Updated: Aug 19, 2020
People pictured, clockwise from top left: Hanna (sign interpreter), Suraendher Kumarr (moderator), D Dangaran (speaker), Yeoh Lam Keong (speaker), Diana Rahim (speaker), Bertrand Seah (speaker)
Activism in Crisis kicked off this weekend with our opening module, More than tweaks: Discussing alternative visions for Singapore. We will be posting summaries of each of our modules, so you can catch up here if you missed any or if you just want a recap! In this module, our four speakers discussed the visions they had for Singapore's future and how we can make real changes to realise these visions.
Bertrand Seah (he/him): A Post-Carbon Degrowth Singapore
The climate crisis means that it is important to imagine a different future where we halve our carbon emissions within the next 10 years. Moreover, this move towards a decarbonised economy has to be fair to all groups in society. A question to look at is who will be harmed by climate change. We need to focus on taking care of people who are least protected from harm, such as the poor in Singapore, and those in countries where large numbers of people lose their homes and means of survival due to floods, fires and so on. We also need to ask who is protected from the worst effects of climate change, and/or get rich from carbon-heavy activities, including governments that profit from allowing fossil fuel industries to expand. We need to pressure them to drastically change their practices.
Another key step in reducing the amount of resources and energy Singapore uses would be to stop focusing on increasing economic activity. We need to prioritise caring for the well-being of people in society and making sure everyone has enough to live a dignified life. We should not be trying to find more chances for people and the government to get richer and richer.
To face these challenges, we also need the government to allow people who have solutions for a better future to express their views freely without worrying about being charged in court or censored.
D Dangaran (they/them): Abolition Theory
(content warning: sexual assault)
There are some key theories that people use to justify the way the law punishes people who are caught doing harm. However, those who believe that prisons should be abolished argue that the current system of punishment (through methods such as prison, probation, caning, and the death penalty) do not actually achieve their stated aims.
The current prison system is said to punish people to make up for their offense, and do so based on how serious their crime is. However, in reality it is unable to punish people to match the seriousness of their crime, because sentencing is often unfair. Moreover,besides being imprisoned, offenders are themselves harmed in ways beyond what they have been sentenced to when they are in prison (e.g. sexually assaulted).
Furthermore, while imprisonment is supposed to be a way to allow victims/survivors to feel like they have gotten redress for their suffering, criminal trials are often long and painful (as seen with survivors of sexual assault).
The processes of the prison system in Singapore also do not treat offenders with respect and dignity. For example, offenders have to go through strip searches, are asked if they are gay or straight when admitted, and have to spend 23 hours of cell time with no windows. This means that prison can do little to help offenders gain training to return to society as a functioning individual who will no longer commit crimes.
Prison abolitionists propose ending the current system and instead implementing transformative justice as a more humane approach to responding to violence, harm and abuse. This approach is customised according to the victim's needs. They also advocate for dealing with the key causes of harm by educating people about what causes harm.
Yeoh Lam Keong (he/him): Singapore as a Social Democracy
According to economist John Maynard Keynes, an ideal society should have three things: economic development, sufficient social protections and trustworthy democratic institutions. In the case of Singapore, the government did well in these areas in the first 25 years after independence in 1965, but became worse at them after that. For example, public housing became unaffordable because the government allowed the property market to decide prices rather than controlling it. The government also stopped offering universal healthcare, and only started doing so again recently through MediShield Life, which still does not cover long-term and chronic care. The old-age pension given based on CPF is not enough for people's needs, and poor people ageing over the next 20 to 30 years will not have enough to live on. The poor in Singapore are not well-looked after, with 300,000 citizens living at a level of poverty that could easily be eradicated with income support from the government.
The education system may produce good international test scores and teach basic skills, but it does not prepare students for an uncertain global future. Current immigration policy is likely to end up with an overly large population that would make Singapore even more crowded. There are also a lot of restrictions on the freedom to express criticism of the government, whether through organising events, demonstrations or publishing such opinions in independent and mainstream media. All these are making society unstable.
To get closer to Keynes' ideal of society, we need to have complete universal healthcare, improve the education system, allow the media to be independent, allow people to organise events that criticise or question government policies, have fair rules for elections, and remove restrictive laws on public debate.
It seems that Singapore is moving towards calling for democratic reforms, as seen by the increased seats won by opposition parties in the general elections, and the way the internet has allowed people to successfully pressure the government to change things such as removing unacceptable candidates from their team. In addition to all this, civil society groups need to work for change together outside the government.
Diana Rahim (she/her): No More Activists! For a Movement from Below
The problem with only calling certain people "activists" is that we end up expecting them to represent our interests, rather than feeling that we can express our own opinions, work for the issues we are concerned about, and take part in actions to challenge injustice in society.
Giving activists this special status is also a problem because activist circles do not represent everyone, activists themselves can harm others (e.g. by sexually harassing them), and some people still have more power and influence there due to their background / education / able-bodiedness / race / gender / how much time they have to participate. We need to think about how to make it easier for people with various commitments and conditions such as caregiving and disabilities to join activism. Political participation should be open to all of us, not just elites, "activists" and experts.
We also need to stop seeing activists as special individuals the ones making the most important contributions, and see ourselves as playing important parts just by contributing in our own ways. These could include offering to babysit, making food for people, or doing other things. The work we do in community, the ways we build relationships and care for each other, all bring us towards freedom and connectedness. This work should feel good, rather than as a form of self-sacrifice. If we feel good, we will not feel isolated and hopeless, and will then have more energy to push for freedom together. Political change comes from trying to heal our isolation, as individuals and together in our communities.
While Bertrand and Lam Keong spoke about alternative policies that the state should enact for a just transition, Diana presented an alternative vision for social relations- one where the term “activist” would not be necessary. The emancipatory social relations discussed by Diana lays out the necessary conditions for the state to realise degrowth and social democratic policies. For example, a truly accessible and inclusive civil society is necessary to bring back democratic organizations such as independent labour unions that include both migrants and citizens. We need to be able to organise to pressure the state for adequate social protections and decarbonising policies. Diana’s ‘movement from below’ exists independent of the state. The challenge is in finding and preserving organising spaces that the state does not yet occupy. D’s abolitionist vision suggests that we should also take back some of these spaces from the state (e.g. incarceration, criminal punishment).
Among the four visions, the clearest tension is between social democracy and degrowth in what they prioritize for the economy. While social democracy aims for economic competitiveness, degrowth calls for the opposite. Green social democrats promote green growth for a just transition. However, green growth makes it such that the existential need to respond to the climate crisis is made dependent on whether it can serve profit-seeking ends. Degrowth instead calls for equitably downscaling production and consumption in line with ecological conditions. Simply put, degrowth centres ecology while social democracy centres economic growth.
D offers a vision for a regenerative justice system that could apply to all four visions. D’s presentation on abolition suggests that the carceral state should be weakened. Instead, space should be made for transformative or restorative justice to take root and flourish. Abolition and restorative justice offer a language to communicate and think of justice in a way that does not reproduce the toxic elements of retributive justice. Discussing “harm” and “responsibility” instead of “crime” and “offender” or “criminal” is a regenerative way of communicating and thinking of justice in our march towards a just transition. Compared to a deeply carceral and retributive Singapore, an abolitionist Singapore would be more vested in healing life (humans and nature alike) that has been harmed and changing the behaviours of those responsible for the harm. This is instead of excluding them from society and further perpetuating the cycle of harm and abuse.
In sum, there are more overlaps than tensions between the four different visions. Stay tuned as we post about our other modules in the next few days!
There is also a full glossary prepared previously for the module.
Abolition: The act of ending a system, practice, or institution. Examples include the abolition of the prison system, the death penalty, unfair taxes, or slavery.
Carceral state: Refers to a state’s policies and institutions directly related to the criminal justice system, but also includes the logic, ideas, practices and structures that punishes people unequally.
Decarbonize: To reduce the amount of carbon (a greenhouse gas) given out from a process or an environment. Greenhouse gases are gases which make the planet hotter.
Degrowth: Degrowth is an idea that criticises the global capitalist system that always seeks economic growth at all costs, resulting in a lot of human suffering and environmental destruction. (See Capitalism). The degrowth movement calls for societies to put great importance on social and environmental well-being, instead of profits, overproduction and overconsumption. Degrowth means changing societies to make sure there is climate justice and a good life for all within the limits of our planet. (See Climate justice)
Green Growth: Economic growth driven by using natural resources in an ecologically sustainable manner.
Just Transition: It refers to a set of practices needed to make sure that our society moves towards a green economy in a way that is fair and equal to everyone in society.
Incarceration: The act of putting someone in prison or the state of being trapped in prison.
Regenerative: Able to regrow itself in a way that is healing and non-toxic
Retributive Justice: a theory of punishment where the punishment for a crime is proportional to the offense committed
Social Democracy: Policies that promote social justice through capitalist-oriented economic interventions.