By Zach Isaiah Chiah
It was like Lazarus rising from the dead.
“We were stunned at the announcement from Minister Mah. So was everyone else in the room when he said that the Cabinet had decided to defer land reclamation…”
“It was one of the most moving and memorable moments because it was something we had all been working so hard for but never really expected could happen. Really like the miraculous recovery of a loved one whom you had given up for dead.”
That was the recollection of Dr Geh Min to the Chek Jawa reclamation decision in 2001.
In early 2000, the government announced plans to reclaim Check Jawa for development. It sparked a spontanoues outpouring of support and emotion in the normally passive Singapore population. A group of botanists had discovered the rich diversity of Chek Jawa (located near the tip of Pulau Ubin) in December 2000 and a documentary was made. A report was compiled and sent to the government. In December 2001, Singapore awoke to the stunning news that the government had accepted the proposal and had put aside reclaimation of Chek Jawa for 10 years.
To Dr Geh, “the episode signified that civil society was alive [and] well… [and] that the government recognised its role [and] potential contributions [and] was prepared to listen to [and] work with us.”
When people are moved about something, passion drives them to do something about it. For some this means setting up organisations to advocate for what they believe in.
These are called Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).
What is an NGO?
An NGO is a legally-constituted organisation that is distinct and independent from the government of the country. NGOs are usually non-profit and pursue wider aims. In Singapore that can range from single issue groups such as
All Things Bukit Brown (see Correction below) to groups with a wider focus such as the Singapore Heritage Society.
An NGO is not a lobby group. A lobby group attempts to influence lawmakers to support or oppose an issue or legislation. Advocacy, on the other hand, focuses on education and creating awareness among legislators and the general public about an issue.
Lobbies tend to be viewed negatively because of a perceived narrow focus on legislation to serve the groups’ interest. In Singapore, NGOs tend to mostly be advocates and not lobbies.
SMU Law Professor Asst Prof Eugene Tan says: The line can sometimes be very thin between advocacy and lobbying. But these NGOs are true to their raison d’etre and they are not lobbying because they are being “paid” to do so. They are very often cause-driven, and very much driven by volunteers.”
An NGO has two main partners that it works with, the public and the government.
All NGOs have a reason and a cause they believe to be just. But not every cause is viewed with equal friendliness by the authorities, or any political group for that matter.
John Gee, of Transient Worker’s Count Too (TWC2), elaborates, “Elected politicians are inevitably sensitive to public opinion. They tend to take a more positive interest in matters on which there is strong public feeling and very cautious about issues that raise controversy.”
“NGOs are political by nature – political in the sense that it seeks to influence policy-making decisions based on what we feel is right and good for society as opposed to what will win votes – so the strategies they adopt will inevitably be determined by political considerations; how best to make policymakers or the public see the merits of what they are arguing for.” says Damien Chng, Founder of Second Chances Singapore.
Dr Geh agrees that NGO’s are political, “in that the issues raise have socio-political implications. We aim for public awareness but we are certainly not trying to manipulate public response.”
What this means is that some groups end up being more successful than others. Asst Prof Tan lists Nature Society and Heritage Society as examples of more successful groups.
Why are they more successful?
Four reasons for success
Four reasons have been suggested: public support, alignment with the authorities, style of advocacy and personalities involved.
Public support is vital to the work of any NGO. “NGOs will try to show that there is public support for the cause or position they are advocating,” said SMU’s Asst Prof Tan.
Terence Chong, Vice-President of the Singapore Heritage Society, concurred, “Without public support, SHS can do little. As a civil society group we can offer intellectual arguments and research but if the public is not on board there will be no traction.” His view was supported by Kirsten Han of Second Chances Singapore. “If you can get more people participating then there is more pressure for change,” she said. This explain why many NGOs emphasise the need to reach out to the public.
Having said that, there is more to public support then merely policy change. “Change is not only about government policy and regulations; it is about public attitudes too,” said John Gee, “In any country, an enlightened government policy can be undermined if there is no public support for it and likewise, a negative government policy can be undermined by a public that favours a more compassionate and rights-respecting position.”
Gee points to the issue of migrant workers. “There are many issues involving migrants’ experiences that are largely invisible to the public. In addition, there are sectors that do not wish to understand, because it would inconvenience them… these people do not want to hear anything that contradicts their prejudices, we think that most of the public is more open-minded, but it is just very hard to put themselves in a migrant worker’s shoes.”
How the public views things sometimes also affects how the government reacts and responds.
Dr Geh elaborates: “The [government] has its own agenda [and] if there is synergy then of course they are happy to have you work with them or better still, take over from them.”
In the final analysis, a politician’s aims are focused on the vote bank. “Migrant worker issues [are seen as a vote loser], which is why not one single party in Singapore takes a robust stand in favour of migrant workers’ rights.” Says John Gee.
Gee should know.
TWC2 is at the forefront of one of the hot button issues in social advocacy – transient workers. In recent years, transient workers have conducted a number of large and small scale protests over perceived ill-treatment by their employers and it has affected how advocacy works. “The going has got harder on some issues, though on questions of extremely harmful behaviour towards migrant workers, public opinion and government action continue to move in a positive direction.”
Even if the broad aims are in line with the government, an NGO may not be well received because it is perceived as being obstructive.
A lot of this has to do with how ‘loud’ the voice is. “Megaphone engagement often gives rise to the government being concerned about an issue being politicised. Or that they are other ulterior motives. So there is a preference for the low profile approach that is more focused on positive outcomes”, explained Asst Prof Tan.
The NGOs, however, disagree with the softly, softly approach all the time.
When asked if quiet diplomacy worked better than loud advocacy, Han replied: “Different NGOs have different methods in advocating for their cause.
“Different causes require different methods; for example, when it comes to death penalty cases, where there is almost a countdown to an appeal or even an execution date, we are required to act in a way that takes into account this urgency. In such situations it wouldn’t be useful to want to take a “softly, softly” approach – there might not be time for it.”
Would the authorities view it kindly though?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no seems to be the answer, Dr Geh mentions that there are also elements of luck and personalities involved that matter as well as whether the policy is likely to be controversial at that time. “The important thing is to look for commonalities with the other party and try to develop a sense of trust.”
It should not be surprising that trust involves not just the logical argument but also the personalities involved.
These factors are important, but just as Lazarus rose from the dead and Chek Jawa was saved from the brink, sometimes there are other unseen factors involved. Tomorrow
Tomorrow: NGO-government relations — the art of the possible
NGOs: Why some succeed, some don't
By Zach Isaiah Chiah