Young Democrat, Mr Charles Tan,recently completed his internship at the European Parliament inBrussels, Belgium. He was there from 29 March – 22 April 2005 under aprogramme jointly supported by the Council of Asian Liberals andDemocrats (CALD) and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats of Europe(ALDE). The SDP is a member of CALD. Below is the report of Mr Tan.
I was assigned to the Committee onEmployment and Social Affairs of the European Parliament (EP) duringmy internship. The flexibility of the program, however, allowed me tofollow other committees as well. I attended ALDE Group meetings,press conferences, public hearings and plenary session in Strasbourg.The issues raised on these meetings varied widely from human rightsconcerns including the discrimination that the ethnic minority theRomas in Europe are subjected to, torture and imprisonment ofactivists in Syria to pan-EU subjects such as working time andcontroversy on the ascension of Bulgaria and Romania to the body.
April is an exciting month in the EP.Besides the debates on the ascension of Bulgaria and Romania to EU,France and Netherlands will be holding national referendums on thenew EU constitution in the coming months. The new EU constitution hashowever been a controversial issue within the parliament as it mustbe ratified by all 25 member states and various political groupswithin the Parliament held different opinions on it.
During my stay, besides learning on therules of procedures of the Parliament and European politics, I tookthe opportunity to research on EUs position on human rights, andagreements with third countries. I talked to immediate workingcolleagues about the repressive political situation in Singapore.
I believe I gained a better, albeitperhaps limited, understanding of the workings of EP, which in myopinion, is a democratic system involving checks, balances and lotsof effort and work on the part of the committees consisting ofMembers of EP, assistants and administrators. Excruciating debatesundergoing various readings on reports gave rise to extreme attentionto details. Compromises are made at times. However, I believe this isan indication of the democratic making process in the Parliamentwhich should be cherished. This is essential, given, the EuropeanUnion is such a huge organization, and that such a process preventsit from degenerating into a bureaucratic white elephant.
Working with the ALDE as a stagiairestrengthened my belief as a liberal. This is the conviction that anindividual should be afforded maximum freedom unless the action orviews hurt others; the freedom and rights in any sphere whetherpolitical, economic or otherwise; of which comes along with personalresponsibility. More importantly, liberals practise tolerance, areadiness to accept views or actions that one disagrees ordisapproves, which is a fundamental principle in any liberaldemocracy.
Observations and Impressions
European Parliament A DemocraticInstitution with global influence
Of most interest to me are the variouscommittee, delegation meetings and hearings in which debates focusingon human rights issues and external relations with third countriestakes centre stage.
The Southeast Asia Delegation forrelations with the countries of Southeast Asia and the Association ofSoutheast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting is of most interest to me asSingapore is part of ASEAN. From the meeting, I am updated of thepolitical and human rights situation in Burma/Myanmar as well as EUASEAN relationship, which is hampered by the dictatorship regimeassuming the chair in 2006.
I also attended the Delegation forrelations with the countries of South Asia and the South AsiaAssociation for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in which H.E. SyedMaudud Ali, Ambassador of Bangladesh to the EU expressed his views onthe urgent resolutions that European Parliament passed on hiscountry.
In attending these meetings, I am awarethat the EP, sensitive to diplomatic relations with third countries,are able, some of the time, apply some form of international pressureon various nation states that are questionable in their human rightsrecords. The European Union is aware that solely focusing on economicexchange with states that seriously violates human rights, is adirect confrontation to the values of which it is based on.
Currently, human rights outside theEuropean Union are spelt out in the European Initiative for Democracyand Human Rights. EU also spells out its roles on combating deathpenalty, torture, racism, war crime, genocide, electoral observationand assistance, indigenious peoples rights, and childrens rights withthese third countries.
I believe that as the European Uniongets stronger and more unified, hopefully with the Constitutionentering into force, more can be done to alleviate or reduce thehuman rights abuses that still abounds in many parts of the worldravaged by dictatorial and authoritarian regimes, torture, poverty,corruption, war, terrorism and natural calamities.
Is there a Liberal Approach to SolvingGlobal Problems?
Liberals, unlike other politicalbeliefs in the spectrum, do not hold on to a certain fixed ideologythough they are governed by a few main principles which are: freedomof the individual and responsibility, human rights and the rule oflaw, equality of opportunities and belief in the effectiveness of themarket economy to advance development and alleviate poverty.
Because of liberalism being anon-conformist political ideology; when liberals get together todiscuss a single problem, they may turn out to possess differentopinions or solutions.
This is what I witness in theintra-liberal group meetings when MEPs debate on certain issues.
A good example is the group meetingdebating on the ascension of Romania and Bulgaria to EU during theStrasbourg sessions. Different members of parliament voiced out theirconcerns with regards to the state of affairs in both countriesdespite a majority consensus.
Suggestions for Future Interns
The internship program is an enrichingand educational experience that should be continued. I would suggestthe following for future interns and ALDE/CALD/FNF administrators ofthe programme:
. Interns prior to their arrival shouldread up on the EP from its official website:http://www.europarl.ep.ec to better understand its organizationalstructures, rules of procedures, working documents and activities.
. Prior to their arrival, the programcould perhaps require the intern submit a short written report ontheir political knowledge and background, their perception onEuropean politics, and what they hope to achieve during theinternship. This report can be used as an indicator for evaluatingthe fruitfulness of the program.
. The current system is such that anintern is assigned to following a particular committee; but thatflexibility is given such that he or she is allowed to follow othersas well. I hope the versatility of this program continues.
. Besides assigning interns tocommittees, he or she can perhaps be assigned to an MEP within thegroup. The purpose is to allow the interns to get a better grasp ofthe EP through the work of an individual MEP.
. Since the group is comprised ofvarious European nationalities, an intern could perhaps be assignedto one volunteer who has offered to be a “friendly mentor”.The mentor will be required to help the intern ease into his dailyactivities in the parliament, answer some of his or her questionsoutside the Parliament and in his or her own country. Thus, a form ofcultural and political exchange can take place.
. A short presentation or project isrequired of the intern towards the end of the program. The topic andformat of the presentation or project should be opened to thediscretion and agreement of the intern and the administration. Thepurpose of the presentation or project is to allow the intern to putto use what he or she has learnt or feels strongly about. E.g. doinga survey on the groups perception of the country of which thestagiaire came from.
. I suggest the intern keeps a dailyjournal to keep track of his or her activities which may be usefulfor writing the intern report.
Repression in Singapore
Singapore is a modern and cosmopolitancity physically sprawling with shopping malls and skyscrapers. To theuntrained eye, it is almost a paradise come true. Clean pavements,low crime rates, chewing gum ban and a heavy fine if one is caughtlittering on the streets.
The majority of the population iseducated of whom many are able to communicate in English and theirmother tongue; making the country an ideal business and travel centrewithin the region.
Yet, Singapore is not the utopia itclaims to be. It is an authoritarian state that has been governed bya one party Peoples Party Action (PAP) government since independence.While the ruling party claims that it returns to power due topopularity, the situation is however not as simple as it seems. It isresponsible for influencing, controlling and repressing variousrobust actors of the civil society and the Opposition which hasvirtually make it impossible for the citizens to change theirgovernment democratically through the ballot box.
It is a country where open dissent isfrowned upon. Repressive laws curb freedom of assembly, speech andassociation. The compliant press has been made the mouthpiece of thegovernment through the years; and the Damocles sword of the internalsecurity act and numerous lawsuits that the government has filed onits critics has cowed any form of viable opposition into submission.As such, citizens develop a sense of fear and apathy with regards topolitics.
Singapore’s political and social climateneeds the monitoring of the international community to break throughits current bleak state. This is important since the government issensitive to external pressures in which it tries to maintain closetrade relations with.
Due to my concern for the human rightsissues and rule of law in Singapore, I drafted a few parliamentaryquestions which I hope the group could use during Question Time whenthe Parliament is in session.
According to an Amnesty InternationalReport released on 15 January 2004, entitled: Singapore, The DeathPenalty: A hidden toll of executions; more than 400 prisoners havebeen hanged in Singapore since 1991, giving the small city-statepossibly the highest execution rate in the world relative to itspopulation of just over four million people. The figures include asignificant percentage of foreigners.
Most of those executed were convictedof drug trafficking which carries a mandatory death penalty. Undervarious clauses in the Misuse of Drugs Act and the Arms Offences Act,presumption of guilt is assumed upon, conflicting with the right tobe presumed innocent until proven guilty. Official information on thedeath penalty in Singapore is shrouded in secrecy. The governmentdoes not normally publish statistics about executions.
Is the Commission aware of this report?What can be done to promote abolition of the death penalty inSingapore?
Martyn See’s 26 minute documentary,Singapore Rebel, was banned in Singapore because it portrayed thestruggle of Dr Chee Soon Juan against the government. He withdrew hismovie from the Singapore International Film Festival after the Boardof Film Censors said he could be jailed for up to two years or finedS$100,000 (US$61,300; 46,400) if his film was screened.
In the upcoming 2006 InternationalMonetary Fund and World Bank board of governors annual meeting, 300foreign accredited NGOs that apply with the Singapore authorities,will be allowed to hold peaceful protests and demonstrations. Thisright to protest has and have been denied to Singaporeans andSingaporean NGOs. Six protestors were prevented by the police from apeaceful protest when they demonstrated outside the American embassyagainst the Iraq War. Veteran Singapore opposition politician J.B.Jeyaretnam application for an anti-casino march this year wassimilarly rejected. The Singapore government is intent on curtailingpolitical expression; and deprive its citizens of their basic civilrights.
In light of European Union commitmenton human rights with third countries, in this case, Singapore, whatcan the Commision do to ensure the Singapore government respects thehuman, civil rights of its citizens? What can the Commision do toensure that the government does not curtail political expression?
Shanmugan S/O Murugesu, a Singaporean,is sentenced to death penalty after he was arrested in possession of6 packets of cannabis, analysed by Health Sciences Authority tocontain 1029.8 gram of cannabis and 880.89 gram of cannabis mixture.He was tried before the High Court from the 19th to the 22nd Apriland was convicted with the sentence. His appeal was heard on26/10/2004 and dismissed. With all avenues of appeal exhausted, hislast resort is to submit his pea of clemency to the President ofSingapore.
Shamugan is forced to deal with drugsdue to poverty. He is a divorcee looking after his two sons, nieces,nephew and an ageing, sickly mother. He has served in the SingaporeArmed Forces for 8 years, in Singapore Sports Council for another 4and represented the country in national sporting events. Severalprior cases with larger amount of cannabis, had their sentencesreduced to non capital offences. He will be hanged at the end of thismonth if he does not receive a pardon.
Is the Commission aware of hissituation? What can the Commission do to influence the President ofSingapore to grant him clemency?
Remisier Boon Suan Ban is remanded atthe Institute of Mental Health (IMH) at Presidents pleasure forharassing the Chief Justice. Mr Robert Ho was also arrested anddetained at the Institute of Mental Health. He had been distributingflyers on 27 February 2005 about the elections system in Singapore.His computer was also confiscated. A few years earlier, he was alsoarrested by the police and investigated for criminal defamation forposting an article about Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter-in-law, Mdm HoChing. His computer equipment was confiscated and never returned tohim. He was only released when he agreed to stop posting articles onthe Internet. These cases invariably asked pertinent questions on therule of law in Singapore.
In light of European Union commitmenton human rights with third countries, in this case, Singapore, whatcan the the Commission do to ensure that justice be done for the twomen? What can the Commision do to ensure that such cases will notrepeat itself? What can the Commision do to influence the Singaporegovernment to respect the human and civil rights of its citizens?