Thursday, July 31, 2003

at luncheon today with a bunch of high powered suits from the city, i was struck with a sudden question: where are the civil institutions in our city? of course, the easy answer is that we've never had any and probably won't have any significant ones for a very long time because our government seems to not believe in civil society and public discourse. but the hard answer is another question: are we afraid to produce them, or are we so complacent in our belief in the PAP that we don't even want them to exist to ask hard questions?

the speaker at lunch today was someone from the Local Economic and Environment Development Council, which looks into zoning and development of planned manufacturing districts and transportation networks and that kind of thing for the areas under its care. the speaker enthusiastically introduced us to a bunch of schemes that his council was pushing through -initiatives, they're called =) - with the City Council to improve things in their purview; in particular this caught my attention: he was thrilled that they had managed to not only save 450 jobs on Goose Island but through their efforts increased employment on Goose Island by 250 jobs. and it struck me that he was thrilled about total 700 jobs. that's a really small number for someone looking at the big picture -- chicago has a HUGE population. but for the people who live and work in the areas that the LEED council concerns itself with, 700 jobs IS a big deal. and then it struck me that it's really something exciting to see people so concerned with the intimate details of the city in which they live -- which inevitably led me to think about singapore once again.

civil society is really all abt organisations like the LEED council: institutions that are not commercial, nor governmental; institutions that are concerned with specific areas of social life and are willing to put in time and effort and energy to analysing problems and figuring out solutions. institutions that participate actively in public discourse and public government, though they are not officially part of the governmental structure. they serve as checks and balances for local and national government; they serve as a wellspring of ideas from outside the bureaucracy -of course, they have a bureaucracy of their own, but it's much smaller-; they serve as a means to serve on a more concrete, intimate way than being lost in the huge government superstructure, esp here in the US where government is truly a behemoth act.

so why don't we have civil institutions at home? sure, the government has never encouraged their existence; in fact they've never even encouraged public discourse. but it's disturbing that civil institutions haven't arisen, damn the torpedoes. ok sure, some things exist, like local RCCs and that kind of thing to take care of social life, but political life and economic development have no such checks and balances to ensure that what's happening on a national level is acceptable to us on a local, personal level. there is no channel of communication between the government and the people that is effective, neutral [-ish], and most importantly, open.

the other thing abt their absence is -- is this absence an indication of apathy on our part? do we not actively demand a say in our own future? after all, civil institutions are one way of ensuring that what is happening to us is acceptable to us; in singapore they may be the ONLY way that we can ensure that the future is acceptable to us. their nonexistence seems to imply that we have truly given up our futures, our entire lives, to the keeping of a sovereign that we have no influence on, that seems to believe that it constantly knows what's best for us without ever asking us first, and won't listen to us when we want to tell it something that is important to us. we don't care that we are not heard, that we have no voice. and that's terrifying.

that said, i still don't know what to do about the lack of civil society in singapore. part of me wants to shrug and throw up my hands and say 'whatever, man'; part of me --the state-flag-carrying part of me-- is trying frantically to come up with a solution that doesn't involve the complete overhaul of the education system -and- the destruction of an entire generation; the rest of me is asking if this is really that important. frankly, i have no idea.

on a completely different note i now have a name tag that reads 'Jeanette Kwek, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago'. tomorrow i get my picture ID for the Bank. how cool is that.


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