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The rise and fall of civil society in Singapore, 1819-2001

Gillis, Elizabeth K. (2001) The rise and fall of civil society in Singapore, 1819-2001. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Through an analysis of the development of social organisations in Singapore since 1819, this thesis investigates the ebb and flow of associational activity through both the colonial and post-Independence periods in order to establish its nature and form and determinants thereof. This will be done using a four part structure that provides a framework for such analysis. The structure distinguishes between associational life, rudimentary civil society, conditional civil society and comprehensive civil society.

Although considerable work has been done on the analysis of contemporary civil society in Singapore, the thesis is the first dedicated historical study of civil society in Singapore. It adopts an understanding of civil society that accords with post-Marxist definitions of civil society that argue that organisations need to play a political role in order to be considered as part of civil society. This contrasts with a more inclusive liberal notion of civil society emphasising the range and extent of social organisations constituting civil society, including those outside either the formal or informal political spheres.

The post-Marxist definition of civil society chosen as a basis for the discussion contains many elements. Primarily, though, it requires the presence of a range of voluntary, autonomous organisations that have the capacity to promote their interests through political means within a competitive political sphere. The pivotal dimension for the emergence of civil society is the presence of a competitive political sphere. It is often the crucial missing element that prevents a comprehensive civil society from emerging.

The study reveals that a rudimentary civil society had developed by the introduction of colonial rule in 1867. Between 1819 and 1867, the merchants used a selection of formal and informal methods to influence public policy. Although many of the key elements of a comprehensive civil society were missing, this rudimentary form of civil society was both vigorous and effective. This effective form of civil society continued to grow and develop into the colonial period because the associations continued to actively pursue their interests through whatever means were possible, and their participation in public policy debate was both tolerated and encouraged by the colonial regime. Although a range of well organised associations emerged, the absence of a competitive formal political sphere meant that associational activity was limited. In the absence of such a sphere, the colonial regime was able to disempower organisations that threatened British power in the region. Associational activity represented a conditional civil society throughout the remainder of the pre-war period, and it ebbed and flowed in response to British internal and external policies.

Driven by the forces of nationalism, an active conditional civil society re-emerged at the end of the Japanese Occupation. In the immediate postwar period, the British made a serious commitment to self-government for Singapore. In line with that commitment, the first postwar constitution represented a significant step towards self government. The new constitution created a political environment that provided extensive opportunities for political competition, and the conditional form of civil society entered a transition period towards a comprehensive civil society. This transformation was halted by the introduction of the Emergency Regulations in 1948. However, by 1955, the rapid approach of self-government and the introduction of a new constitution created a political sphere that was competitive. This stimulated the formation of a range of political parties that pursued the interests of their constituents, and a comprehensive civil society emerged.

By 1975, the ruling PAP party had emasculated the vigorous associations that it had inherited from the British and had created a dominant one party state. Associational activities were directed through government controlled grassroots organisations and the once powerful trade unions and student groups were co-opted by the state. Between 1960-1985, organised communal activity had no political role and represented associational life. In 1985, independent interest groups began to re-emerge as a result of massive social and economic change. Although the political sphere became slightly more competitive after 1981 due to the presence of opposition representatives in Parliament and some political accommodation of the growing middle class, it remains restricted. In the absence of this key dimension, contemporary civil society takes a conditional form, and the regime is free to disempower any organisations that it perceives as a threat.

This thesis will argue that civil society can exist in many forms. These forms accommodate to varying degrees the ideal definition adopted here. The factors that help explain what forms predominate include the strength and determination of the associations' leaders to pursue their interests, external factors such as the growth of nationalism, and the level of social, political and economic needs to be addressed. Most importantly, the nature and role of the state has played an important part, and state power was used to both promote and obstruct civil society. In particular, the level of tolerance and accommodation towards organisational activity shown by the state has proved to be a major explanatory variable for the emergence of a comprehensive civil society.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Division of Business, Information Technology and Law
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Rodan, Garry
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