Activism and Idealism

Last month, Mr Louis Ng, Member of Parliament and Founder of Animal Concerns Research & Education Society (ACRES), spoke to Tembusians as part of the Disrupted by Conflict series. Denise Goh and Isaac Neo reflect on the insights they gleaned from the session.

“Politics should be about activism,” said MP Louis Ng. That sentence immediately set down a marker that his approach to politics would be a markedly different one. Government is usually seen as a separate sphere from civil society, and their interaction dictates our political discourse, but Mr Ng appeared to straddle both spheres. He recounted his background in activism as the founder of Animal Concerns Research & Education Society (ACRES), a charity that focus on animal conservation, and how he decided to shift from a more confrontational stance to a more cooperative stance with the government to achieve more of his aims as the government still had a very top-down approach in making decisions.

As Mr Ng went on to recount countless stories of his grassroots activities, community projects, Parliament speeches, and interactions with government ministries, it struck us that this was a brilliant move on both sides. Mr Ng described how, as a MP, he was able to be more involved in ministry consultations and was able to effect real change by directly posing Parliamentary Questions to the relevant ministries in Parliament. For the PAP, they gained a MP who was active on the ground and had many connections in civil society, hence, they would be able to be more consultative (or give the impression of being so) of public opinion to various policies.

What we appreciated was Mr Ng’s honesty – he recounted how he was upfront with party leaders before contesting the elections that he would be the “same Louis as before”. What did he mean by that? “I am still stubborn, idealistic and optimistic,” he said candidly. In a political climate where idealism may increasingly come across as unrealistic, naive, or even insincere, his honest admission was a little startling. In fact, given the amount of social issues he tackles, it’s almost surprising that he still holds onto his optimism. The work is never easy, and it’s not difficult to imagine that someone can become disillusioned over time by slow progress or lack of change.

Yet, Mr Ng holds onto a particularly infectious brand of idealism that undercuts common skepticism. The force of his idealism was surprising. For one, it doesn’t ring hollow, because he grounds it on years of experience. Before he joined politics, he chose to devote his time and energy to ACRES since 2001, even if that meant greatly cutting back on the family finances when he was starting up the charity. His then family of three lived on his salary alone, and he shared with us that he knows a little of what it’s like to live on less. He’s had some taste of the sacrifices one has to make to advocate for change. So, it’s not inexperience that spurs his idealism.

He’s also seen the sobering realities on the ground. He told us about how he visited the Rohingya refugees and heard their stories and their struggles. In the coming monsoon season, many refugee lives will be lost when floods sweep over the camps in Bangladesh. “And there’s nothing we can do about it,” he stated matter-of-factly. Without citizenship, they are essentially without political rights. The situation looks bleak.

That a person’s idealism can survive despite discouraging situations seems rare. Perhaps Mr Ng does this by harbouring a realistic acceptance of the situation. When speaking about his attempts to create change in small ways, he said frankly, “I might fail, but at least I tried.” We noticed that what underpins his idealism is a curious blend of realism and optimism – as he said himself, “I’m only one, but at least I am one more.” Before one can attempt to improve things, one first has to accept one’s finitude, one’s limits. But yet there is something powerful in this. Once we acknowledge our constraints, we will have a more accurate assessment of what we can really do to help, and we make up our minds that we are willing to try, even if we may not succeed. In some respects, maybe it takes courage, vulnerability, and an openness to failure, to be truly idealistic. When faced with criticism, Mr Ng chooses to see it as part of the process. “It is important to take flak in order to move forward.”

It’s an important mindset to have, especially when citizens ask him why he is spending time and energy on people who aren’t Singaporeans – the Rohingya refugees, for example. Mr Ng ruptures these simple binaries of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, targeting the usual refrain: “They are not my citizens, why look after them?” He spoke passionately on how we as Singaporeans need to strengthen not just our community but also the heart of this nation. Instead of seeing life through the economic lens of opportunity cost, where the benefits of helping refugees is pitted against the benefits of helping our citizens, we should actively work towards both.

You can’t argue that he doesn’t walk the talk himself – he urged people to volunteer more, and mentioned how he started volunteer projects without government funding so that people would not think it was government-linked – a commendable stance in Singapore, when even grassroots activities are politicised.[i] He mentioned how he followed up on his visit to a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh by filing Parliamentary Questions about how Singapore intended to help with the crisis, to which he got an official reply from the Minister of Foreign Affairs that they would be supplying aid, and he even launched Project Hearts to Hands himself to support the Rohingya refugees.

Given how many areas of service Mr Ng is involved in, one gets just a small glimpse of how many pressing needs there are in our (global) society. This might make volunteering seem like a daunting prospect. But Mr Ng reminds us that doesn’t mean we as individuals have to do it all perfectly, or get it right all the time when we serve. “Sometimes I get people asking me, you’re in ACRES, can you do something for the sharks? You do something for the sharks, and they ask, can you do something for the captive animals? After you work on that too, they ask, are you vegetarian because of animal cruelty? You say yes, I’m vegetarian, and even my shoes are made from non–animal products,” said Mr Ng, smiling. “It never ends. There’s a misconception that you must be a saint in order to serve, but anyone can serve in their own ways.”


[i] Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh and Donald Low, Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, p.206


Header image from Project Hearts to Hands Facebook page.

About the authors

A Year 4 Political Science major, Denise accidentally stumbled onto her inner traveler while living through the beautiful Danish summer. In her free time, she writes fiction for her own amusement, takes naps, and thinks about the world at large.

Isaac is a Year 3 FASS student majoring in Political Science. He wants to explore and understand the world, but is content with just surviving in university for now. He can be found browsing only the dankest memes.