Champion of civil society
Constance Singam came late to activism, only getting involved, slowly, after she was widowed in 1978 at the age of 42. For 18 years she had let her husband make the decisions; now she had to reinvent herself. In 1980, she went back to university to get a degree. She joined the women’s rights group AWARE when it was launched in 1986. She went to forums and began to speak up. As she gained confidence, each new step into civil society became surer. In the last 30 years, Constance has led women’s organisations, co-founded civil society groups, been a columnist in several national publications, spoken at countless forums and seminars, contributed to and co-edited several books, and written her memoir.
Returning at the end of 1984 after four years at university in Melbourne, Australia, Constance found herself a job and settled back into the rhythm of Singapore life. She attended a forum organised by AWARE in 1986 and joined a committee looking into violence against women. It was the start of her journey as an advocate and activist. In 1987 she became president of AWARE. She led AWARE for two terms and remained on the Executive Committee for a further two years.
In 1987, together with the SCWO (Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations) and the National Crime Prevention Council, AWARE launched a year-long ‘Stop Violence against Women’ campaign. In 1990, as AWARE’s nominee, Constance was elected for a two-year term as SCWO president. In 1992, as SCWO president, Constance, together with representatives from AWARE, the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers and the Samaritans of Singapore, initiated discussions with the police about the better management of rape victims. It was the start of a long process that continues today to try to end violence against women and to find ways to more effectively and sensitively respond to cases of sexual and domestic violence.
Constance was again president of AWARE from 1994 to 1996. Then she went back to Australia as a student, this time to get a Master’s degree. One of the modules she took was Feminism and Cultural Studies which, as she says in her memoir, finally gave her ‘the theoretical knowledge about the practical work I had been engaged in the last ten years’.
Back in Singapore, at a 1998 forum about ‘Harnessing State-Society Synergies’, she said Singaporeans’ wariness about getting involved in activism and challenging policies that affected them was a matter that should be discussed openly. This was the start of TWC or The Working Committee, a loose group of people interested in civil society activism. Many small group discussions were held and networking sessions organised for non-governmental organisations. In 1999, TWC organised a conference about civil society and published the book ‘Building Social Spaces in Singapore, after which it disbanded.
In 2002, TWC2 got underway when Constance, together with some AWARE friends, discussed the appalling case of an Indonesian maid who died from the abuse she suffered at the hands of her employer. They decided something needed to be done about the poor treatment of foreign workers in Singapore. Though it was just a group of concerned individuals, TWC2 was able to hold discussions with government officials and various groups. It eventually registered as a society and was renamed Transient Workers Count Too.
Constance returned to the presidency of AWARE in 2007, and once again led it for two terms. In 2014, she was the prime mover of TWC3, another loose grouping of activists. This time the aim was to recognise outstanding civil society organisations and individuals and celebrate their contributions to the community. This is done via the annual Singapore Advocacy Awards.
“We can think of civil society work as akin to a conversation, a dialogue between the government and the various sectors of the community over what constitutes the soul or moral character of a nation. It is a conversation that never ends. It asks questions such as what is good for society, who decides this, what the aim of government is and whether government serves the people or vice versa.”
“Advocacy is the vanguard of change. One party or one organisation is not always right. Views have to be challenged.”
“Like many of my compatriots, I belong to more than one history, more than one culture, more than one group, and I am cosmopolitan by inclination and experience: in other words, I am uniquely Singapore, uniquely confused and challenged.”
“To forge a strong sense of identity, citizens must be made to feel that their views and concerns are taken into account, that the process by which decisions are made are transparent. When these expectations are not met, citizens begin to feel alienated.”
“Constance Singam is the mother of civil society. She has inspired many generations of civil society activists. Her boundless energy has been responsible for numerous projects and initiatives that have shaped Singapore’s civil society today.” – Alvin Tan, Founder and Artistic Director, The Necessary Stage