Educating Singaporeans human rights the non-formal way

May 5, 2010
Singapore Democrats

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Teoh Tian Jing

European Parliament

Two weeks ago I had the honour of attending a study session in Strasbourg, France, organised by the International Federation of Liberal Youth (IFLRY) and hosted by the Council of Europe’s European Youth Centre. The theme was
Non-Formal and Human Rights Education as Tools for Organisational Management.

Half of the participants were unable to make it due to the volcano eruption in Iceland disrupting air travel. I was lucky to make it, however, and had the valuable opportunity to share and learn from young and politially active liberals from across the world.

We hit the ground running. After the obligatory round of formal introductions we were assigned to our first activity – Photo Hunt – where we had to go around the quaint town of Strasbourg to capture scenes symbolic of a human rights or non-formal education theme.

Non-formal education is a non-traditional, non-lecture based method of learning through outdoor activities, games, group projects and debates. Non-formal education allows the subject to discover and learn on the topic through indirect teaching. This encourages a critical thinking process which is harder to achieve in lecture based education.

The Photo Hunt was based on this concept and was most apt because Strasbourg is where the European Human Rights Court, European Parliament and the Council of Europe headquarters sit. The Council of Europe comprises of 47 member states and one of its main roles is to uphold and promote democracy, rule of law and human rights in member states.

During the seven-day workshop the participants were able to share their organisations’ best practices and party campaigning materials.

There was even a cultural night where participants brought their dance, song and food from their respective countries. I brought a fruit from our sunny tropic which none of the international participants had tasted before.

 EU Human Rights Court

We visited the European Human Rights Court where they handled human rights violation cases in Europe. As an activist, I shared with the study group on the different degrees of human rights violations in Singapore. I also got to learn about the human rights situation in other pseudo-democratic states such as Belarus, Moldova and Egypt.

The political situation in these countries are similar to ours in many ways, with the media being the very first tool that authoritarian governments rein in.

The second similar aspect is that authoritarian governments will tell the peoples that different societies will require a different set of political system and that the democratic system needs to be modified to suit each country’s system.

Doesn’t this sound familiar? The PAP Government uses the same line to justify its near-totalitarian control over Singaporeans.

I mentioned that in Singapore, racial and religious issues cannot be discussed due to the fear of racial disharmony that might lead to disorder. But one of the participants shared that Canada, being one of the most multiracial societies in the world (even more so than Singapore), maintains peace in the country by first of all being open and democratic about racial issues!

During the session various topics of discussion were touched on, such as the ways to subvert state controlled media, election process, finding solutions to human rights issues, abortion, women and gender rights. These discussions are important in that they let youths to take ownership of their environment and their own society.

One of the things that struck me during the study session was the level of human development in Europe. I believe that the level of development is possible only if society is free and there is a emphasis on personal, political freedom and human rights education. Human rights is the basis of membership in the European Union, and countries with human rights violation are denied membership in the EU.

For example the death penalty has been abolished in all EU states and those looking to get into EU have to build itself a clean slate in human rights issues before they are considered for entry.

The second half of the study session emphasised on implementing non-formal methods and human rights education in our respective mother organisations. Participants had a chance to conduct their own non-formal education cirriculum based on a subject they chose and present it to the class. There, we had a free hand on creative ideas and activities we could do.

Outdoor discussion session

In its essence, the non-formal method can be compared to basic democratic principles. It encourages everyone to express their views whatever they may be. The open discussion also paved way for solutions to be thought up on the fly. This open discussion is what is so lacking in the Singapore context be it in schools, media or politics.

Another aspect of the study session I found appealing is a half-hour daily session where participants shared their views on the cirriculum and the way the session was conducted. The criticism and commendations were made almost instantaneously. In the Singapore context, it couldn’t be more different as feedback from people are seldom taken with much weight.

Non-formal education is a way of learning that can benefit youths and adults alike, because it engages the subject and makes learning for youths a fun process, even if the topic is dry and mundane. That is not to say that traditional education methods are less important, but non-formal education can most certainly be used to complement existing teaching methods to foster creativity and thinking capacity of students in Singapore.

Non-formal educational methods will also encourage youths to form their own opinions, and break away from the manufactured and robotic mindset that is the result of state indoctrination and one-way information flow.

As for my own organisation, there are plenty of opportunities to implement non-formal education in the activities of the Young Democrats which I will try to facilitate.




Tian Jing is a Council Member of the Young Democrats. He is also a political and human rights activist.