Activism Archive is an archival project documenting case studies of activism and movements of social change in Singapore. With focus on their strategies and tactics, the archive celebrates the incredible contribution, diversity and breadth of Singaporean civil society.

In recent years, there have been increasing efforts and literature celebrating our national history of activism and social change, such as Constance Singam’s and Margaret Thomas’ The Art of Advocacy in Singapore – an encyclopaedic and critical endeavour exploring the vibrant local community of civil society activism. Rather than duplicate these efforts, this project hopes to enhance our appreciation of Singaporean social activism with a distinct emphasis on documenting and analysing their tactics and strategies: what strategies did they adopt, what worked, why it worked, and what we can learn from each other.

What is Activism?

Babies in the River Analogy

Imagine strolling along the river and then suddenly noticing a baby floating precariously downstream. You jump in to save the baby, bringing it to the safety of the banks. Just as you do, you realise there is yet another baby in the river. Two more. Three more. Five more. Tens and hundreds. Soon, people are joining you to save the drowning babies. Others have come by to help the rescuers with food, water and encouragement. But the flow of babies is ceaseless.

At this point, you realise that someone is throwing babies down the river. While most people rightly continue to rescue the babies, you and a group of others importantly decide to go upstream to find and stop whoever is throwing babies down the river.

What Exactly in Activism?

Activism is exactly as described in the analogy above: common people coming together for the common good to solve both problems and the root causes of these problems in society. It is the combined efforts by common people to promote, direct and advocate social, political or economic reforms so as to achieve change in society.

These efforts encompass a wide spectrum and repertoire of actions, tactics and strategies – from collaborative strategies such as working with or petitioning your Member of Parliament, writing letters to the Straits Times, hosting seminars and talks raising awareness of fellow citizens, participating in public consultations, to more confrontational tactics of collective action such as whistleblowing, boycotting businesses, striking, and demonstrating at Hong Lim Park.

Social movements in history around the world have employed a diversity of tactics and strategies to achieve their aims: sometimes relying on collaborative methods when the opportunities present themselves, such as how Martin Luther King worked with political leaders within the Washington establishment to advance civil rights while also leading demonstrations. Other times, escalating confrontational pressure when collaboration fails and when strategically suitable, such as in Gandhi’s non-violent but hugely transgressive satyagraha.

Activism in Singapore

Activism is often seen as dirty and divisive in Singapore. Yet, the reality is far from different: Singapore’s history and development is rich with activism. Indeed, as Han Fook Kwang, editor-at-large at the Straits Times and Senior Fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, calls Singaporean civil society activism as the “stuff of nation-building“, much of the progress of modern Singapore society is the result of the hardworking contributions of common citizens who have invested their time and energies in social change.

We see this in the strident anti-colonial and labour rights activism of our pioneer generation. We see this in the ecological and heritage conservation of Chek Jawa and Bukit Brown hard-fought by Nature Society and Heritage Society. We see this in the backbreaking achievements of women activists like Mdm Chan Choy Siong and Mdm Khatijun Nissa Siraj who fought for the adoption of the Women’s Charter, and later AWARE that championed the cause of women’s rights through the decades. We see this in the successes of animal welfare protection won by ACRES and the progresses in migrant worker labour rights fought by TWC2 and HOME. Our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew himself was an ardent activist: advocating for trade and student unionists and strikers as their legal adviser during colonial rule, defending the principles of free speech and embattled student journalists as a junior counsel in the Fajar Trials, and demonstrating against the policies of Labour Front government.

We owe much to civil society activism – a lifeblood of our community that continues to build a democratic society based on justice and equality just as our National Pledge exhorts us to do.

You may be told that the legal decisions lead the changes, that judges and lawmakers lead the culture in those theaters called courtrooms, but they only ratify change. They are almost never where change begins, only where it ends up, for most changes travel from the edges to the center.

Rebecca Solnit, Writer of Hope in the Dark

Case Studies Archive

Click on any of the case studies to find out more about the background, tactics and strategies of these movements! More case studies are also currently in the works, so stay tune to this page.

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