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Gestural Politics: Civil Society in "New" Singapore


This paper offers a short "history" of the term and discourse of civil society in Singapore: from its promulgation by then Minister of information and the Arts (MITA) George Yeo as "civic" society (in the 1990s) to its reassertion as a government vision statement calling for "active citizenship" and public participation and "feedback" (from 1999). In 2004, in the lead-up to the installation of the city-state's third Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, civil society has been re-framed and re-branded with political buzzwords like "openness" and "inclusiveness". This paper argues that while to some extent, engagement with the concept of civil society has become a political necessity in the "new" Singapore, the appropriation and propagation of such new rhetoric remains by and large gestural. In the final analysis, this paper posits that gestural politics — where the "liberal gestures" of the regime is more important than its substance — remains the most meaningful way of understanding the role and direction of civil society in Singapore.