Saturday, June 10, 2006

Post No. 71: A Vibrant Civil Society And A Strong State -- Impossible Bedfellows?

As I have mentioned in the post preceding this one, there were 2 events held at NUS FASS’s Open House on 20th May 2006 that I found interesting, one of which I have already discussed in the previous post. And now I will move on to discuss about the other interesting event which was a semi-informal debate between undergraduates from the Political Science department and the Sociology department.

The motion that the 2 sides were debating on was this: “A vibrant civil society cannot flourish in the context of a strong state”, with the Sociology team being the proposition team and the Political Science team being the opposition team.

The debate was a lively and vibrant (no pun intended) one, especially when it came to the part when it was opened to the floor. In the end, the audience (there was only 6 of us left as the rest did not stay for the whole debate while the rest whom did, were either affiliated to the Political Science department or the Sociology department) voted and the proposition team was declared to be the winner of the debate.

However, though the proposition team won the debate, I personally felt that the opposition team's arguments made greater sense to me (although, of course, the arguments of both teams were valid and made great sense) and I'm not saying this because I am currently planning to major in Political Science. And yes, I voted for the opposition team at the end of the debate.

With that in mind, I will now move on to discuss the arguments of both sides, expand them and, in the end, hopefully demonstrate to you all that it is possible for a vibrant civil society to flourish in the context of a strong state.

But before I continue to do so, I think it is highly appropriate & relevant for us all to slightly “deconstruct” the statement of: “a vibrant civil society cannot flourish in the context of a strong state”, define the terms used in it and thereby see what does it really implies.

Firstly, let's look at what “vibrant” means. Well, the dictionary definition of it is that it means “energetic, exciting and full of enthusiasm”. On top of that, I think that, in the context of describing the state of a civil society, “vibrant” would take on the additional meanings of being pro-active and diverse.

Next, what does “civil society” means? Unfortunately, I was not able to find a dictionary definition for it so I suppose that we all just have to make do with a rough definition of mine. In my opinion, a civil society is an umbrella term that includes organisations and/or groups of people which are non-governmental in nature and built around a common interest/cause under its scope. Thus, local examples of the groups that make up a civil society would most probably include non-governmental organisations (pretty obvious, isn't it?) such as labour unions (though one may dispute whether the NTUC is really “non-governmental”), Transient Workers Count Too, AWARE, the Think Centre, community self-help groups, religious groupings, clan associations, the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), hobby groups and business associations. Of course, though they are in a way non-governmental, I suppose that political parties, such as the PAP and Workers' Party, cannot be included under the scope of civil society. Hopefully, my definition of what a civil society is make sense to you all.

Thirdly, what do we mean by “flourish”? The dictionary I'm referring to defines it as “to grow or develop successfully”. With this definition in mind, I suppose that “to flourish” cannot be equated with “to exist”. I mean, it is quite obvious, looking at the dictionary definition of it, that while something or somebody can exist, it does not necessarily means that something or someone is flourishing. It takes and means more to flourish than to exist. And that is an idea which we ought to remember when we move on to examine whether a vibrant civil society can flourish in the context of a strong state.

Lastly, let us look at “strong state”. What does it mean? Well, I also could not find a definite definition for it so again I suppose we will have to make do with a rough definition of mine. To me, a strong state is one which has the ability/capability to effectively & efficiently formulate, implement, execute and enforce governmental policies. If I'm not wrong, in political science, this ability/capability is termed as administrative/institutional capacity. For the benefit of those who dislike long-winded & wordy technical definitions, a strong state is, in a nutshell, one that is good at whatever functions it performs, be it being military defense, providing public education & housing or central banking. And, considering there exists no definite definition as to what a strong state is, we must understand that there are different opinions about which states can be considered as strong but I suppose it is quite obvious to us all what states are not strong (think Afghanistan & Iraq, post-invasion). Having said that, it should be noted that possible examples of strong states can vary from Singapore to the United States to totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.

Now, having examined the various terms employed in the statement in discussion, there is also another concept which I would like to inform you all of. The reason why I decided to tell you all about this concept is that I think it will be highly relevant for the discussion later on. Well, this concept is the concept of “socio-political conditioning/indoctrination” (or at least that's what I would term it as) which refers to the process or phenomenon in which states undertake, overtly or otherwise, to “indoctrinate” in us all a certain set of ideas, beliefs, values and attitudes. In other words, states attempt to “indoctrinate” in us a certain ideology. Don't be mistaken, all states, weak or strong, do this (though perhaps strong states are better at doing so). This “indoctrination” can take place through various mediums such as the mass media or the education system. And contrary to what the Marxists may think (they describe this process of “indoctrination” as creating a “false consciousness”), it is my opinion that this process of “indoctrination” is one which is neutral in nature, it just depends on what purpose we are being “indoctrinated” for. That said, there can be many purposes why states choose to “indoctrinate” us. One infamous example that is frequently criticised by Marxists and liberals alike is the “manufacturing of consent” to governmental policies, though, of course, it also really depends on what sort of policies our “consent” is being “manufactured” for. And in the local context, I suppose we all are “indoctrinated” with the belief in the importance of values such as meritocracy, multiracialism & “multi-religionism”.

Meander further in my discussion, I will not. Instead, I will now proceed ("Finally!", I can imagine you all reading this shouting) to examine the arguments for and against the notion that a vibrant civil society cannot flourish in the context of a strong state.

Well, for those who argue that a vibrant civil society cannot flourish in the context of a strong state, I suppose their main argument would be most likely be similar to what George Yeo, then still Acting Minister for Information & The Arts, said in his seminal speech in 1991. In that speech (for those interested in a full transcript of this insightful & perceptive speech, it may be found at:, just type in “Banyan Tree” and set the date range as 01/01/1991 to 31/12/1991), he said: “The problem now is that under a banyan tree, very little else can grow. When state institutions are too pervasive, civic institutions cannot thrive. Therefore it is necessary to prune the banyan tree so that other plants can also grow”. In other words, in the context of a strong state (especially one which is totalitarian in nature), the state may intervene so much into the various (if not every) sphere of community/civic life that there remains no space whatsoever for civic institutions (a.k.a. civil society) to thrive or even to be vibrant at all. Of course, one example of a strong state resulting in a weak civil society would perhaps be none other than our own country -- Singapore. A more infamous historical example would be that of Nazi Germany, in which civil society is not only weak but even suppressed, if not exterminated. Contrast this with the situation in Germany during the Weimar Republic period, in which the state was weak but the civil society was, according to the Sociology undergraduates, more vibrant and thriving.

It is further argued that a strong state or one which aims to be strong will find a vibrant & flourishing civil society to be in conflict with its administrative/institutional capacity. One aspect of this argument is on how the state, in its drive to effectively & efficiently execute its policies, will need to emphasis on uniformity and this is in conflict with a vibrant civil society, which is, as I have mentioned, by definition, diverse in nature. Another aspect of such an argument is on how the state, in its drive to maintain its legitimacy (which forms part of the basis on which administrative capacity is based on), will have to make sure its “voice” is the leading “voice” while other/alternative “voices” (most usually from opposition parties or the civil society) which may question governmental policies are subordinated. Thus, according to this argument, a strong state or one which aims to be strong will therefore actively undertake measures to limit the development of the civil society.

Furthermore, there exists the argument which says that even if the (strong) state does not act against the development of the civil society, it will still seek to regulate it so as to channel into avenues which will benefit the state. And, in accordance with this argument, a state-regulated civil society cannot achieve true vibrancy. It is analogous, as it was incisively argued by a member of the Sociology team, to a “colour-by-numbers” picture. The picture may seems beautiful, colourful and vibrant but it is not real/organic vibrancy because people are instructed where to colour and what colour to use. On top of that, it is also argued that a strong state indirectly regulates the development of the civil society through “indoctrination”. The process of “indoctrination”, according to this argument, creates mental/psychological barriers in people’s minds as to what is permissible and what is not. And this creates a great obstacle in the path of civil society to achieve true vibrancy.

Well, having looked at the arguments as to why a vibrant civil society cannot flourish in the context of a strong state, I will now move on to look at the arguments against such a pessimistic notion.

I concede that a state which intrudes into every sphere of community/civic life will indeed hamper the development of a vibrant civil society. However, it should be noted that such a state is not necessarily a strong state but rather it is an extensive state. The difference, as pointed out by Professor Francis Fukuyama in his work of “State Building” (which is a surprisingly easy read, in contrast with his “The End of History And The Last Man”, but that does not rob this work of insightful analysis), lies in the scope of functions which the state performs. In other words, an extensive state is one which takes on an extensive range of functions while a strong state, regardless of its scope, is just one that performs well at the functions it seek to perform. With that in mind, it can be observed that when Minister George Yeo argued for the “banyan tree” of state to be “judiciously pruned” so as to allow civic institutions (a.k.a. civil society) to thrive, he was arguing that the state cut down on the scope of functions it seeks to perform and not for the state to become weaker in the functions it performs. Hence, it can be seen that it is possible for a vibrant civil society to thrive in a strong state if the state is limited yet strong.

Having said that, it can be argued that a strong and limited state will be able to allow a vibrant civil society to flourish and yet not have that conflict with its administrative capacity. An excellent example of this would be the United States. Although it may be disputed as to whether the U.S. is a strong state or not, considering its separation of powers, I would argue that the U.S. did not achieve its current status of being the most powerful nation in today’s world through being a weak state. Instead, as noted by Professor Fukuyama in “State Building”, the U.S. is a strong yet limited state. And we can see for ourselves that the civil society in the U.S. is not any less vibrant or flourishing even though it exists in a strong, albeit limited, state.

Furthermore, it should be noted that while totalitarian states, like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin, may be considered as strong states and while strong states may develop into totalitarian states, it does not follow logically that all strong states are totalitarian states. Thus, it is misleading to use Nazi Germany as an example of a strong state in which civil society is suppressed. That, to me, would be an extreme example.

In addition, although we all are perhaps susceptible to “indoctrination”, this “indoctrination” is not absolute. In other words, though there may be a box, we remain still able to think outside the box (though some may dispute whether we are indeed able to do so and that when we think outside the box, we are just thinking within a larger box. Larger, but nevertheless, still a box). So, assuming that we all are not totally “indoctrinated”, we can see that reserve our ability, as argued by Sartre, to imagine what is not and this means that a vibrant civil society can still develop despite “indoctrination”. And, it should be noted that though the state may attempt to regulate the development of the civil society, this does not mean that it will be successful in doing so or that civil society must abide by these regulations put in place by the state (think civil disobedience).

In fact, I will argue that if a state, strong or otherwise, actively acts to suppress the civil society, it will create a backlash against it and may lead to it being displaced, through peaceful means or otherwise. Thus, knowing this, I contend that any rational state will not act to hasten its own demise through suppressing the development of the civil society. Also, I will argue that in a weak state (or even worse, a failed state), it may perhaps be highly unlikely that a vibrant civil society can emerge as people have to worry about things such as their daily livelihood & survival. In other words, I am arguing that a vibrant civil society will need a strong “banyan tree” of state to shelter it from the merciless elements.

In conclusion, I stand steadfast by the statement that it is possible for a vibrant civil society to flourish in the context of a strong state, provided that the strong state is not also an extensive one. Also, I would like to add that, ultimately, whether a vibrant civil society can thrive depends on whether the people (in other words, we all) wants it or not, considering that we make up the civil society. As Minister George Yeo have said in that seminal 1991 speech of his: “If we want the state to be less intrusive, we must do more for ourselves”. In the end, it is of no use if we pruned the banyan tree but the grass just refuses to grow, isn't it?

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