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The Role of Civil Society Organisations in Community-Building

 Speakers
See below

 Date
10 Nov 2011

 Venue
SR 502, Level 5, NTU@one-north campus, Executive Centre 11 Slim Barracks Rise (off North Buona Vista Road) Singapore 138664

 Time
9.00am – 12.00noon

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At the launch of the publication ‘An ASEAN Community for All: Exploring the Scope for Civil Society Engagement’ by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia, jointly organised by the EU Centre,  the role of civil society organisations in Singapore and Europe was explored.

A precise definition of ‘civil society’ has been elusive to some. Hence, Prof Dr Dorothée de Nève(FernUniversitaet Hagen, Germany) offered a comprehensive and practical way of understanding the role of civil society, through its interactions with the other arenas of society. Through cooperation, civil society organisations may identify problems in society and share similar objectives of the state and its political actors in addressing these problems. Through confrontation, groups may openly challenge the state where state actors falter on environmental issues for instance. Through competition, civil society groups may cajole the state to improve its services such as in educational offerings for children. 

In short, civil society takes up issues that are not  addressed by the government, either because these issues or problems exceed the capabilities of the state to address them, or because a recourse to civil society channels offers a chance to tap a greater resources of knowledge, especially on social issues. Civil society groups were originally regarded with suspicion by European governments 100 years ago. As recently as the 1960s, the German politician Bruno Brandes saw no need for ‘extra-parliamentary opposition’ in the form of civil society in a parliamentary democracy like Germany. More recent and current German chancellors like Gerhard Schroeder and Angela Merkel, however, recognise the important contributions of civil society organisations towards good governance.

Dr Stefanie Elies (Director, FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia) brought the focus to Southeast Asia with her introduction of the publication that was launched. With the ASEAN Community expected to come into effect in 2015, the FES aims to fill the knowledge gap of the civil society landscape in this region. During the mapping process, researchers were also asked to identify and suggest how existing arrangements could be expanded and resources mobilised, so as to buttress the bottom-up development of civil society in Southeast Asia.

The Singapore chapter in the publication was written by Dr Gillian Koh and Debbie Soon (both of the Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore), who presented their findings and analysis. Dr Koh charted the incremental widening of the space for civil society organisations in Singapore through the administrations of the three prime ministers – from the time when alternative power bases were eliminated through corporatism and extension of the People’s Action Party government over unions and other organisations, to the current day phenomenon of gradual albeit non-linear political liberalisation. In characterising state-society relations in Singapore, Dr Koh noted the tension and constant negotiation between the two sectors since the 1980s, and that civil society organisations are still the ‘junior partner’ in this relationship  (citing the sociologist Chua Beng Huat). 

The various civil society organisations in Singapore – 7,111 are registered under the Register of Societies as of April 2010 – include groups that are community- and faith-based, private foundations, professional associations and trade unions. To date, the only report on civil societies in Singapore has been the 2007 study by the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre on lnstitutions of a Public Character, which concluded that better volunteer management was required. But there has still been no nationwide assessment of the capacity and resources of civil society organisations in Singapore.

The ensuing question and answer session with the audience explored issues of the representativeness of civil society groups, as well as inter- and intra-regional comparisons of civil society in both Europe and Southeast Asia. The ‘marketisation’ of civil society in Europe was also noted in how more commercial companies are creating and/or funding civil society organisations – a phenomenon that is no doubt a boost for civil society development, but the need for constant growth and expansion of these organisations should not  be left unquestioned.

Pictures from the event.