Yet things can change

An old man on a bicycle cycling between apartment blocks
by Kae Yuan (@kae__yuan)


Dear Reader,

Last week, I was chatting with my fellow editors for the book, They Told Us to Move: Dakota – Cassia. The general elections were then still a week away. We observed how quickly the tides of argument seem to turn, how easily public attention can be switched, as political campaigning eats into private concerns and anxieties.

To people who have been working hard for the causes they care about, especially the young activists who have invigorated civil society in the past few years, it can be an unsettling time. These are moments when important things like doing the work, finding the truth and making the argument don’t seem to matter.

In public policy school, we often observe that every society has policies that don’t make sense. Policy equilibria do not always rest on principles. Policy making may not be guided by a sense of right and wrong.

The mathematics of public preferences pose a fundamental challenge to social advocacy. Problems affecting a disadvantaged minority are unlikely to rise to the top of the agenda, as long as the group is not geographically concentrated in a voting district.

At the same time, those with more means and the right networks can find ways to press for the things that they want. Once in power, well-resourced interests solidify into institutions. In the process, their rules get written into the DNA of our society, and their priorities become our way of life.

Yet things can change.

Across many different causes, young people have started to act. In the social sector, they are challenging more experienced practitioners to rethink practices and received wisdoms. In climate protection, they are already leaders. In the past few months, they have been busy organizing responses to the COVID-19 crisis.

In the realm of ideas, we have seen proposals related to the climate crisis, rental housing, income standards, unpaid care work and mental health appear in party manifestos.

A nation’s general elections serve as a gauge for what people think are important. But the future of a society is not decided in a race of 10 days. Some races take decades and progress is measured in half-steps. It is important to move at our own speed, do what we can in our turn, and make sure there are others around when it’s time for us to rest.

On 26 July, Ethos Books will be hosting a gathering of civil society, to take stock of the gains in social and environmental causes, and to discuss what is next. We invite you to join this event. Details will be published on the Ethos Books Facebook page soon.

As a community of people asking questions about society and seeking change to improve our way of life, we are many, we are still here, and we have work to do.

Ng Kok Hoe

(From July 11, 2020)