Notes from CommaCon’s Advocacy Workshop

I’m referring to this advocacy workshop, called Rebel with a Cause, by CommaCon. It was a group of short talks by many different people.

REACH can be a good place to start to feedback to the government, along with writing in to newspapers and ministers themselves.

First speech

The Local Rebel

How to make an impact:

Assemble a team and volunteer, think tanks, groups etc

Work with the oppressed people to get them to fight for themselves. Say, “This will affect you, so you gotta do it yourself too.”

Meet + Write to MPs

Can also do boycotting, e.g. boycott meat products. Write in, call in to executives too.

Ethical investing.

Advocating: one who speaks on behalf of another person.

Need to collaborate with the group you’re helping. Balance between you and the group’s efforts. Don’t speak over the group you want to help. Say, “How can we support you?”

Avoid activist burnout: find a community + remember your goal.

2nd Speech

How are you an activist? Why are you doing what you’re doing, and who are you doing it for? No straight way. Need to carve our own path.

The different stakeholders involved:

Cheerleaders vs allies: Allies give u resources eg contacts, $$ (that’d be sponsors)

Community: the people who are actually doing the thing.

Other communities: they help you with other parts of the problem. A part of your network.

Activism is an industry too. E.g. ppl who help the activists rest, sell things to the activists. So it’s a complex situation.

And, what is the root cause of the problem anyway? And how do we solve that root cause?

How to resolve conflict between activists: agree that we’re going to the same goal. So it’s the how that’s wrong, but not the why. See people as potential collaborators, how they can work together. Or, perhaps agree to disagree and see which result is better

3rd Speech


Matrix of change: two axes. Formal vs informal; indiv vs systemic

So systemic + informal = cultural norms etc

Systemic, formal: laws

Indiv + informal: personal beliefs

Indiv, formal: giving resources etc access to resources. Legal info


  1. Know what the problem is. What do you want to change? Current situation vs future, ideal situation. Problems are complicated, so focus on a smaller area first. E.g. for AWARE, focus on just changing one clause. Like right now, rape in marriage isn’t rape. Ideal: rape in marriage is also rape. Have a very clear goal.
  2. Check out current laws, policies.
  3. Research – what’s happening now?

Why is the problem happening? Who caused the problem, and why did they cause this problem? Is it better for them? E.g. let’s say a culture has been throwing babies into a river. It may seem wrong to drown babies, but to stop throwing babies into the water may not be the best solution. Instead, we stop throwing babies into the water dangerously. So instead of banning throwing babies into the water, tell the people upstream who are throwing babies into the water how to do it safely.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.

Use existing systems to your advantage. E.g. talk to MPs and talk to MPs and talk to MPs. Make it go to the maximum extent so that you get more mileage out of it. E.g. know how parliament works, then use it to the best of your advantage. Basically be resourceful and use whatever you can. Use the processes that are already there.

How are laws passed? How are policy decisions made? How come real estate agents can still say things like “no Indians/PRCs”? Find out, then you can see leverage points you can work on.

How to work with Govt: just send them the stuff you have. E.g. if you come up with housing reports – email HDB and say, “By the way, we have this housing report you might be interested in.” Just communicate with them.

Also, can work with the common ground y’all have.

Talk to the public about what you’re doing. Use media to talk to the public. This way, even if the Govt disapproves, the public is still supportive since they have their own idea of what you’re doing.

What’s good advocacy?

  • Human stories. Statistics tend to make people shut down
    • Show statistics via stories of individuals who are an example of the statistic, instead of just saying stats.

4th Speech

Trimming the Banyan Tree: is the govt doing too much?

*effective change: get to know higher up people, then convince them to change their own organisation. Talk to MPs, too! They wanna know what you think.

Talking to the government: You know, there’s this idea I have, I think it might help.

(talk about it calmly, etc.)

We found that it worked for these people. How can we push it forward?

Q: How to get info from government?

A: Do some own research first. Talk to people. Say, “I’ve done 200 surveys, and these are the results we have. The results are concerning, and I’m trying to create a solution. Is there a way we can collaborate and address this?”

Crash course on law

*You need to know which law you want to change.
The levels (highest to lowest):

  1. The constitution (Basis. Hardest to change.)
  2. Statutes (Acts. eg. Companies Act, Misuse of Drugs Act)

Can be:

  1. Made in Singapore
    1. Eg Obligation to pay for parents
  2. Imported
    1. Eg Laws on companies etc
  3. Inherited
    1. British Colony laws (from UK) such as the Penal Code
  4. Subsidiary Legislation (eg the law says, pay income tax. But how much and how and when do you pay them? Who collects? That’s under subsidiary legislation.)
    1. Doesn’t get passed through MPs etc. stat boards and ministries are the ones deciding these.
  5. Directions, circulars, by-laws (not binding on everyone. Indicator of how a particular agency may act)

How are laws made? (For statutes)

Parliament: Table a Bill (draft of a law), Debate (on the law, whether it is good), Vote.

If Bill is passed, then it becomes law. Usually ministers do this law e.g. home affairs do the criminal laws.

How to change the law?

  1. What’s the policy decision behind this?
    1. Eg Penal Code – policy was made many years ago in a different context. But what’s the aim of the law?
    2. Sedition laws – came after the riots (so that people don’t start fights again)
  2. Understand Trade-offs
    1. Financial etc – who pays for enforcing the law and how?
    2. How to get facilities? Resources (to build stuff), employment­ etc

Explain to them how you’re gonna manage the trade offs with the new laws you wanna put in.

  1. Who are the:
    1. Decision makers?
    2. Stakeholders?
    3. Advocates?

Find out who is already working on these things, then leverage. Find out why the law is like this, then see how you can work with it.

  1. Draft the laws.

You need to plot the practical steps, too. Both with government and with the law.

Q: What does a white paper do, and what does a constitutional commission do?

A: White paper: just a group of people who thought about an issue. But it’s almost always accepted. Credentials and subject matter expertise is needed to get invited to write the paper. White paper gives a good glimpse as to what the government is thinking. It’s a good resource! It cuts across different ministries too.

White paper is a good way to concretise policy. So that MND can say “yes we’re building so much infrastructure because white paper say population will increase”.

Identify who is gonna write the white paper, then influence the author of the white paper.

Can also issue a Statement. You don’t need official permission to say stuff. E.g. press release, write to straits times, today etc.

Also, use journalists: check out who covers which areas e.g. some ppl pay attention to education, pay attention to housing etc. then use them to help you spread the message.

How to carry out social change legally

  1. (Public Order Act) If you gather in public (or in prohibited places which is a lot of places) to protest/do stuff, you can get arrested. Go SPF website to get a permit.
  2. (Sedition Act) Can’t incite hate in people.
  3. (Defamation) If you slam and insult others and if it turns out untrue, you can be sued

How SMU student union did it: a case study

SMU wanted to raise fees by 15% and it’d affect all students. The students were unhappy about it, so they proposed an alternative which was eventually accepted.

  1. They studied increase and prepared a fair counter-proposal: lock fees upon matriculation and stagger 15% across next few batches
  2. Collect signatures from students
  3. Made respectful submissions to SMU President and Board of Trustees

Important things:

  1. Do your homework. Come up with a fair proposal that takes into account everyone’s views
  2. Relationships matter. Find the right person to engage. If this person cannot change, then find another person (go to the top guys. Don’t go to the middle guys – they tend to hem and haw.)
  3. Don’t get angry, get efficient
  4. Some will, some won’t, so what. Just keep trying!
  5. Don’t fear the press. Find the right message and stick with it. Just make sure it’s consistent.

To change policies:
Study the eco-system and engage the right people. Build relationships!

To change people:
Get organised and it’s about influence.

Don’t protest; persuade.


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