The way forward for state-society ties

The way forward for state-society ties

This year has been a year of focus on state-society engagement.

In August, the Prime Minister conveyed how his government has heard the people in the year-long public engagement exercise called Our Singapore Conversation (OSC).

Apart from the omnibus policy review process of the OSC, the Government has also engaged civil society activists on a range of issues - from animal welfare where the rules have changed, to harassment this week where better laws may be formulated.

When we look at the voluntary and civil society landscape and how the Government has responded to it, we can discern significant developments.

In May 1998, when the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) held its first national conference on civil society, all applications to register a society went through a slow track with no responsibility by the Registry of Societies to explain its decision if they were denied.

There was no such thing as the Speakers' Corner, much less any consideration of whether or where one could organise a demonstration. Mention migrant workers and you might think of the Marxist Conspiracy. If you wanted to write and stage a play, you had to answer to the police.

In terms of their standing with the Government, the "helping hands" voluntary welfare sector and grassroots network under the People's Association were the "welcomed half"; the "thinking heads" of independent groups, who added public advocacy to their service, were adversaries.

This year, some rules relating to civil society have changed - but it has not been a linear progression towards liberalisation or a free-for-all.

The picture is more diverse and complex; regulation has become more nuanced with more room for free play but tighter in areas that the Government is most concerned about - activism around civil, political and animal rights; governance, and some would add, the media, given the recent attention-grabbing rules on online news sites.

Nonetheless, many groups have found instances of productive engagement with the Government where input was sought - policies were changed and programmes introduced to the benefit of broader society.

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