Margaret Mead, a renowned cultural anthropologist, once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” An individual may appear to be helpless, insignificant even, in the face of the majority paralysed by inertia, but individuals can still actively participate in and initiate positive change in society by influencing others across political, economic and social spheres. Increasingly, there are more avenues and opportunities for Singaporeans to make a positive change in society.
Individuals can make a positive change in our society through political discourse and discussion and by mobilizing others to participate in political discourse and discussion. While political discussion was muted, and largely top-down in the past, the advent of social media has increased the accessibility of and democratized the responsibility of political discourse. Through political discussions, individuals can take on the establishment and challenge the status quo by drawing attention to various issues and problems in the system. As a democratic society, it is imperative for the government to respond to its citizens’ concerns and needs, and the different forms of mass and social media are the platforms in which Singaporeans can feedback to the government and push for policy changes. Singaporeans have used social media platforms like Facebook during past elections to air their views on the various issues confronting Singapore. During the 2015 General Elections, more than 600,000 netizens posted as many as 5 million posts on Facebook about the elections, demonstrating the opportunity for Singaporeans to increasingly participate in this nationwide conversation. The amplification of the voices of the ordinary man through digital platforms means that the government increasingly has to move towards a more ‘consultative, collaborative’ approach under the auspices of the Fourth Generation leadership. Another salient example of how individuals can directly enact change in society is the National Library Board (NLB) saga in 2014. When the NLB removed several children’s titles for promoting alternative family units like homosexual and single-parent families, a strong reaction came from the ground, where many saw the move as discriminatory and regressive. An individual started on online platform urging NLB to reinstate the books, quickly gathering thousands of signatories. The national library finally conceded by moving the books to the adult section, instead of removing them all together. We see clearly how the average Singaporean now has the power and ability to galvanise the authorities to make policy changes that reflect their beliefs and interests. In this “Save my Library” campaign, Singaporeans have made it clear that there is no place for discrimination against alternative families and the LGBT communities, and in doing so prodded Singapore to advance as a more tolerant and accepting society. Through political discourse, Singaporeans can have their concerns and beliefs heard. As this conversation shifts a monologue to a dialogue, individuals can now make a positive change in society through providing feedback and suggestions.
Individuals can also bring about positive change to society by raising awareness of and highlighting various social issues to advance these causes. Many causes and campaigns spring from one individual with a strong conviction, before becoming an amalgamation of like-minded individuals. The Pink Dot movement began as a small event started by a few activists in 2009 before growing into a huge movement with close to 30,000 participants just ten years later. What started off as a small-scale effort by individuals to promote the acceptance of the LGBT community has today become a nationwide conversation and discussion on where Singaporeans stand on homosexuality and how we should move on from here. The issue of homosexuality is no doubt a critical one as Singapore matures as a civilised society, and the Pink Dot movement, as a bottom-up initiative, has served to highlight this issue and bring what was previously a taboo topic into mainstream discussion. The Sim Lim Square incident in 2014, where a mobile retail store Mobile Air drew flak for scamming a Vietnamese foreign worker, also demonstrates how individuals can play a part to enact change. The controversy was started when the worker was filmed by a Singaporean crying and begging the retailers for a refund, and has since generated a wider discussion about the sordid state of regulations against unethical Sim Lim Square retailers. The incident has prompted consumer watchdog CASE to relook measures and step up efforts in eradicating malpractices by errant shop owners. Another individual started a crowd-funding campaign separately to raise money to help the foreign worker and was successful in gathering widespread support for the worker. This incident highlights how Singaporeans can and have been making positive changes in our society through simple acts and efforts that have snowballed to raise awareness and generate discussion and change.
Additionally, individuals can also make positive changes in society through social activism to help vulnerable communities and make Singapore a kinder and more compassionate society. The Ground Up Initiative, for instance, was started by Tay Lai Hock in 2002, and seeks to promote the ‘kampung spirit’ of neighbourliness in tandem with sustainable living. It is admittedly breaking ground and entering the consciousness of educators and students in Singapore, even as the country seems to relentlessly hurtle away from its past, into the future. Through social activism, a single individual can engender positive change in society by impacting the lives of others through small but genuine efforts. Another example is that of The Hidden Good, a movement started by two youths several years back which has also drawn much attention for its attempts to enact change. Through its series of social experiments and online podcasts, the Hidden Good aims to highlight the inherent and latent kindness in each and every Singaporean and make Singapore a more compassionate society. Through these various efforts, many individuals have in their own ways started a spark to fuel. While individual efforts may seem insignificant in a seemingly idealistic cause, it is all these ground-up efforts that have successfully reached out to the disenfranchised and underprivileged who may have been left behind.
However, skeptics may argue that it is highly improbable for an individual alone to make a significant impact in our society, given how risk-averse and conservative we are. They purport that individuals cannot make a significant positive impact on society as the status quo is simply stacked too highly against them and that the authorities hold too much sway over the civil sphere. Some may point to the “Save My CPF” campaign, for which blogger Roy Ngerng was sued for defamation for voicing his opposition an unhappiness about the national savings scheme, citing how the bureaucracy and political system are still resistant to change and alternative voices system are still disregarded. In a climate where the government remains conservative and powerful, and the system is entrenched in tradition, the individual seems powerless to be able to do much to change society. Yet, as Singapore moves into a more mature and developed society, this belief is increasingly outdated. While it is true that the government is still conservative and maintains strict control over many issues, there are now many more opportunities for an individual to bring about change, through discourse and activism. As Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat has said in recent times, the government will move towards a more collaborative, co-creative leadership model under the fourth generation of leadership. Even if we have some way to go before we can become a truly open country that is receptive to change, the truth is that individuals today can already make a change in society in small but effective ways.
An individual alone has the power to bring about positive change in society by setting in motion a domino effect that will eventually have far-reaching impact. Through political and social activism, we see how many Singaporeans have come forward to do their part for society by triggering greater awareness and discussion or simply by touching the lives of those they help. As Singapore moves into the future, it is important for Singaporeans to be more participative and engaged in bringing about change in society. Even if an individual effort seems insignificant in the larger scheme of things, it is many of those tiny but important efforts that will move Singapore society into a more developed, civilised, mature and kind one.