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A Tale of Two Communities

Updated On: May 05, 2009

In a society as diverse as ours, restraint, tolerance should be order of the day

THE clash of different interest groups in Aware has made headlines in recent weeks, perhaps too many. With the outcome of the weekend's extraordinary general meeting now known, attention is likely to shift elsewhere.

But there are things to observe from this controversy that should be drawn not only for those directly involved. This is not an isolated incident, nor one that tells us that citizens are doomed to clash loudly and angrily. The lessons that can be learnt pertain to our civil society and how governance evolves.

Vertical and Horizontal Societies

The Aware saga shows that citizens now relate to each other directly and not only to the government. Singapore is no longer a vertical society, but one with horizontal links.

In a vertical society, citizens link only to the government. From the early years of Singapore, and even today, our political leaders have exhorted citizens on the full range of issues, like littering and having more children if we can afford it, so much so that it becomes part of the national agenda.

Even when the politics of consultation evolved under former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, we remained a vertical society. Consultation simply meant dialogue between the Government and citizens became more of a two-way street.

A horizontal society is one where citizens form different groups that express their own interests and beliefs and act independently of the government.

Issues are handled within and between these groups, with less reference and deference to the government, especially on personal or moral issues. The government's role can then be cut back to refocus on core national issues like security.

A civil society can provide more space for citizens to be active and contribute. But it is not idyllic. There can be differences between groups that lead to conflict, which may lead to the kind of electoral battles seen in the Aware saga. There can even be violent clashes between rival camps.

However, horizontal society is not necessarily fraught with conflict and therefore to be avoided. Civil society groups can and do work together for mutual benefit.

Take for instance, the arts community. While headlines focused on the Aware clash, our arts community came together to select their representatives for consideration to be a Nominated Member of Parliament.

The arts community is not without its differences. But these were put aside for a common and higher goal - to ensure that artistic causes receive better representation in Parliament. There are other examples where civil society groups cooperate.

Communities of Interests

But why do some groups clash? Different viewpoints are only part of the reason. After all, differences can be discussed and understanding - rather than conflict - can result. This is an essential tenet of democracy.

This is a second lesson to be drawn from the Aware episode. While the matter was settled constitutionally, by voting, this is a bare legality. Democracy must involve  more than the capture of power by votes. Otherwise, both sides only learn the habits of organising for power, rather than of accommodation and discussion. Knowing that differences exist, groups of citizens should increase the tolerance for, and acceptance of differences.

But some groups may press for others to be assimilated to their views and seek to oppose or suborn them. This is a third observation we can draw from the Aware case, in which individuals from a church came together because of accusations (subsequently refuted) that Aware promotes gay and lesbian causes.

They could have campaigned against Aware, started their own group or complained to the relevant ministry. Instead, their instinct, as promoted by self-described "Feminist Mentor" Thio Su Mien, was to take over Aware. Can one imagine the reverse? That someone who disagreed with the teachings of a religious group try to take over that group?

The attitude of most secular groups is to leave religion alone. We must hope conversely that religious groups - however much they believe in their positions - should also respect the rights of other secular groups.

This does not mean secular groups must be devoid of religious sentiment. Belief can drive individuals to work for charities, even if those charities are secular. But a line has to be drawn and observed. The more fervent religious groups become in our society, the more we should try to respect that line.

Governing Diversity

What if different groups clash? While Singapore is developing a horizontal dimension, the vertical axis of government has a role to play in governing diverse groups.

While eschewing liberal democracy, the government has evolved a degree of acceptance for citizen groups. From the early 1990s, Foreign Minister George Yeo elegantly explored this theme, even if he preferred the more conservative term of "civic" society. The Singapore 21 consultation, then chaired by Mr Teo Chee Hean, now Deputy Prime Minister, also explored the emergence of a people sector.

Re-reading ministerial statements on civil society explains why and how the Government acted in the Aware episode, or ways in which it refused to arbitrate on the matter.

It is not that Government leaders support Aware's agenda under the Old Guard. Indeed, it is more likely that a number would personally have sympathy for groups that espouse conservative values in sexuality, gays and lesbians. The People's Action Party's leadership seems to recognise that they should not ask whether they personally agree with a view put forward by a group. No political leader offered his or her moral preference.

Instead, the Aware episode seems to suggest that the Government will set out broader parameters of acceptable behaviour. So long as they keep within those boundaries and do not threaten safety or public order, the prevailing attitude is to refrain from interceding as much as possible. If they have to intercede, they seem careful to act with restraint and fairness.

Going forward, the Government would do well to remain watchful but not anxious about most citizen's groups.

Singapore society is becoming more complex. Civil society and interest and voluntary groups and associations have become more active. So have organised religious groups. Differences are inevitable.

But conflicts can be managed and clashes avoided. If not, groups run the danger of Government intervention or worse, increased distrust and disinterest of average citizens in their cause.

The preferred means for managing conflicts and avoiding clashes between civil society groups should not be the vertical strong arm of the Government. Nor even the test of strength and numbers by one group acting against another.

We can hope and expect that groups that emerge in civil society will depend first on their self-restraint. This should be borne out of a respect of diversity and a broad appreciation of the rights of others to their own opinions, even if - in their eyes - others do not have the right views.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

Simon S C Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and was a committee member of Singapore 21 when he was a Nominated Member of Parliament.

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