NGO-government relations: The art of the possible

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Bukit Brown
Bukit Brown

By Zach Isaiah Chiah

Bukit Brown
Bukit Brown

Bukit Brown is the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China.

In 2012, the Land Transport Authority announced the decision to build a road across the cemetery, so as to ease congestion on Lornie Road. Heritage enthusiasts together with concerned Singaporeans petitioned against the decision. Groups such as All things Bukit Brown were set up to educate the public and petition the government not to destroy a national icon. In August 2013, the Land Transport Authority awarded a tender to build a road across Bukit Brown; part of the road was tendered as a bridge instead.

It was viewed in some quarters as a government concession to NGOs. SMU Law Professor and NMP Eugene Tan says, “They didn’t get their way 100% but I think there is reasonable success in attaining some outcomes.”

Terence Chong, vice president of the Singapore Heritage Society, disagrees.

“I think the bridge was less of a compromise in the face of heritage concerns than it was an engineering and financial decision. The number of graves exhumed [was] not significantly reduced by the decision to build the bridge.”

In October 2013, Bukit Brown was listed on the World Monument’s Watch 2014. That, says Chong, was “a real shot in the arm for those of us who have worked tirelessly in Bukit Brown and behind the scenes”.

Shift in public thinking

The SHS’ work has been helped by a recent shift in public thinking with locals becoming more concerned about the preservation of heritage in Singapore. “This groundswell is not surprising. We are becoming more educated, better travelled and more sensitive to any loss of heritage,” said Chong. “SHS wants to debunk the myth that we can either have development or heritage. This is a false dilemma.”

“If we as a people can overcome natural obstacles like water supply, why can’t we come up with innovative ways to accommodate both development and our heritage?”

Chong’s view is indicative of how NGOs view their role – supportive of Singapore’s overall development.

To do anything they believe to be beneficial to Singaporeans, though, NGOs need to work with the government.

How NGOs should work with the government

But how should an NGO work with the government?

“Be open, honest, and frank. It’s not about scoring points. Often, there is a common goal but the differences cohere in how to get there,” says Asst Prof Tan.

John Gee from Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) adds, “Positive outcomes are more likely if an NGO has proposals for change, backed by solid reasoning, rather than just a string of complaints against government policy or action that offer no indication off what might sensibly have been done instead.”

Constant dialogue even when there are no major issues is important, says Dr Geh Min. “If we only communicate when there is a pressing and potentially controversial issue at hand, there is less likelihood of a positive resolution.”

Two-way street

We Believe In Second ChancesEngagement, however, is a two-way street. It requires dialogue and not monologue. The onus cannot be on the NGOs alone, says Damien Chng, founder of We Believe in Second Chances, a group working for the abolition of the death penalty in Singapore. The government has also to be willing to cooperate with the NGOs,

This then begs the question, how has the government fared in its engagement with NGOs?

The report card on this is mixed.

How the government is doing

The government is working in a new area and is feeling its way around the issue. Asst Prof Tan explains, “They are learning. They know there is a need to work with them rather than against them. It’s a steep learning curve but I see the government is trying to work with [NGOs].”

Dr Geh agrees government engagement is “much better than before” but adds: “NGOs have to be responsible [and] credible partners as well. It all goes back to both partners developing trust but maintaining independence.”

Asst Prof Tan cautions: “We should not measure success by outcomes alone but also (by) how the government is engaged and sensitised to the concerns of NGOs and interest groups.”

Other NGO representatives, however, worry about the possibility of not having anything substantial to show for such engagement.

“There is a concern amongst groups that their existence will become cosmetic, just as a show of engagement and diverse voices in Singapore without the substance.” says Kristen Han from Second Chances Singapore.

So how can the government allay those concerns and move on to a more cooperative model?

“We’d like to see a readier response to requests for meetings and to letters that raise questions about policy matters.” says John Gee. He adds that there is good contact over migrant worker cases. While the organisation is not totally happy with all the outcomes, they are pleased that the communication channels are open.

Focusing on the issue of the death penalty, Damien Chng says, “The government can do more to involve the NGO community in its decision-making process, and also in terms of providing the NGOs with information and statistics on the relevant issues.”

Throughout the world, NGOs and governments have rarely been considered friends; some have even said that such cooperation is impossible.

Better NGO-Government cooperation can only be good for Singaporean society by providing more rounded considerations to policy. “After all,” says Dr Geh, “we are working for the same goal which is the long-term good of Singapore.”

Would Singapore be able to accomplish the ‘impossible’ where others have failed?

Perhaps Terence Chong summed it up best: “The Singapore story is about accomplishing the impossible.”

See also NGOs: Why some succeed, some don’t