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21-year-old Nur Aina Bte Sapari has got the lay of the land when it comes to civil society in Singapore. Her introduction to the idea of “empowerment” as opposed to “helping” individuals came in a presentation conducted by Beyond Social Services back in her polytechnic days. Later, she became exposed to the advocacy work of AWARE Singapore, which taught her the importance of melding ground-up research with policy work and services provided to the community. And currently, she is a member and one of the co-coordinators of Community for Advocacy and Political Education (CAPE), a student-led organisation in Yale NUS that is trying to improve political literacy amongst Singapore youths.

Advocacy work appeals to Aina, as it is focused on achieving systemic change. Past experience working on the ground, doing research or working directly with different communities, she became keenly aware of the limitations of rendering short-term assistance, when it was systemic failures that were creating the inequalities.

“It’s not on us, it’s not just on the citizens to solve these problems. If there was systemic change, we wouldn’t have to do this work,” she says. “I just think that temporary solutions have to be backed by a long-term strategy.”

It was through AWARE that the young advocate became exposed to the inner workings of the civil society space. She found the relationship between groups and the state interesting, as there was a specific strategy of “working with you to better the situation”. There was a “constant tension between wanting to push for something now and pushing for something later”, she says.

She appreciates the need for advocates to be pragmatic in their approach.

“You need to know how you want to frame it. You need to know how you want to appeal to the masses, especially, to invite people to the conversation,” says Aina. “Yes, humans have emotions. You feel towards the issues, you have certain agendas, you want to see a certain type of change. The nature of that change doesn’t differ for any of the stakeholders. At the end of the day, you just want to have a better society.”

The end goal for Aina is the betterment of society for future generations, one with a more robust and inviting political space that is not governed by fear. She hopes to inspire more young people to join her, and to tell them that it’s not about being “super woke” or about having all the knowledge.

“That’s why I wanted to put my title as someone who’s learning. Because I am not an expert. And I don’t think I will ever be an expert,” she says. “I think if I just continue to do my part and try to make Singapore a better place for someone who comes after me, I think that, in itself, is already a very good thing.”

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