May 1999

Who killed volunteerism in Singapore?




The Senior Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, said this in Parliament on 6 May 1999:

"We are not Americans. And in certain respects, I wish we could become more like Americans in their grassroots volunteerism.

In the early days, the first American expats came, they formed a committee to help other expat wives and families to navigate -- where to shop, where to get doctors, dentists, what's reliable, what's not reliable.

And they formed committees to help newly-arrived wives to adjust. The American embassy had nothing to do with it. The Singapore International Foundation has to go out, send people from Singapore to Sydney, to Perth, to Vancouver, to London to organise them. [1]

That's culture.

One has a civilisation where in covered wagons, they went across the prairies and fought the Red Indians and said: "I'm going to form a town here and this is High Street, this is Main Street, I am the banker, you're the sheriff, he's the mayor. Now, let's get going."

That's a different history, started with the Mayflower and a lot of other shiploads of them. We have a different past and you dismantle what we have done so far, you'd never rebuild anything to take its place in time. But we've got this far and I'm greatly encouraged that we are pushing this big boulder up the hill.

If you can achieve half of what this S21 report says, in the next 20 years, that is a tremendous triumph, and it will require tremendous effort to get there. "

The context was the Singapore 21 Report -- I won't dwell on it, if I start, I may never finish saying what I want to say. But briefly, for the benefit of readers outside Singapore, the Singapore 21 Report is the result of a consultation exercise carried out over the last year or so, to try to get some consensus among Singaporeans about the 21st Century directions for our society. From the very beginning, the methods and objectives were woolly, and the result, in my humble opinion, is fluff.

All hail 'active citizenship'!

Anyway, one of the five "principles" which the consulters divined from speaking with carefully chosen Singaporeans -- though exactly how they divined it is unclear, since no transcripts of the proceedings were published, only the heavily edited conclusions -- was "Active Citizenship". I, for one, see a curious coincidence with the call by the Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, for a more active civil society, a call made even before Singapore 21 got underway. For example, on 5 June 1997, he said,

"We need a new vision for Singapore, an ideal, a fresh mindset. We need to move beyond material progress, to a society which places people at its very centre . . . . a Singapore where people make the difference, in which each citizen is valued . . . ."

Towards the end of the same speech,


"All Singaporeans must feel a responsibility for solving local issues and shaping their own communities. They should not wait for the Government to solve every problem. The Government itself must be prepared to take a step back, and perhaps even a back seat, especially on local community issues, and allow some free play to develop."

[ I wrote about the above speech in the article Singapore as Tragedy ]

So there we have it: Civil Society, also known as Active Citizenship, also known as Volunteerism. To further explain the context, I should say that upon the publication of the Singapore 21 Report, all the ruling People's Action Party Members of Parliament spoke applaudingly of it. Many columnists in our newspapers also wrote nice things about it, albeit a little more intellectually. It's truly wonderful that we shall be moving on to Active Citizenship.

The Senior Minister didn't hail

Mr Lee Kuan Yew, as the elder statesman, and who has seen many fads come and go in his lifetime, has clearly decided that some realism was called for. Thus his speech above. His main point that was we should not underestimate the weight of culture. Reports and hurrays won't create a new Singapore volunteerism overnight.

This view is entirely consistent with what he's been saying on many occasions about other subjects. Societies are very much driven by their culture, and in trying to organise the economy, or the social services, or even the politics, one must always factor in, to a big extent, the culture of the place. Too many idealists on the one hand, too many technocrats on the other, ignore this abiding truth, and often their best laid plans go awry.

Yes, but . My little bee buzzes into my ear: is our weak volunteerism traceable to our culture, in the first place?

Do we, or don't we have a tradition of volunteerism?

I think the evidence points to something more specific. For the century or more right up to the 1960's, civil society was quite vibrant in Singapore. The various immigrant communities had their self-help associations that were completely bottom-up projects. The British colonial government was too undermanned and too psychologically distant to do much more than provide some basic policing and the legal framework, just like colonial administrations in most other places. Schools, hospitals, retirement funds or job-search networks for new migrants were mostly grassroots efforts by the separate communities or religious groups. The Christian missions did their bit, the Chinese clan associations did theirs too. Businessmen who did well in life became philanthropists and seeded institutions we now take for granted. When bigger projects were conceived, the various groups banded together under an umbrella organisation, such as the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. In case you didn't know, the latter wasn't entirely concerned with business alone, but was involved in many community projects, e.g. the Chinese High School, one of our premier schools, and the founding of the old Nanyang University.

From all these sources of civic dedication, we have a proud inheritance of typically Singaporean names: Ngee Ann this and that, Nanyang this and that, Chung Cheng High School, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital, Boys' Town, Ramakrishna Boys Home, the Muhammadiyah Welfare Home, the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged, the St Michael and St Joseph Schools (from the Catholic mission, obviously), the Anglo-Chinese Schools (from the Methodist mission, not so obviously), the Red Swastika Foundation (a Chinese charity organisation), the Shaw Foundation, the Lee Kong Chian Foundation, the Chinese Swimming Club, the Singapore Swimming Club, and so on, and so on.

A generation ago, civil society, or volunteerism, was alive and well. What happened since to make it a topic for parliamentary hand-wringing in 1999? Has our culture changed so much in a generation? Mr Lee Kuan Yew for one, has often talked about how culture goes very deep, and by implication, it does not change quickly.

So why don't we have volunteerism now?

I'd say, don't blame "culture" in general. We should be more sharp-eyed and see that the problem is in the political culture. Let me be blunt: our tradition of volunteerism was largely killed off by the way Singapore has been governed in the last 30-40 years.

Inspired by the Socialist ideas that were ascendant in the 1950s and 1960s, the government took over huge swathes of social services previously run by voluntary organisations. The need to run your own community social service outfit was eliminated. Furthermore, the government could not abide being challenged by autonomous centres of power, e.g. independent trade unions or a critical Law Society. The government gradually tightened control over many previously autonomous bodies.

All the illiberal laws inherited from the British were kept, e.g. the sedition laws, including powers of detention without trial, and the publishing laws. They have since been used liberally against anyone who even mildly criticised the government. Newspapers have been closed down. Religious groups who took a political stand on any issue have been banned. Meanwhile, tea dances, cooking classes and neighbourhood basketball games became state-organised affairs, through the government-sponsored People's Association and their network of Community Clubs. They alone had the venues and generous funding to facilitate such activities.

Permits and licences

And then we have our famous system of permits and licences. You can't publish a simple newsletter to raise awareness of any issue, e.g. breast cancer, without a licence. You can't sell a book at a street corner without a hawker's licence. You can't provide content on the internet without a licence. You can't sing in public (and public means indoors too) without an entertainment licence. You can't hold a one-off gala premiere to raise funds for any charity project without a permit. Nor a raffle. You can't hold a meeting in a public place (to try to convince people of your project) without a permit. You can't organise yourself and your friends into a society to follow through on your pet idea, without the government granting registration.

Permits and licences are not automatically granted when you apply. The government and the police can, and do, conduct security background checks, like you're some common criminal, and then they can simply refuse approval with no reasons given. They also take their own sweet time about a decision, so you have costly delays while waiting for a decision. Is your gala premiere on or off? You don't know. You can't control it.

Whenever any group did something which the government did not like, the government made AN EXAMPLE! of them. Forceful reasons for the crackdown were boldly headlined. The group's viewpoint would barely get a squeak in. The press needs a licence too, remember?

Foreign money will get you into trouble

Among the reasons for clamping down which people remember acutely, is funding from abroad. The government has been extremely sensitive to foreign sources of funds, with the CIA among the bogeymen. To this day, many groups or individuals thinking about starting a group are paranoid about financial support from outside Singapore, even for the most innocuous, charitable cause.

The intimidating effect of unchecked power should not be underestimated. Caught between licences, permits (and the sometimes exorbitant fees involved!), unexplained disapprovals, the risk of indefinite detention (without trial) if you do anything the government does not like, the impossibility of funding from wellwishers abroad, the impossibility of raising funds locally (unless you're first an approved society), it is surely rational that Singaporeans would hold their volunteerism in check. There is too fine a line between volunteerism and adventurism.

Now, you might say, so long as the group remained apolitical, what had they to fear? Well, first of all, it is difficult to say what is apolitical. Greenies who want more conservation of our shrinking forests and marshlands (a laudable aim, you might think) often find themselves on the battlelines against the government's bulldozing agenda of industrial development. If they were ever bold enough to organise a rally or sit-down protest to preserve a park, they might find themselves charged for holding an illegal demonstration. They could apply for a permit for the demonstration, but don't hold your breath waiting for it to be approved.

The case of the Briskwalkers

Even small things face immense hurdles. Just a week or two before the Senior Minister spoke on May 6th, a group called the Briskwalkers became a news story. This was a group of 43 women who got together regularly for exercise in a public park. The park they used was in Tampines, a suburban township, though the organiser lived in Simei, a neighbouring district. When the Tampines Town Council got wind of it, they told her she could not use the park. If she and her group wanted to, they had to pay an exorbitant $300 per session (though according to the reports, there is some dispute whether this specific figure was mentioned).

I'm sure we all agree that exercise and fitness is a good thing. What the organiser set out to do was a fine example of civic action, but she came up against bureaucracy and money-mindedness. Individuals can use the park for free, but the moment you spawn a little civil society, penalties come down like an avalanche. And by the way, if they wanted to be bloodyminded, she could be sent to jail for running an illegal organisation. Even before that, if she decided to continue using the park and tried to get her members to contribute to the $300 asked for, she would be guilty of raising funds without a permit!

As I was writing this article, the Briskwalkers' problem was solved. The Tampines Town Council allowed them to use the park for free (with a few conditions attached) but only after a minister was questioned in Parliament. But I fear the damage has been done. Many others, reading about her case, would have been quietly discouraged from doing anything similar.

So that's my point. If volunteerism is as rare as snow in Singapore, it is culture. But let's be specific about it. The biggest culprit is our political culture. Intriguingly, Mr Goh Chok Tong said on 5 June 1997, "The Government itself must be prepared to take a step back, and perhaps even a back seat". It's been two years. I haven't seen any action in this regard. No law has been repealed, no licence regulations lifted. The totalitarian powers are still in place, glowering down at our citizens.

Yawning Bread 



  1. There is an abrupt shift of time and place in the last sentence. Mr Lee Kuan Yew was referring to Singaporean expatriates overseas in the 1990s.
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