the way that we achieve our goals matters, is very grounding.
Another main thing that has been keeping me going is that I feel very lucky to be in spaces where we actively practice collective care and we see this as a responsibility of the group rather than the individual. One of the quotes that one of the spaces that I’m in constantly looks towards is this quote: “We have to be careful with each other, in order to be dangerous together.”
ANTHEA ONG: That is beautiful. "We have to be careful with each other in order to be dangerous together." I like that. You are a quiet fire. Thank you for that, Min Jie.
Let's move on to Jolovan. Going down the list.
JOLOVAN WHAM: I think knowing how to pace yourself is important and so often times, you see a lot of things that are wrong and there is so much injustice so you feel compelled to do everything and sometimes you think too much and then you go into a paralysis....
Self-care is important and pacing yourself, so then you can—as Min Jie says—since you’ll be in it for the long haul, you wouldn’t burn out too quickly. Having fun is also important so don’t take yourself too seriously. Being able to see the humour in some situations also helps.
And I would like to speak in defence of echo chambers because people always say: “Oh, you’re in your echo chamber, you’re in your echo chamber” but these echo chambers are also what give activists a lot of sustenance and care and being among people that will support you and whose values are aligned with yours and who can give you encouragement, when things are down, they can be there for you. This network of support is important, and being plugged into the community is important.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you. I like how you are reframing echo chambers into peer support. I like that.
OK, now we have Ranga. Ranga?
RANGANAYAKI THANGAVELU: I guess it is the same for me in terms of what kept me going when I started. Social work was something I got into mid-career but I remember having dinner with a friend just fresh out of university and saying that if life was just about me and myself, it would be unbearable, and taking an interest in what happens around me is probably something I have inherited from my family, my dad and my siblings. So that is what keeps me going and I think that the road is long and hard and there are many things to do and we just keep doing it and in the process you suddenly find more people walking alongside you, and I think that is what is beautiful.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you. That’s why I, we and us make our society.
Alright, Kok Hoe, you’re next.
NG KOK HOE: Thanks. As a researcher, I am driven by the need to know. And as a society, I think there is a need to recognise. In my work, I have been very preoccupied with getting the foundational research done, so we can advance the discussion beyond, ‘Is there a problem?’, towards solutions.
I find that when people are experiencing hardship, to say that the problem does not exist is to tell them that their hardship is not real, that they are not real. And I find this demeaning and unacceptable, and it moves me to act. My hope is that when we have a more honest understanding of our diversity, we will become a stronger and more inclusive society.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you very much.
TEO YOU YENN: I’ll keep my comments brief since I am really liking this particular echo chamber. [Laughs] I think in fact, it is very meaningful and affirming to do things that are beyond the self and beyond self-interest and it's a privilege to do things in solidarity with others.
So first of all, I think this is very meaningful work to do and I feel lucky to do it. I think for people who are thinking about this or doing it in some form, I think one thing we don't take enough time to do is to cultivate relationships, but that is probably one of the things that we should continue to really invest deeply in. It is because of these relationships, that in times when things are more difficult, you can carry on.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you.
CHING S SIA: I think I’m gonna start off with a message that we received last year on Instagram, via DM (direct message). It was from a 50-year-old gay man, he sent us a message in Chinese and I got it translated. He says that: “My family is conservative and my religion sees me as a sinner. On the surface, I'm happy but for many decades I have been living in darkness, in an oppressed environment. I have never really dated in the community, I am now 50, and I don't think there is anymore hope and I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel anymore, but I still wish the best for all the lucky ones at Pink Dot.”
When I read this message all I could think about was #1: Try not to burst out crying in public. #2: I need to do what I can to make things better for the future generations, a future for my fiancée and I, our friends, our community, so that they no longer have to live in darkness, or to feel like they need to hide their authentic selves in order to live in this place that we call home.
That keeps me going.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you, Ching.
MOHAMED IMRAN TAIB: I don't really know what keeps me going but ultimately, I don't think it's about me.
ANTHEA ONG: I know what does, Imran—teh tarik!
MOHAMED IMRAN TAIB: Yes, teh tarik will always be good, now that you reminded me. But I think we need to be focused on the issues at hand. The marginalised, the less privileged, the minorities and I think I’ll ask instead—what keeps them going, despite all the struggles and the difficulties. And therefore, for me it’s the constant need to learn from their struggles, their experiences and their difficulties. Because they inform my own humanity, and ultimately I want to remind myself: I am not a saviour or a Messiah in this space and I will ask myself how I can walk with them instead of positioning myself as their saviour or their Messiah.
What keeps them going is something that I want to hear from them. Thank you.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you, that's very powerful. Margie?
MARGARET THOMAS: Well it’s pretty much been answered by everybody else before me but essentially, just speaking from my own experience in AWARE—35 years ago, finding a bunch of women who shared their common interest, at that point it was a common anger about policies that were sexist and eugenist and elitist. And realising that there are others who feel and think like you, and instead of sitting there and grumbling, that maybe if we get together and start talking about what we can do together, you can begin to make a difference.
So, this is there. I think there are some people on the panel who are familiar with AWARE, this has got a wonderful network of people, like-minded but not necessarily thinking the same way. You need the constant challenge.
And I think in recent years, what is most encouraging is the growing spread of civil society and the incredible number of young people who are coming up in organised groups or spontaneous groups and wanting to make change.
Ultimately, it is all captured in that pledge that we all recite every morning in school, about wanting to bring about a just and equal society.
ANTHEA ONG: Thank you for that. It was actually intentional, because I realise when I look at the panel, that you have been at this for a very long time, the longest, I think, among the panellists. I’m glad that we ended with you.
Thank you for bearing with us, audience. We are slightly over 10PM but we have come to the end of our session tonight. I think we can all agree this has been a most enlightening, soul-searching conversation for us as a civil society. There has been so much honesty and wisdom that has been shared between and amongst panellists and also with the audience.
If I were to take away what speaks to me today, strangely they all come with words that start with C. Civil society is the conscience of the nation. And the catalyst for positive change.
By its very nature, by its very disruptive role it plays in terms of us being in civil society and the wide diversity of causes, the constituents of civil society, may never be completely in alignment, and we talked about that in terms of collaboration.
We may not be in complete alignment as to how we behave as a collective in our role to make change but I do think that conversations such as the one we just had really helps to keep us in solidarity, to this shared vision of a more inclusive and equal Singapore. And as what Margie said, it really is encapsulated in the pledge that we say everyday as students.
This must be a more inclusive society for all. I really do hope that we all reach out intentionally to each other, continue the echo chamber as Jolovan and You Yenn shared about, to collaborate, to co-create, but also to be open, to let others in as Kok Hoe said. The others can include the government, can include the private sector—we didn't get to some of the questions that asked about how we as civil society can also work with the private sector.
So I think we can and must reach out to others to collaborate and co-create, that is a big part of what I've taken away from today’s conversation.
Therefore, this must not be the first and last time we come together in a good space like this.
Let’s thank our panellists. Thank you Margie, Imran, You Yenn, Ching, Kok Hoe, Ranga, Jolovan, Min Jie and Alfian again for your time and your energy tonight. Thank you to Ethos for hosting and providing all the tech and admin support. I really want to also do a special shoutout to Kok Hoe and Jingzhou for planting the seed for this panel discussion, which I hope will be the first of many to come.
I also want to specially thank you, the audience, for being so present and engaged and for contributing to this safe and respectful space for this conversation we had.
About the Panel
Alfian Sa’at is the Resident Playwright of Wild Rice. His published works include three collections of poetry: One Fierce Hour, A History of Amnesia and The Invisible Manuscript; a collection of short stories, Corridor; a collection of flash fiction, Malay Sketches; three collections of plays as well as the published play Cooling Off Day. In 2001, Alfian won the Golden Point Award for Poetry as well as the National Arts Council Young Artist Award for Literature. His plays and short stories have been translated into German, Swedish, Danish and Japanese.
Ching S. SIA is an LGBTQ+ activist from Pink Dot SG. She joined the Pink Dot Organising Committee since late 2013, and handles all of Pink Dot’s social media accounts. Apart from Pink Dot, she is also involved in the Ready4Repeal movement that took off in 2018, in support of the repeal of Section 377A. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Architecture from NUS, with a focus on ‘Right to the city’ and urban agriculture. In her spare time, she co-organizes Prout’s Queer Trivia Night as a way to educate and raise awareness on LGBTQ issues in Singapore.
Jolovan Wham is a social worker and the previous executive director of Humanitarian Organsation for Migration Economics (HOME), a migrant rights organisation. He also campaigns for civil and political rights, freedom of expression, and the abolition of the death penalty.
Margaret Thomas was a founder member of AWARE in 1984/85. She has served on the AWARE Board since 2009 and is the current president. She has also been involved in civil society initiatives such as TWC2, the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame, and the Singapore Advocacy Awards. A journalist for more than 25 years, Margaret held senior editing positions at The Business Times, The Singapore Monitor, and TODAY. She now works primarily on book projects. These include The Art of Advocacy in Singapore (Ethos Books, 2017) and Our Lives to Live: Putting a woman’s face to change in Singapore (World Scientific, 2015).
Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib is an interfaith advocate, trainer and facilitator on issues of race, religion and multiculturalism. He is co-editor of Budi Kritik, a compilation of essays on issues affecting the Malay society. His commentaries have been published in Today, Channel NewsAsia, The Straits Times and the South China Morning Post. Imran is a graduate in Philosophy and currently runs online community philosophy sessions.
Ng Kok Hoe is Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Case Study Unit at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, where he also leads the Social Inclusion Project, a research programme dedicated to analysing the role of public policies in creating opportunities for participation. His research focuses on income security and housing. His recent projects include minimum income standards for older people, Singapore’s first nationwide street count of homelessness, and an edited book, They told us to move: Dakota—Cassia (Ethos Books, 2019), which examines the impact of housing relocation on a social housing community.
Ranganayaki Thangavelu is Deputy Executive Director at Beyond Social Services (www.beyond.org.sg), which enables public rental housing neighbourhoods to be ‘villages’ that raise their children well. She is also on the Board of Compassion Fund Ltd (www.compassionfund.sg), A Good Space Cooperative, and The Constellation (www.communitylifecompetence.org), an international organisation that grows community based responses to social issues the world over. Ranga’s formal education is in social sciences, mass communication and social work. She is also trained in community development, restorative justice and stakeholder engagement. Ranga looks forward to engaging more people in peace building efforts to create a society that is kinder, fairer and more cooperative.
Teo You Yenn is Associate Professor, Provost’s Chair and Head of Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University and author of This Is What Inequality Looks Like (Ethos Books, 2018). More information about her work at: https://teoyouyenn.sg
Tim Min Jie is an organiser with the Greenwatch campaign (https://www.sgclimaterally.com/greenwatch). The campaign seeks to garner greater awareness of the climate crisis and push for deeper commitments to climate policy during GE2020. One of the defining initiatives of Greenwatch is Singapore’s first Climate Scorecard (http://scorecard.sgclimaterally.com). Outside of Greenwatch, she is an active member of Fossil Free Yale-NUS, one of the pioneering groups in Singapore that advocates for a climate-just future where the higher education landscape is free from the influence of the fossil fuel industry. She also co-founded Speak for Climate, an organisation that aims to enable greater public participation in climate policy.
About the Moderator
Anthea Ong served as a Nominated Member of Parliament from 2018 to 2020, was formerly a board member of Unifem (now UNWomen) and founding board member of Daughters of Tomorrow, and the Immediate Past President of Society for WINGS. In the last 9 years, Anthea founded several ground-up initiatives/impact businesses – most notable is Hush TeaBar: Singapore’s 1st silent teabar is a social movement that empowers and employs only the Deaf and persons-in-recovery from mental health conditions to bring self care and social inclusion to every workplace and community. In May 2018, she came together with a group of 25 C-suite leaders across different industries to form the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup to champion workplace mental health and employee wellbeing as a leadership priority. In 2017, she co-created A Good Space, a community of community builders, to expand perspectives across a wide range of social issues. In 2014, she founded Playground of Joy to deliver integrated values-based development programmes for children, especially those with special needs. She started Project Yoga-on-Wheels in 2010 as a community of certified yoga instructors who bring inclusive yoga to the beneficiaries of non-profits. She has also published a book titled 50 Shades of Love (December 2018).