TOC report: Public forum on ASEAN Human Rights Working Group

By Andrew Loh and Choo Zheng Xi

The modest sized Victoria Room at Allson Hotel was packed to overfilling with 90 people who were there to attend the public forum on the establishment of a Singapore Human Rights Working Group. It was chaired by well-known blogger and gay activist Alex Au (Yawning Bread).

The speakers were JB Jeyaretnam, lawyer and politician, Dr Chee Soon Juan, secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party, M Ravi, a human rights lawyer, Jolovan Wham, social worker, Isrizal, arts community representative and Alex Au.

“Time to get our act together”

Mr Au opened the forum by familiarizing participants with the parlance relating to the human rights mechanism. He started by explaining the differences between a Human Rights Commission (a body formally constituted by law) and an informal Human Rights Working Group.

Noting how far behind our neighbours we are, he told the audience that to date, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have Human Rights Commissions, and these four countries plus Cambodia have Human Rights Working Groups in place. Singapore has neither.

Mr Au said that it “was time we in Singapore got our act together”. It was embarrassing for Singaporean activists to meet with their ASEAN counterparts and be asked why Singapore doesn’t have such a commission or working group, he added.

Human Rights and Singapore

Mr Jeyaretnam reiterated Mr Au’s point of the state of human rights in Singapore. “The trouble in Singapore is that we are not allowed to exercise our human rights. While other countries have proceeded not only to recognize but to establish mechanisms for the affordment of human rights, Singapore basically ignored human rights”, he said.

Mr Jeyaretnam also called on the government to ratify the United Nations’ covenants on these rights. “Once they’re ratified, then they’re bound to enact legislation in Singapore to enforce those human rights. But that hasn’t happened.”

What he termed “basic and fundamental rights” of liberty and freedom of expression, of assembly were also addressed by Mr Jeyaretnam. “Why can’t we Singaporeans claim these rights which have been declared to be inalienable rights?”

Questioning why the forum would want to focus on mechanisms to enforce rights “when we don’t have rights in the first place”, Mr Jeyaretnam said that instead the focus should be on securing these basic rights for Singaporeans first. “It’s time that Singaporeans are accorded the same rights as human beings in other countries. Because without those rights, we are less than human beings. And that is a real shame for Singapore.”

Mr Jeyaretnam expressed his hope that there will be enough interest among Singaporeans to kickstart, as he put it, a movement, a campaign to secure these basic rights.

Ending his speech, he called for the establishment of a Court of Human Rights in ASEAN, similar to the one in Europe. “That is essential, as I see it”, he said.

Concerns about transparency of the ASEAN Charter

Human rights lawyer M Ravi noted that the process through which the Human Rights mechanism was proposed was itself not very transparent.

Taking a realistic view of the motivations behind ASEAN proposing this mechanism, Mr Ravi said, “I do see some hope in the human rights development in Singapore not because Singaporeans suddenly got interested in this issue, but because the region is moving very fast as a result of the pressure the US-ASEAN Summit brought.” The ASEAN charter will be finalized and officially endorsed this November.

Mr Ravi also said that the Europeans are putting pressure on ASEAN and countries in ASEAN have taken an “enlightened path” with regards to the issue. Human, political and civil rights need not be sacrificed at the altar of economic rights, he argued. “They are two sides of the same coin… Human rights development is also part of economic development.”

The human rights mechanism, which will be a part of the ASEAN Charter, has created some dissatisfaction “on the ground” among civil society activists in the region.

Mr Ravi said that it was a question of transparency:

“This human rights mechanism will be placed in the Charter. Subsequent to that, there will be a formation of a Human Rights body. How it’s going to work, the terms of reference, have not been worked out… This ASEAN Charter, which is supposed to be people-centered, is not even transparent. The Charter itself, the final mechanism and wording, are only going to be released to the public on the day of the signing itself. So we’re very concerned.”

Mr Ravi explained that the activists are concerned about how the final Charter will be presented and signed on the 17th of November this year, because the process through which it will be derived is alienating everyone else except the “high-powered” task forces and inter-governments’ “eminent persons groups”.

Thus, he called for the Charter, which he described as “the people’s constitution”, to be released earlier for public scrutiny and consultation and not only one day before or on the day of the signing itself.

Mr Ravi told the audience that The Think Centre and him will be the focal point in Singapore. He also revealed that there will be an ASEAN Civil Society Conference in Singapore on the 1st to 3rd of November and urged Singaporeans to attend it.

Community perspectives

Social worker Jolovan Wham spoke on his experiences working with a local migrant worker shelter. He highlighted how social workers have a unique hands-on perspective to offer policymakers, and hence are in the best position to advocate change.

Mr Wham shared his experiences sitting down with Ministry of Manpower officials and giving them feedback on how their policies affected foreign workers on the ground. He said: “Advocacy does not always need to be done in a confrontational manner, although there are stakeholders in the process with opposing interests who will feel threatened by the work you do.”

Relating his experiences to the Human Rights Mechanism, he said: “The broader framework of rights awareness is important so social workers don’t end up firefighting’.

Isrizal, an arts researcher, opened his speech with a telling comparison of how far Singapore still has to go in recognizing human rights in relation to civil society. He highlighted the recent peaceful marches in the military dictatorship of Burma, as a stark contrast to the Singaporean police’s turning down the Substation’s request for a permit to hold a civil society fair.

To laughter from the audience he dryly noted: “Burma boleh (can). Singapore tak boleh (cannot)”.

He then used this as the starting point to talk about the work of arts community activists inspired by the work of Substation founder and one time political prisoner Kuo Pao Kun.

The Singapore context

Last to address the audience was Dr Chee Soon Juan. “By the way, if you guys desire a good haircut, I highly recommend this barber shop in Queenstown”, he quipped, drawing laughter from the audience. He was referring to the Queenstown Remand Prison where he was recently held.

Bringing the discussion back to the broader Singapore context, Dr Chee said, “The one thing which I think is missing is that a lot of us are not able to connect between human rights and what it means to us, in an everyday sense.”

Dr Chee cited the issue of the compulsory annuity scheme as an example of how these rights would apply to a current issue which Singaporeans would be most concerned about.

“Even as we talk about it, what can you do about it? The government says, the government does. Where are you in this equation? And we have absolutely no say. Why? Because we have absolutely no human rights.”

The most important ingredient: you

Dr Chee said he was nonetheless encouraged by recent events in Singapore, where ordinary citizens were asserting their rights. These included those who went on a “pink picnic” at the Botanic Gardens, the brown t-shirt protest in support of Mr Brown, and the September 4th “black protest” at Centrepoint.

“Out of nowhere, people are coming forth. These are our rights. We need to assert those rights, we need to exercise those rights.”

“This whole idea of being involved, at the national level, where we come together … and form up, however loosely, … let us come together and say ‘I will put in my time, I will put in my effort.”

“If we want to go on a people-centred human rights model, we cannot leave out the most important ingredient and that is you.”

The few people who were spearheading the movement in Singapore for human rights should not be left to assume all the responsibility, he added.

“All of us should pull our own weight… tell them that you want to be included, that you want to be actively involved.”

A question and answer session followed the speeches, where the discussion focused on how to set up the Singapore Working Group. Mr Au was strict in limiting questions to this and cut off a few members of the audience who diverted into unrelated issues.

Read also: “Interim Singapore Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism” by The Think Centre.

TOC will be publishing details of the various upcoming public forums planned with regards to the establishment of the ASEAN Human Rights Commission.


Below is a short video clip of Mr JB Jeyaretnam’s closing remarks.



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