Can civil society influence policies?

Can civil society influence policies?
A committee comprising members from NParks, the Nature Society, Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research and marine expects will be set up to research and protect the marine life at Chek Jawa.

The large, spreading banyan tree once had such a thick canopy that little sunlight could filter through, hindering the flourishing of any plants below.

But, to borrow this metaphor of the State made famous by former minister George Yeo in 1991, it has been pruned somewhat in the past couple of years.

Consultation and engagement have become the buzzwords of government policymaking in a changed political landscape, with a more well-educated, well-travelled populace becoming more assertive and vocal.

There may be no better time for civil society - the wide spectrum of organisations operating outside the government and business sectors - to test this pledge to listen more, and in the process carve out a more influential role for itself.

They can take heart from the naming of Mr Tan Chuan-Jin last year as the Government's unofficial point person for engaging with non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Mr Tan is Manpower Minister and a member of the fourth-generation leadership.

In 2012, Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam met gay activists to discuss matters such as discrimination and the anti-gay sex law Section 377A.

The State's engagement with other interest groups on animal rights, heritage and conservation as well as environmental awareness has also increased.

Civil society has scored significant victories recently as well, influencing legislation and government policy.

Since the start of last year, foreign maids - either with a new work permit or a renewed one - have been entitled to a day off every week, or must be paid a day's wages in lieu.

As contracts last two years, all maids will, by next January, be on new contracts that have to abide by the rule. The change came about after a decade of lobbying from groups championing the rights of migrant workers.

Laws on sexual crimes have also been repealed.

It started in late 2011, after an article highlighting a little-known section of the Evidence Act was put up on website publichouse.sg. The Act allowed a man charged with rape to discredit the victim by digging into her sexual history, and showing she is of generally immoral character.

Mr Andrew Loh, who runs the site, circulated the post to several ministries to get a response.

He received a call from the Law Ministry suggesting a meeting, but turned it down as he felt the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) was the expert on the topic.

Mr Shanmugam eventually met representatives from the women's rights advocacy group and later started the process of amending the Act.

Nature lovers, who in 2001 succeeded in getting the reclamation plans for the Chek Jawa wetlands area shelved, also extracted concessions on Bukit Brown cemetery recently.

Several nature and heritage groups opposed the construction of a road that would slice through the historic graveyard.

It is the largest Chinese cemetery outside China, and among the thousands of graves are those of philanthropist Gan Eng Seng and Lee Hoon Leong, grandfather of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

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