My own experience, and that of my peers, point to gaps between those of us in the civil society space, and our “non–political” friends. Many of us, after going through our political awakenings, have found it awkward sometimes to interact with old friends who remain apathetic or disinterested in politics or human rights issues.
“It’s not that they actively take an opposite viewpoint, it’s just something you’re brought up with and some issues, they didn’t know it was out there,” says S, a Singaporean who has worked with international NGOs, and who asked to remain anonymous. The rights–based language that’s used in organisations working on human rights issues, S points out, is often unfamiliar to people in Singapore, where it’s uncommon to see discussions based on human rights principles.
Jolene Tan, a writer and activist, has had this experience too. “Broadly speaking, there’s little accurate understanding of what activists do, our motivations, or the challenges faced in getting a fair hearing for differing points of view, due to state control of physical and institutional spaces. The general public’s view of activism has improved over the last few years, but the baseline remains suspicion. Some see any criticism of the status quo as objectionably ‘anti–Singapore’, but many more are merely indifferent or simply see this kind of engagement as a futile or poorly informed waste of time.”
She continues: “Some are quite sympathetic and interested, but I have noticed hostility and suspicion from others. At least one friend in the public service has openly admitted to concern about being seen with me in a public space.”
Going beyond the Singapore “brand”
If this is the challenge that Singapore’s activists face with our own compatriots, what more the international community?