Filed under: By Rachel Zeng
Jeraldine Pneah, a local blogger, recently wrote a blog post entitled “Ego issues in Singapore’s civil society” based on her recent observations of “various quarrels online“.
While I can appreciate Jeraldine’s observations of civil society from what I see as a position of limited or zero interaction with most of us, our work and the way we engage with each other privately during meetings and discussions, I am not quite able to let her opinions go unchallenged. So here is a blog post in my humble attempt to paint a bigger picture of the civil society that I have come to know, appreciate and be part of in the past few years.
The reason why I am airing my disagreement in a public blog rather than writing to Jeraldine in person is because her opinions are displayed on a her blog. I strongly believe that alternative opinions should be expressed on the same platform as it is just fair for regular readers of online blogs to be presented with differing opinions and shall I add at the unfortunate risk of sounding patronising… realities and experiences.
“Civil society” is more diverse than observed
Citizen activism, as how I see it, did not just begin to grow in recent years. The current bunch of folks in civil society consists of advocates of human and animal rights with experiences ranging from as long as more than forty years to a few weeks or days. It did not just begin to grow, but has always been going through the process of growing and stagnation. Indeed it might be small compared to larger countries like Hong Kong, Philippines, Taiwan and basically almost all in the rest of the world, but civil society in Singapore is definitely not just made up of citizen journalists and activists. We have academics, social workers, artists, published writers and opposition politicians in our midst as well.
Issues such as gender equality, labour rights for local, migrant and sex workers, LGBTQ, death penalty, freedom of speech and expression, general discrimination, detention without trial etc have been taken up and championed by groups and individuals who form the general sector of “civil society.
The groups and individuals in civil society operate differently from each other. A handful work on their causes on a full-time basis, usually paid, while most of us do this in addition to our day jobs and our cause based work and activities are usually self-sponsored and not regularly funded. Some work towards having more engagement with governmental sectors and politicians, some believe in the need for pure ground work, some believe in “civil disobedience” while others believe in the need to be flexible in their approaches. Hence, civil society is really a very diverse sector in the social and political fabric of Singapore.
On agreements, disagreements, likes and dislikes
In her blog post, Jeraldine pondered “What is the point of publicly stating your stance immediately? Lashing out at them? Making personal attacks?“
All human beings judge, form impressions, praise, criticise and express their opinions on a daily basis. Similarly, all human beings are being judged, they create impressions and go through being praised and criticised on a daily basis.
As folks who choose to express part of our cognitive self and personal belief systems publicly, be it through our socio-political work, blogs, Facebook or any other platforms, we are constantly subjected to the above mentioned cognitive and emotional processes that all human beings do go through. It is humanely impossible to expect otherwise, and since we put ourselves in such public positions, the general criticisms, judgments, agreements and disagreements also happen publicly.
Personally, I think that a discourse cannot exist without public discussions which include both agreement and disagreement. The reason why our socio-political climate is pretty much immature, often leading to personal and misogynistic attacks as well as instances whereby constructive criticisms are being taken personally, is due to the lack of understanding of global ideologies and critical exchanges of opinions no thanks to an overdose of self-moderation in a society that has not put much value in critical thinking when it comes to socio-political issues.
As much as criticisms or the existence of differing opinions can sometimes sting and “make people look bad”, we do need to take into consideration the value and validity of such statements and take time to reflect on our personal work, thoughts and conviction. Public expression of differing opinions reminds us that diversity exists and there is much to learn from and about the opinions of others, whether we like, dislike, agree or disagree with their thoughts (and actions).
However of course, I am not agreeing with irrelevant and baseless character assassination or sexist and misogynistic comments made in order to deny an individual’s right to intellectual and emotional expression based on discriminatory stereotypes (e.g., “Why don’t you shut up and go back to your bloody kitchen?” or “Eh, time of the month is it?”).
I am also not in agreement with fallacious labels being slapped upon well-meaning and vocal members of civil society or others who have made the effort to participate in the discussions (e.g., “Migrant rights groups are pro-foreigners” and “Since you say that we should not discriminate against foreigners, are you trying to tell us that you are anti-Singaporeans?“), even though several of these misunderstood individuals have continually taken the time and effort to explain themselves and their stance in the bid to seek for a common understanding BUT we must also understand that if people choose to stubbornly maintain their false opinions of the basis of our work, they do have all the right in the world to. Perhaps instead of letting that affect us, we should politely end the engagement and move on, while also reflecting on our personal effectiveness in communicating our intentions – something which all advocates in the world have to go through in order to develop a better way of advocacy.
Yes, this is a reminder to myself as well. 🙂
That said though, I do agree with Jeraldine that one can write to another in private to seek for clarification. In fact, there is much of that going on even in this current debate on the perception that foreigners are here to “threaten our livelihood” (quoted words aren’t mine) which may or may not be reflected in the public discussions and it is totally fine because they are after all, private discussions.
On intentions and motivations
We have to acknowledge the fact that there is no such thing as a full set of common interests and motivations across the board, while we seek to call for change in our society with our work on various causes. It varies, although there are instances whereby common interests and motivations do occur. This happens not only in civil society but in every sector and every corner of the world where human beings exist.
We cannot determine that an individual disagrees with another publicly in order to generate attention or to display superiority over another. However I am not entirely sure about what sort of comments Jeraldine was referring to when she mentioned “in the pursuit of wanting to come across as correct, that your method is the best, that you are intellectually and morally superior and more experienced“. I must say that my personal experiences with many of the folks in civil society, even after considering all the discussions and heated debates that have occurred when we work together, have mostly been in contrary to what she has experienced or observed.
Undoubtedly, bad experiences do occur (although rarely) but is that not a part and parcel of human interactions? Rather than letting ourselves be hurt and offended or let our credibility be torn apart, we should be ready to defend our opinions and work if we see the need to, or to learn from the experience. In short, we need to get rid of this “save face” mentality.
So what’s my point?
My point here is, we are not here to please everyone. For example, in the past few years of championing for human rights causes, several activists including myself, have received harsh judgments from total strangers to people we work with, love, care about and grow up with. We have also personally received death threats, threats to personal safety, sexist and misogynistic jibes, burned bridges (due to my straightforward nature) and rebuild them back again or see them forever destroyed (no doubt, it is very sad).
We cannot live life being bothered about who likes us and who do not, based on their disagreement of our thoughts and work, especially when they are complete strangers. In relation to our work as activists, we should do ourselves a great favour by not taking constructive public airing of opinions personally because it distracts us from the main purpose of our work. Also, taking differing opinions personally, whether on behalf of oneself or others, in my opinion, reflects one’s bruised ego and how one values self appreciation over the need for public discourse and discussions.
To Jeraldine, I would say that I am in no position to determine whether I like or dislike you (referring to one of your comments on FB in response to a friend’s criticism of you) because we do not know each other in person. As much as I disagree with several of the opinions expressed in your entire blog (I read your blog too!), you are definitely entitled to them… and I hope that you do not misunderstand this response of mine as an attempt to “come across as correct, that your method is the best, that you are intellectually and morally superior and more experienced” because I do not hold that sort of attitude and we are honestly, equals.
P.S: I am very long winded (“sipeh granny” like what my friend Joshua Chiang said), so I thank everyone for reading this. 😉
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