Communitarian Singapore’s Community Groups

The vast majority of Singapore’s prominent activist voices are focused on reform that results in an extension of liberal rights – an attempt to see Singapore transformed into a liberal democracy. But I believe that meaningful change can also be worked within our current ideological confines. 

From the outset, Singapore’s communitarian ideology has manifested incredible gains for our nation. For one, our citizens receive incredible practical care. Even amidst the recent buzz concerning the livelihoods of food delivery drivers, our macro-economic policies have been nothing short of stellar – it is a known fact that Singapore is the modern world’s most successful provider[1] of affordable and sustainable public housing, with 80% of the population enjoying lease-ownership of public flats. Our citizens also enjoy a reasonable degree of social stability[2] amidst a globalised world that is increasingly fractured as many states struggle to weave cohesion into heterogenous populations. All things considered, our citizens benefit from a relatively trustworthy government that cares[3] – corruption is scarcely a cause for concern, and elected members of parliament can be seen tirelessly working the ground during regular Meet-the-People Sessions (MPS).

However, I believe that there is still much to be done on one key front – we need to talk about our community groups[4].

Community groups function outside of the state to allow self-organization within communities to meet a common end. This end could range from abstract matters like identity support and construction, to concrete and practical concerns like the provision of goods and services or the development of new communal practices.[5]

So, one might intuitively predict that communitarian societies like Singapore would possess a lively system of community groups. Political scientist Iris Young makes the same point on the basis that communitarian morality “aims at fostering and nurturing substantive ends of mutual aid, and shared cultural symbols and practices”[6]. In doing so, societies driven by communitarian morality generally tend to prefer action by community groups over state action for matters of communal importance.

On the surface, something of this communal buzz seems to be happening in Singapore. The Ministry of Community, Culture, and Youth launched its inaugural Singapore Cares (SGCares) movement earlier this year, which advocated community participation through volunteerism. An online portal[7] was also set up to facilitate volunteerism efforts, and even more concrete measures like the construction of 5 Volunteer Centers (VC) in different towns were instituted. On the whole, communal health seems to be on the uptick in sunny Singapore.

But conversations on the ground with community leaders and partners suggest otherwise. Ad-hoc projects seem to be privileged over strategic long-lasting commitment; the community groups scene is programs rich but systems poor; and the state’s direction is sometimes confusingly paternalistic. In fact, the very idea that the state had to galvanise massive campaigns to encourage communal participation goes against the grain of communitarian ideology – organic movements, rather that state-cajoled action, should be the norm.

Singaporean Sociologist Chua Beng Huat’s understanding of Singapore as a communitarian democracy provides us with a framework for understanding the problem at hand. According to Chua, the PAP government envisions a communitarian Singapore that functions as an “anti-liberal democracy where collective well-being is safeguarded by good government by honourable leaders.”[8] For the most part, collective well-being has been defined in terms of economic development and the material improvement of our citizenry’s quality of life. This intractable definition of national interest as defined by the ruling powers that been nestled in the nation’s collective consciousness, either through the narrative of our transformation from a sleepy fishing village to a bustling cosmopolitan success, or through the repeated stress on our need to stay industrious and vigilant amidst a devouring world that is ready to capitalise on our vulnerabilities. While much can be said about the necessity of reinforcing these narratives, the point here is more subtle and pressing: by accepting the state-led definite of “collective well-being”, we have also accepted the conflation of state and society. As Chua notes, this conflation of state and society “justifies state intervention in all spheres of social life, rationalised as pre-emptive interventions which ‘ensure’ the collective well-being.”[9]

Credit can and should be apportioned where the state has astutely and presciently intervened – most of such intervention having taken place on the economic front. Sadly, this culture where the elected political leadership defines national interests by fiat does not translate well for the societal health of community groups. As one might intuit, the lethargy and limited scope of vision that often marks communal efforts can, in part, be understood as a result of a nurtured over reliance on state-intervention. One could easily see how this norm of relying on government intervention and action could breed the very same complacency in the community that the government warns against on the economic front. Instead of encouraging ownership, innovation, and proactivity in the face of communal problems and social conundrums, the Singaporean state’s stellar success in efficiently producing desirable outcomes might have already encouraged unhealthy degrees state-dependence.

In short, community issues are complex, and are often best understood by members within the community. But if civil society continues to buy into the pipe-dream that the state is perfectly capable of fixing every problem, then civil society will only continue to trade in the riches of her lived experiences and untapped ingenuity for the rags of a technocratic elite’s well-meaning but ultimately inadequate problem-solving attempts.

Accordingly, two crucial questions need to be addressed: 1) Why should the Singaporean government do anything about community groups? 2) What exactly should the Singaporean government do to promote the health of community groups?

The first question can be understood through the lens of realpolitik. In the hypothetical scenario that maintaining an over-reliant citizenry promises significant political gains, what potential benefits could persuade an incumbent power to relinquish said gains?

For starters, the incumbent government could benefit from a citizenry that believes in the state’s democratic legitimacy. Democracy in Singapore is something of a dirty word at times, where the idea of advancing democracy is bound together with the notion of propagating liberal rights. But in this instance, democratic legitimacy can be understood in the broadest sense of the term, where the demos actually believes that the government respects their stake in the nation and their opinions on governance. The election polls are a one key avenue where a democracy gains its procedural legitimacy. The everyday interactions between citizenry are another.

Put simply, democratic participation goes far beyond the election booths, and into the very nexus of community life. If a citizenry grows in its ownership of community issues, it grows in its perceived stake in the country’s wellbeing. If it grows in its perceived stake, then it will grow in its perception of the nation’s democratic legitimacy. And if it grows in its belief of the state’s democratic legitimacy, then the incumbent government is bolstered in the perception of its political legitimacy.

On a more pragmatic note, the government should be thoroughly concerned about fostering community groups because the combination of its best policy makers and most devoted civil servants are ultimately incapable of solving community-wide problems without serious community buy-in – the government needs communities to own their growth, and one clear sign of community ownership is the growth of community groups. Without such ownership, the government will not be able to build a robust and resilient society. A quick consideration of matters like family violence to projects like building racial harmony into communal identities reveals as much: Policy makers and civil servants can build the best infrastructures for change, but these infrastructures are for naught if communities do not rise up to claim communal ownership.

This brings us to our second question: how might the government promote the health of community groups? I offer 3 suggestions.

First, the government could reconsider how its grant-making bodies measure impact. While quantitative reports delight business consultants, communities do not always benefit from the strict science of data. That is not to say that data does not play a crucial role. Rather, it is simply to say that impact could be a long-term project with a low initial yield, or impact might not conform to typical empirical metrics. An example of the latter being the stories that communities believe about themselves – stories that galvanise and drive everyday action and interactions.

On the note of narrative-change, my second suggestion is that the government needs to seriously pivot from its reliance on public consultations to change narratives within communities. Public consultations may work great for feedback on certain types of policy, but they can also unintentionally cement certain pernicious narratives. As mentioned earlier, public consultations could serve to reinforce the idea that the government is the ultimate decision-maker for communal affairs, and as a corollary, the primary responsibility bearer for communal change. If the government wishes to see community groups assert ownership, then public consultations where community groups approach the ivory tower of policy-making cannot be the primary mode of engagement. In this vein, the recent decision to build VCs in different townships is an encouraging step in the right direction.

Finally, the government could consider altering the narratives that proceed from ministries like MCCY. Volunteerism is a desirable good, and it is wonderful that the SG Cares movement has borne much fruit. However, much of the support is currently directed at individual volunteerism/volunteerism efforts that give little thought to strategic and systemic change. Instead of casting a generic narrative about the desirability of volunteerism writ large, ministries like MCCY could consider encouraging volunteers and community groups to take ownership of coordination. Without such a narrative-shift, community groups will be content with operating in silos. They will also harbour the expectation that the relevant government bodies will sweep in to link everything up. If we really desire to see robust communities, then community groups have to be directly empowered and encouraged to pursue strategic partnerships and systemic thinking.

[1] Of course, the HDB-CPF model is not perfect, but it is as close to perfection that the modern world has gotten to thus far.

[2] Of course, a case can be made against the substantiveness of our social fabric – how much penetrating cultural mixing actually happens?

[3] Of course, the spectre of paternalism is often looming – can too much care be a good thing?

[4] Or as referred to by scholars, “civic associations”.

[5] Iris Marion Young, State, Civil Society, and Social Justice, Democracy’s Value (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 143

[6] Young, 154

[9] Chua, 104

 Works Cited

Young, Iris Marion. State, Civil Society, and Social Justice. Democracy’s Value. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Chua, Beng-Huat. Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore. Politics in Asia Series. London: Routledge, 1997.

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

The Equality&Democracy project has been made possible through the support of a Teaching Innovation Grant from the Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching and Learning: ‘Applying Political Philosophy to Real World Cases’.

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