To Build a Democratic Society


Dear Reader,

I realised something was wrong with Singapore’s society when I started volunteering at Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) nearly a decade ago. I was then a botak army boy who ironically finally had free time on the weekends. Volunteering with case work and research at TWC2, I was jolted out of my middle-class insouciance by the visceral scale of injustice meted with impunity upon our migrant workers. Kafkaesque non-resolution of insurance claims and labour disputes, forced repatriation and debt bondage, rampant wage theft and job scams upon an already pittance of a wage, and the all-too-typical ghastly work injuries left untreated by errant bosses and clinics in cahoots.

How could we, so affluent and comfortable a country, have our prosperity built upon such unbridled exploitation and abuse of migrant labour? And what little could civil society and ordinary citizens do—against a political-economic system that was so unchanging, so hegemonic—except direct service and a smidgen of careful policy advocacy?

At university, I realised I was not alone in my bewilderment and anger. Many of my fellow students across causes—from migrant worker rights, to environmental action and conservation, to queer rights—saw that we were all similarly disempowered and depoliticised from making the broader systemic change that we thought of as common sense. CAPE’s (Community for Advocacy and Political Education) founding was thus a response to these collective moments of political awakening. Through CAPE, we had sought a space to educate ourselves about our political reality and how it works, and in turn to build our own capacities and strengths to make the change we wanted to see. Essentially, to re-empower and re-politicise ourselves as young Singaporean students. The rest—as you would read in CAPE’s chapter in Ethos Books’ We Are Not the Enemy: The Practice of Advocacy in Singapore—is history.

“Activism” is often seen as a dirty word in Singapore. With a half-century of state-led nation-building miracles, we are now accustomed to a top-down hierarchy in state-society relations. The political environment is also hostile to organic civic participation and action. Yet as our society evolves, a maturing democracy is needed to meet our increasingly plural policy needs and challenges. From labour rights (of both migrants and citizens) to advocacy against genocide, from climate action to social development and mental health. A vibrant civil society and active civic participation of our citizens are a lifeblood of Singapore society’s resilience and inclusive ethos.

But the more than half-century of defanging Singapore’s civil society is not undone overnight. The past few years of growing interest and engagement of citizens in civil society has to be supported by a broad rebuilding of our long-atrophied democratic muscles. We Are Not the Enemy and the accompanying The CAPE Handbook to Advocacy in Singapore are thus opportune in not just recording the labour and dreams of Singapore’s resurging civil society, but also in inviting fellow Singaporeans to join us and to build our democratic society.

Based on justice and equality,
Haolie (on behalf of CAPE)