They couldn’t have found a better person to launch Singapore’s Advocacy Awards. Constance Singam has been there and done it way before civil society and advocacy became a cool thing in Singapore. Her baby steps into the world of advocacy came soon after her husband died in a private hospital because of a cardiologist’s bad judgement.
She wrote a letter to The Straits Times, a rest in hospital became a nightmare, which triggered a debate and forced the government to act on the standard of care in private hospitals. That was way back in 1978. when Lee Kuan Yew ruled with an iron fist.
Eight years later, she joined AWARE, the Association of Women for Action and Research, and soon after became its leader.
Today, at 72 and looking sprightly and with the sense of purpose as sharp as ever, the mother of civil society formally launched the awards in a simple ceremony at Select Books.
“In the past one year, we in civil society have been discussing the idea of giving out awards for advocacy for three reasons. One, it’s hard work. Two, it’s not recognised. Three, the government doesn’t like it very much,” she said, the last to much laughter.
The annual awards are to recognise civil society activists, affirm the role of these activists in society, and celebrate advocacy and its achievements. In doing so, the the group behind the awards, The Working Committee 3, aims to raise awareness of the positive aspects of civil society activism, work towards recognition of civil society activists and organisations and reward excellence in civil society initiatives and activists who have improved the lives of Singaporeans.
“Advocacy is the vanguard of change,” Constance said. “One party or one organisation is not always right. Views have to be challenged.”
She pointed out that the government could have engaged civil society on social issues, ranging from foreign worker rights to ageing population. “If the government had engaged with civil society, they would have a better understanding of things on the ground,” she said.
Nominees should meet four criteria: identifying and acting upon a social need, enabling communities to find solutions for themselves, inspiring others to contribute to their communities and giving support to make a difference in civil society action.
Constance suggested several role models from Singapore’s history as examples. These include Constance Goh for her work in the Family Planning Unit and civil society organisation Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group which worked with the government to address problems affecting Singapore’s physical development.
The SAA is composed of three awards: Civil Society Advocate of the Year, Civil Society Advocacy Organisation of the Year, and Most Promising New Civil Society Organisation of the year. The SAA will also have an honours list of notable contributors.
The timeframe for consideration for the 2014 awards is from June 1 this year to May 31, 2014 and the closing date for nominations is June 20, 2014. While anyone may nominate anybody or any organisation, people who nominate themselves or their organisations need another person to second the nomination. Winners will be announced in August, the week before National Day.
In the discussion that followed, Russell Heng, president of Transient Workers Count Too, noted that there may be years where there would be a dearth of contenders. As a result, he asked if the awards would be open to Quasi Non-Government Organisations, which may be linked to the government.
“We decided to limit participants to organisations which are independent of the government,” Constance said. “Government-connected organisations are not independent civil society organisations.”
A lively debate followed about whether the awards should include a cash prize. “Older, more established institutions will be happy with a button,” Ms Singam said, but she pointed out that other organisations might need the money.
Tariq, a member of the audience, said: “The cash prize is just a one-off award.” She argued that there should instead be a sustainable means of enabling civil society organisations to continue their work.
Arts educator and Cultural Medallion winner T Sasitharan will head the panel of judges. The other members are academic Cherian George, architect Richard Ho, consultant Sharon Siddique, former diplomat Geoffrey Yu and medical doctor Wong Ting Hway. Constance will also be on the panel. The SAA’s patron is veteran activist, writer and architect Mr William Lim.
TWC3 is not content with simply handing out awards. “We can’t just stop at the award,” Constance said. “There should be a continuous programme to empower civil society and reinforce the idea that civil society is a functioning member of a democracy.”