Singapore-EU FTA: Trade over rights again?

Bryan Lim

Bryan Lim (right) chairing a session of the conference in the EP.

Trade and democracy came up for discussion during the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)-Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD) Summit held in Brussels, Belgium from 4-8 June 2012.

The theme of the conference was Trade: From Patronage to Partnership was hosted by ALDE, the third largest political grouping in the European Parliament (EP). $CUT$

As SDP’s representative, I was paying particular interest on the progress of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Singapore and the European Union (EU).

The FTA includes social clauses which advocates the promotion of human rights, democracy, rule of law, sustainable development and good governance. 

These elements are absent in Singapore and the EU is very much aware of this fact. In fact, Sir Graham Watson, President of the European Liberal and Democratic Reform (ELDR), the largest component party of ALDE, told me that he has mentioned Singapore’s deplorable political landscape several times in the EP and that the ALDE will continue to monitor the political situation here.

I chaired one of the sessions of the conference in the EP titled Sustainable Development Clauses In Trade Agreements: Effective Against Possible Threats To Democracy? The argument between trade and human rights re-surfaced during the discussion.

Should trade have priority of the establishment of political freedoms especially in a non-democratic country? Should FTAs ignore human rights abuse by governments signing the agreements? Are the two – trade and democracy – mutually exclusive subjects?

The  speech made by CALD’s Chairman and Cambodia’s opposition leader-in-exile, the Honorable Sam Rainsy, in the closing session of conference was particularly insightful:

Trade does not only involve the flow of goods, services, capital, labour and technology but also the exchange of information and ideals. The stronger sovereignty should help its weaker counterpart reach an economic and political equilibrium eventually.

We have witnessed how the likes of Portugal and Ireland have attained this equilibrium with assistance from the likes of the UK and Germany.

We hope our European friends can help CALD members achieve similar results as trade not only helps to develop the human spirit, it can also help to defend democratic values and freedom which we endear.

In the FTA negotiations, I learnt that the PAP government would not agree to the clauses calling for the political rights and civil liberties of citizens to be respected. This is tragic because it is political freedom that will allow Singaporean workers to fight for minimum wage, Singaporeans First policy, affordable housing and healthcare, and other bread-and-butter issues.

It will also spur the growth of the entrepreuneurial class in Singapore which will drive our economic growth in the future and reduce our over-reliance in MNCs and GLCs. Our political rights and our economic well-being cannot be separated. They are inextricably intertwined.  

At the moment all the PAP is doing is to bring in foreigners to keep wages down. This has affected productivity in the country and caused income inequality to rise. It is not a sustainable solution.

Apart from the discussion, three events caught my attention. First, while the ALDE group was hosting the CALD delegation, other political groups in the EP such as the Greens and European Free Alliance group and the Socialists and Democrats group were also organizing events of a similar nature, freely and openly promoting their ideologies.

In contrast, opposition parties in Singapore are constantly harassed by the PAP. The Jurong Town Council’s blocking of our Block Party at Yuhua last month is a case in point. What struck me was the political immaturity of the PAP compared to the EU.

Given a tour of the European Parliament

Second, I saw many youths in the Parliamentrium – the museum of the EU. They were not only introduced to the history leading to the formation of the world’s largest geographical and political alliance but, more importantly, also given a lesson on the differing political ideologies of the seven political groupings in the EP. 

This is unlike Singapore where the textbooks tell students a twisted version of our political history and the state media dishes out government propaganda and censors oppsition news.

Third, despite the differences in their political ideologies, the seven political groupings share something in common – they continue to uphold and promote human rights and democracy, regardless of whether they belong to the political Left, Centre or Right. 

The same cannot be said of Singapore. We are ranked 81 out of 167 countries on the 2011 Democracy Index. Even the likes of Lesotho, Mongolia and Namibia garner a better score than us!

The SDP continues to champion democracy and human rights because in themselves, these universal values are beneficial to Singapore and her people. But just as important: It is open debate, transparency and accountability – practices that come when human rights are respected – that will help our economic well-being. 

Bryan Lim is a member of the SDP’s Central Executive Committee and Head of the Ground Operations Unit.

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