Every activist campaign is confronted by a strategic question: to be confrontational or cooperative. This can often become a divisive issue within movements, and indeed has seen many groups splinter, and even turned comrades into enemies.
Being cooperative will generally seem more amenable to powerful interests and decision-makers, and therefore has a lower chance of being silenced. On the other hand, confrontation exerts greater pressure on stakeholders, and might bring about change faster.
What this guide stresses is that there is no hard-and-fast rule as to which approach is superior. Rather, decisions over which approach to employ involves a combination of many factors, including political circumstances, degree of popular support, the nature of the movement, and the risk profiles of the activists.
(Harness ground-up support and direct communication with the government to engage with the state effectively.)
1. Build relationships
Civil society in Singapore has for some time been perceived to be weak due to the pervasive influence of the state in many spheres of life (Francesch-Huidobro, 8). In spite of this, there has been a gradual relaxation of the state’s hand in civic affairs, incorporating a more inclusive approach toward civil society actors, and leading to a growth in civil society in Singapore. Francesch-Huidobro theorises this as the disciplined governance approach, where the government recognises the role of NGOs, and on numerous occasions acts in consultation with them, but ensures that they remain strategically contained. Therefore, utilising an approach that seeks to work with the government can be an effective way to achieve your goals. This means constantly looking out for collaborative opportunities in order to further your cause, even when there are disagreements in other areas.
‘Green Conversations’ was started by environmentalists Eugene Tay and Faizah Jamal when they realised that environmental concerns played an insignificant part in the ‘Our Singapore Conversation’ initiative by the government. This was endorsed by authorities because it was aligned to the government’s objective then to hear ground sentiments. This happened in spite of previously tensed relations due to the Bukit Brown saga. Other ways that environmental activists engaged with the government include organising Nature Walks with Ministers.
2. Show evidence-based research that shows the value of the work and present alternatives whenever possible
Singapore’s government is well known, to quote the words of Ambassador and Political Scientist Chan Heng Chee, to be an “administrative state”. In her thesis, she argued that because Singapore’s government is one that is relatively free from partisan concerns, elected officials are more able to focus on a more rational, problem-solving approach when confronted with issues. This approach has meant that they are more likely to be responsive when civil society actors play to this technocratic characteristic of governance, employing evidence and expertise in their advocacy work. Campaigns that have enjoyed more success have done so by presenting the government with pragmatic, rational alternative solutions rather than appealing to them with principle-based arguments.
In response to the Government’s plan to reclaim Chek Jawa to create land for military training, a team of volunteers banded together and not only produced a biodiversity report, but offered a vision of Chek Jawa as a marine park. They were subsequently invited by the Ministry of National Development (MND) to a meeting where Minister Mah Bow Tan said that their findings swayed the government’s decision to preserve Chek Jawa and that the government wants to engage them further to work on marine life conservation at Chek Jawa.
3. Nurture ground sentiments and make them salient to the government
While it is critical to engage directly with the top (ie. policy makers) in activism, it is important to engage with the public and gain their support. Ground-up pressures must work in tandem with top-down effects.
TWC2 has consistently placed importance on publishing their stories on mainstream media like the Straits Times. This helps to raise awareness of the issues that TWC2 is concerned with and garner support for TWC2’s cause effectively as it overcomes the self-selecting effect that often exists in Awareness initiatives. By nurturing ground-up pressures, this nudges the government to be more efficient in their engagement with TWC2.
4. Work with other civil society organisations to push for the same cause but from a different front
Sometimes, due to the nature of their cause, some Civil Society groups have better access to the government than the rest. Harness this difference and put it to your advantage.
A prominent argument against the Day Off Policy for Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) is that the elderly requires care 24/7. As such, TWC2 engaged in dialogues with groups within the elderly care space. As a result, these groups present the same arguments as TWC2 in their dialogues with the government. This helps to bolster TWC2’s cause as there are now pressures from other fronts too.
Faizah Jamal: Three Lessons for Engagement in Environmental Activism in Singapore
TWC2 October Research Forum
Maria Francesch-Huidobro: Governance, Politics and the Environment: A Singapore Study
Chan Heng Chee: Politics in an Administrative State: Where has the politics gone?
(Don’t jump straight to confrontation and consider your spectrum of allies.)
What is the spectrum of allies?
Created by www.trainingforchange.org, the “Spectrum of Allies” diagram is a useful tool to help us identify key stakeholders in the issues we are campaigning for and build relationships with these stakeholders to move your campaign forward.
How to read a Spectrum of Allies diagram:
- In each wedge, you can place a group or individual based on their level of support towards your cause. From left to right, the level of support increases.
- Active allies: people who agree with you and are fighting alongside you
- Passive allies: folks who agree with you but aren’t doing anything about it
- Neutrals: fence sitters, the unengaged
- Passive opposition: people who disagree with you but aren’t trying to stop you
- Active opposition: people actively fighting against your cause
- Some activist groups only speak or work with those in the first wedge (active allies), building insular, self-referential, marginal subcultures that are incomprehensible to everyone else. Others behave as if everyone is in the last wedge (active opposition), playing out the “story of the righteous few,” acting as if the whole world is against them. Both of these approaches virtually guarantee failure. Movements win not by overpowering their active opposition, but by shifting the support out from under them.
- The goal of the spectrum of allies is to identify different people—or specific groups of people—in each category, then design actions and tactics to move them one wedge to the left.
- The Spectrum of Allies also reminds us there is a need for many roles. Different actions will reach folks at different places in the spectrum, so there are many ways to support a campaign, from lobbying politicians to marching in the streets.
- This tool also evaluates our work. Can we show that we are measurably moving some segment of people over to our side? If not, we need to rethink our strategy.
Questions to ask when designing an action strategy:
- How will our action affect and involve these stakeholders?
- Who are we targeting?
- Will our action help us do outreach to, recruit or partner with groups that share (or could share) our strategic priorities? Remember, some actions might unintentionally move key groups in the opposite direction.
How does this look like in our society?
Pink Dot is an excellent example of targeting people who fall under the Passive Support, Neutral and Passive Opposition categories. Its universalist message – Support the Freedom to Love – appeals to the general public. Thus, the success of Pink Dot will mean greater conversions to allies, thereby effectively shifting support from Active Opposition. This is aligned to Pink Dot’s vision of creating a more open and inclusive society where greater understanding towards LGBT Singaporeans is fostered.
Social movements take a long time to build momentum. As such, efforts tend to be incremental by nature. Hence, it is of utmost importance to take advantage of strategic periods of time to accelerate the movement as much as possible.
Case Study 1: “Try Again” and the Non-Review of Article 377A
- Pink Dot is non-profit movement started in 2009 in support of the LGBTQ community in Singapore. In the 10th edition that took place on 21 July 2018, emphasis was placed on more active community participation. As a result, the message of “We are ready for a truly equal and inclusive society in Singapore” became central to the campaign.
- In early September 2018, the Indian Supreme Court struck down Section 377 of their own penal code, which criminalises sex between two consenting adult men.
- Veteran diplomat and law professor Tommy Koh posted a Facebook comment on India’s repeal, encouraging the gay community to challenge the constitutionality of Section 377A, the same colonial law in Singapore, to the government.
- In September 2018, Parliament held a Penal Code Review session, but Section 377A was later announced not to be a part of the review
- Online movement #Ready4Repeal was formed in response, starting with a petition for the repeal of Article 377A, supported by Pink Dot. This was aligned with the central theme of Pink Dot this year. The petition garnered over 50,000 signatures.
- The #Ready4Repeal movement is still going strong, and are aiming to speak to Members of Parliament about the issue again. The organisers are currently looking for a new, more personal approach whereby their volunteers will bring up the issue with the Members of Parliament of their respective GRCs.
- The Repeal 377A movement took advantage of landmark developments happening abroad to build momentum for their own cause. They then leveraged the support of distinguished public figures to mobilise support at a large scale.
- When the possible repeal of Article 377A became a hot topic in the media, activists took the opportunity to start a petition advocating for the cause. With all the attention focused on the issue, the petition was able to gain much traction and receive a critical number of signatures.
Case Study 2: Overturning Plans to turn Upper Peirce Reservoir into a Golf Course
- Background: In 1990, the government began discussing plans to build two golf courses in the gazetted nature reserve at Upper Peirce Reservoir. These plans were found out by the Nature Society (Singapore) in May 1991, who began a campaign to resist and oppose these plans. After a strategic escalation of this resistance into the public sphere, it succeeded in lobbying the government to shelve these plans in October 1992.
- From the discovery of the government’s intention to build golf courses at Upper Peirce Reservoir, NSS sought to register its opposition directly with Dhanabalan, who was the Minister for National Development then. It also worked to develop its own Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to gather evidence of the negative ecological effects of building golf courses at these nature reserves.
- The key period in this campaign came in 1992, which saw a buildup of reports and opinion pieces in the press over the merits of building golf courses in gazetted nature reserves.
- Crucially, this period came in the midst of the landmark United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, which placed sustainable development and environmental conservation on the agenda across the world, and where Singapore had declared its commitment to preserving its existing nature reserves. It was at this time when the NSS published its EIA, and also launched a petition which garnered 17,000 signatures.
- By escalating their campaign in a strategic manner, NSS were able to coordinate the mobilisation of support through their petitions, advocacy and research with the existing discourses both locally and on the international stage that were focused on the importance of environmental conservation.
- This public pressure they ignited proved to be insurmountable, and succeeded in persuading the government to backtrack on its plans.
Maria Francesch- Huidobro: The Power of Protestation: Degazetting The Lower Pierce Reservoir Catchment Area
What is it?
The Overton Window describes the boundaries of what is considered reasonable and acceptable within a range of public policy options. It can be shifted eg. what was considered ‘acceptable’ becoming ‘Popular’, or even, a potential ‘Policy’. This is a useful model to think about social movements or even, make sense in your own advocacy journey.
What does it tell us?
Instead of focusing on minor incremental changes to an already accepted idea, activists can consider making a case for the ‘unthinkable idea’, stating it fluently and igniting an informed discussion. This can help to move the window in the direction of their preferred outcomes, thereby nudging their radical ideas into the ‘acceptable’ category and eventually making them become political viable.
How can this be applied?
Continue making your case persistently and persuasively until your position becomes more politically mainstream OR amplify and echo voices of those that take radical ideas a few more notches above than what you really want.
What are some examples?
When Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) first started out in 2004, human rights campaigning was largely frowned upon. This was the aftermath of the 1987 ‘Marxist Conspiracy’ clampdown (22 social activists were detained under the Internal Security Act for allegedly plotting a ‘Marxist Conspiracy’ to overthrow the Singapore government). Coupled with the political sensibilities involved in advocating for non-citizens’ rights, HOME’s emergence was a radical move during that context.
Over the years, HOME has been relentless in their efforts to raise awareness of the injustice that migrant workers face through telling their stories. This helped to garner the support of the public, thus paving the way for society’s acceptance of migrant rights activism and creating increasing public pressure on the government. This contributed to the Ministry of Manpower being more engaged with NGOs in this space. An official NGO liaison officer was even appointed to encourage the NGOs to raise issues directly with the ministry instead of publicising them in the media- a crucial point that reflects a shift of HOME’s advocacy from somewhat radical to potential policy.
Likewise in the Day Off Campaign- a campaign headed by HOME, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and UN Women for a legislated weekly day off for domestic workers was a radical move too when it first started. It faced significant backlash, not only from the government, but from Singaporeans as well (specifically Singaporean employers).
At the beginning of the campaign, the Ministry of Manpower called for the activists to a closed-door meeting. During the meeting, 20 officials from both the Ministry of Manpower and the Ministry of Home Affairs were present. It was posited by the government that the issue was controversial because many Singaporean employers were opposed to the idea. As such, the campaign would divide Singaporeans and lead to social instability. Other tactics were employed to curb the campaign- it was alleged that editors of the mainstream media were asked to tone down their coverage of the campaign. However, despite this strong initial pushback, the government eventually passed the day off legislation in 2012- 5 years after the campaign was launched. In light of the Overton Window model, consistent advocacy by the activists have successfully pushed what was considered ‘radical’ to ‘policy.
Beautiful Trouble by Andrew Boyd
The Art of Advocacy in Singapore, edited by Constance Singam and Margaret Thomas