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At a forum held at the Allson Hotel yesterday, a group of Singaporeans came together to push for human rights in Singapore.
Motivated partly by the recent announcement that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) would include a mechanism to look into human rights issues in its charter to be signed later this year, the forum participants decided to form a group that would facilitate the development of human rights in this country.
Moderator Mr Alex Au, writer and gay rights activist, kicked off the session by explaining how ASEAN had agreed to include a segment in its charter that promised to respect the rights of its peoples. This came about after years of engagement with civil societies within and outside of ASEAN.
But in Singapore, as Mr Au noted, there was little activity. He pointed out that Singapore lagged behind our “less-developed” neighbours when it came to the issue of human rights.
“We seem to be the dullards of the class,” he said. “Of the five founding members of ASEAN (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore), Singapore is the only state that doesn’t have a human rights commission.”
Even the Cambodian civil society has established a working group to get its government to establish a human rights commission.
He then called on the first speaker, Mr J B Jeyaretnam, to address the audience which had swelled to about 80 (The Today newspaper reported that the number was 50. A headcount of the photo will show the newspaper lying yet again). Mr Jeyaretnam spoke about the “complete disregard” of human rights in Singapore where people can be arrested and imprisoned under the Internal Security Act and the Criminal Law Temporary Provisions without the Executive having to prove its case in a court of law.
The opposition leader said that “it was time” that Singaporeans came forward to campaign for a body that would protect the rights of the people.
Forum convenor, Mr M Ravi, spoke about the regional effort spearheaded by Forum-Asia, a human rights NGO based in Bangkok, to form “Task Force” groups in the various ASEAN countries.
He urged those present to sign up to form the Singaporean Task Force, which would coordinate with their ASEAN counterparts to push for an effective regional human rights body. More than 40 did.
Social worker Mr Jolovan Wham spoke of the need the public to recognize that human rights was part and parcel of social work. Dealing with disenfranchised segments of society such as the homeless and migrant workers, Mr Wham said that the need for human rights in such circles was natural and understandable.
Mr Isrizal, an independent researcher in the arts community spoke next. He encouraged the arts community not to shy away from standing up for human rights and quoted the late playwright and author Kuo Pao Kun who was detained under the ISA from 1976-1980:
“I’m very concerned of this country as a working artist that we have yet to effectively pry open and make valid a cultural space, a space that has its own rights and laws of operation…The great Chinese write Lu Xun said that progressive politics and progressive art very often seem to be fellow travelers, partners in struggle. But once that political movement assumes power, their paths begin to part because it is the nature of every political movement or party to hold on (to) power and perpetuate its role; and it is in the nature of art to always pursue truth, even to the extent of incurring the hostility of the ruling powers.”
Dr Chee Soon Juan then spoke of the need for political and civil rights to address some of the issues that the people are unhappy with such as the proposed compulsory purchase of annuity by Singaporeans.
Without human rights, he pointed out, the people are not able to hold the Government accountable. He said that while other peoples are actively campaigning for human rights for their countries, it was the duty and responsibility of Singaporeans to do the same for Singapore.
It was pointed out in the course of the ensuing discussion period that there were several upcoming conferences and forums being planned in Singapore that would provide Singaporean human rights defenders more opportunity to raise awareness and advance human rights in this country.
Among them are the ASEAN Civil Society Conference that would be held from 1-3 Nov 2007 that would bring together ASEAN civil society groups to discuss human rights vis-à-vis the ASEAN Charter to be signed in mid-November.
Financial consultant, Mr Leong Sze Hian, also informed those present about a similar conference to be held from 27-28 Oct 2007. However, this event, understood to be organised by the state-sponsored Singapore Institute for International Affairs, may only be open to selected individuals.
Dr Chee also informed the audience of the upcoming conference of the International Bar Association and its related events (click here) and encouraged Singaporeans to be actively involved in these activities.
“I have always advocated that the Singaporean public must consulted and given every opportunity to participate in events that affect their lives,” he said.