Building social space in Singapore: The Working Committee's initiative in civil society activism
NLB Call No.: 301.095957
ISBN: 9814022195

What attracted me to this book were the words “social space” (it was work-motivated, but turns out the book’s topic of “social space” isn’t quite what I had in mind).

What made me stay with the book was a chapter featuring excerpts of emails, about the organising of a forum (p119. “Party Politics: Dealing with Disagreement”).

The point of contention was about the way the forum was organised, the lack of consensus, also the invitation of a particular personality (who’d then run foul of the political incumbents). That particular chapter started to read like a mini-drama!

It left me the impression that if you’d ever tried to achieve anything by consensus, it’s reassuring that consensus-building is inherently difficult. Also interesting to be able to read, as a matter of public record, how decisions were made, or lack of.

This book is, in many ways, a telling of the story about The Working Committee (TWC), which was positioned as a year-long project (1998 – 1999).

The book gives was published in 2001. Truly, if not for a serentipitious browse among the shelves, I’d never have discovered such a gem.

At that time TWC was unique, as no such attempts have been made to form such groups since Independence. Contrast with today where we have events like barcampSG and and countless other social media groups (or “pre-Web 2.0.” groups in Yahoogroups and Googlegroups).

Reading the book now, I’d say the grassroots civic society is here. It has a shape.

I also think it’s part of the natural development and maturity of a society. You cannot one day say “time we have more civil societies”.

TWC is one of the pioneers at a time when things were uncertain about the role of self-help groups. Now, many things seem to be a given. I think a large part is how the Internet (and relatively recently) online social networking has made it so much easier for individuals to publish their views and also to connect with like-minded people. And I’d add the enlightened manner in which the Singapore government has (subsequently) adopted a Light-Touch policy for the Internet.]

Other notes:
p.8/ 9, Tay Kheng Soon writes: “The more educated think more, feel more. This is where civil society comes in”.

Other supporting chapters give different individual perspectives of the TWC conflicts. I thought that’s very commendable by the editors, to include differing views.

P107 on the critical role of the internet in civil society (essay by Tan Chong Kee). He makes two claims (and substantiates via his essay):

  • “The Internet is a powerful tool for galvanising ad hoc actions on hot issues”
  • “It is also a powerful tool for long-term civil society information”

[I agree. Face-to-face meetings are important. But the internet, social networking specifically, increases the probability of connections among individuals.] Tan’s essay also gives insights to Sintercom.

Book also includes origins of societies like Family Planning Association, AWARE, Nature Society (Singapore), The Necessary Stage.

p. 147 Cherian George suggests the NGOs are already practicing civil societies. Also uses the road and transportation system as analogy.

[One of my take-away from the book: The work of The Working Committee seems to gravitate towards political engagement, at least that’s how I read it. To me, Civil Society is more than just politics. It is also about lifestyle, mutual support. Being a helpful human, doing things of meaning. Could be things like setting up gardening clubs.]