How Advocacy & Private Funding can reduce the Power Asymmetry in Singapore
One of the reasons why power asymmetry exists in Singapore was very pronounced at a recent Health Technology Assessment conference I attended.
Power asymmetries arise when there is asymmetrical distribution of information and resources. It does not matter if you have the best democratic election mechanism in place, as long as information and resources is primarily in the hands of the State only. This also happens within large private organizations and the masses, which is why monopolies can be potentially abusive/exploitative.
One would think that power asymmetries existed in places like India and China because a large part of its population is uneducated and poor. In resource rich countries that exists in much of Western Europe, Australia, Canada, the USA power between the electorate and elected is more balanced. Why hasn’t that happened to the same extent in Singapore, despite us ranking way up there in terms of GFP per capita ?
I’m sure there are many reasons, and one of those came up strongly during this International conference.
In many countries with relatively higher State-people power balance, there are very strong NGOs, filled with experts and professional who were willing to contribute their time and expertise to generating and distributing information. Many of these organizations were privately funded too.
In Singapore, we have many charitable organizations. Most of our very few NGOs are also strongly focused on direct services to the disadvantaged group. That is not a bad thing – that is very commendable in fact. What is very lacking however, is this information generation through research, and information distribution through public education.
We really need 2 things. We need experts and professionals to come forward to volunteer. We need these people to stop doing so much overtime in the office, and start contributing. When I was volunteering at AWARE, I noticed that a disproportionate number of active volunteers are not even Singaporean. In the biomedical research industry, many were foreigners who came to Singapore for the money, and few of those who are Singaporean see the need to be involved in advocacy work.
The second thing we need is government-independent funding. Many NGOs and VWOs in Singapore take government funds to some extent. Once you have government funding, your messages are essentially taken hostage. Government funding is great when you’re trying to feed the poor, but not when you’re coming up with well-research evidence why poor people are being systematically produced.
Private funding has been thought to be a major issue in Singapore for a couple of reasons. Firstly, foreign private funding has always been used as “evidence” for foreign manipulation into Singapore’s politics and internal affairs. There are restrictions on the types and extent of foreign funds for certain activities. Secondly, many rich commercial firms in Singapore depend on themselves being in the good books of the government. Foreign firms who wish to remain in Singapore do not want to offend the government and none of our local firms are either big enough or government-independent enough to disregard the government’s agenda.
However, there is a source of private funding in Singapore that is capable of taking on this role — the religious organizations. Singaporeans are very religious, and see a lot of value investing financially into their afterlives. Many religious organizations already fund much of charity work. We need to start going beyond charity work, and start funding advocacy and research work. We need to convince the decision-makers that advocacy and research work is NOT being anti-government, that is very much pro-people, and that sometimes they really have to be brave. We need to convince decision-makers that researching into what processes in our system create the structurally unemployable is as important as feeding the children of these structurally unemployed. We need to be upfront and say, ‘Yes that sort of research may not go down well with certain powerful groups, but your religious texts that call for you to sacrifice for the greater good, were really talking about such situations, not terrorist activities or militant crusades.’
So we actually do have the expertise within our people, and we do have the funds too. What we need to do next, is to convince people to start using these for the public good.
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