Civil society's state of play


By the nature of their cause, civil society groups tend to draw passionate individuals with strong opinions.

When they do not see eye to eye, a hostile takeover bid can erupt, like the 2009 saga at the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).

Aware had previously survived the "Blueprinters" group's opposition in the 1990s. "They had a blueprint of how a feminist organisation should run and wanted every member to attend a feminist course," executive director Corinna Lim said. "But others disagreed and the Blueprinters (numbering four or five) eventually left."

A splintering is inevitable when "those who have a shared purpose differ on shared values such as working with authorities", said Singapore Management University associate law professor Eugene Tan.

But splintering can help groups raise their game, so they stay relevant.

Said Prof Tan, who is also a Nominated MP: "Those unable to find a niche, garner broad support or make a difference will eventually exit the scene or reintegrate with other groups."


Being gazetted as a political association in 2010 has clipped the wings of human rights group Maruah.

It has been a struggle finding enough Singaporean-based donations since then, said Maruah president Braema Mathi.

The former Nominated Member of Parliament said Maruah had zero money to show for its fundraising appeal in 2011.

She said funds are so tight she was only able to print her namecards this year, five years after the group formed.

"What surprised us was how deep-seated the aversion was when some (people) heard the term human rights," she said.

"For too long, we've been brought up to think it's a bad term."

She's keen to do more public education but getting potential clients like schools to open doors and sign up for programmes is tough.

"We get a lot of goodwill but we can't survive on that... The biggest sticking point is how long more can we continue to sustain ourselves?"


Mention animal welfare and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) comes to mind.

But others have muscled in over the last few years.

Mr Ricky Yeo, president of Action for Singapore Dogs (ASD) estimated "there are at least 15 groups dedicated to (such) issues now".

Strength in numbers has diluted donations.

"Yes, there's more awareness and more animal welfare groups now. But what it also means is that there are more groups fighting for a slice of the donor pie," he said.

ASD's calendar sale, now in its ninth year, has been markedly slower, he said.

"Normally, three-quarters of calendars would be sold by this stage but we've only hit the halfway mark now."


It takes a lot of effort to sustain interest - and some online-based collectives become casualties of the daily grind.

Ms Braema Mathi cited the Singapore-based anti-hunger initiative Food for All as an example.

Formed by university students, it became well-known but has since quietened after the students started working.

A check of Facebook showed the last post was made in 2009.

"Look around and see which groups need resources," she said.

"You don't always have to start a new group (to get things done or) to help others."

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