By Teo Soh Lung
Yesterday was Human Rights Day, 10 Dec 2014. Kailash Satyarthi, a children’s right advocate for decades and Malala Yousafsai received the Nobel Peace Prize.
In every country, there are people who thrive to improve society. They see poverty, injustice or unsatisfactory conditions in the country and take it upon themselves to improve the situation within their limits. It could be children who because of poverty or discrimination were unable to receive an education or workers who are exploited by their employers. These people try to do what they can to alleviate the hardship and improve the society they live in.
In India, Kailash Satyarthi alarmed by the poverty and lack of opportunity for children to education, took it upon himself to improve the situation. He worked for decades, campaigning for children’s right to education. In Pakistan, the quest for education for girls, led Malala Yousafzai to brave her life in order to be educated. Both faced severe setbacks, suffering serious injuries at the hands of opponents who preferred to maintain an unjust system rather than see improvements in the society they live in. Both were rewarded when they received the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday.
How a society treat its weaker members, regardless of race, religion or nationality is one indication of the kind of society we are. If we ignore the plight of those less fortunate than us and carry on building our wealth at their expense, the society that we will become will be one that is self-centred and mean. We become dehumanised and go about our daily lives blind to others who do not share our wealth and status. We become an uncaring society.
In the early 1980s, and I am sure in every past decade, there were also Singaporeans who like Kailash tried to improve the social condition in Singapore. Young Singaporeans in the early 1980s attempted to improve the society they live in. They gathered together in a space provided by the Catholic Church, located at Lorong 19 and subsequently at Lorong 24A Geylang. That space, buzzing with activities was the Geylang Catholic Centre. Volunteers conducted English classes, planned activities for children and migrant workers, attended to injured foreign workers who could not receive compensation because their work permits were cancelled by their employers, assisted foreign domestic workers who were owed wages or who were ill-treated by their employers, helped former drug addicts and other ex-offenders. They spend a huge part of their time doing all these work without a salary.
Strangely, like the work of Kailash and Malala, the valuable work of the Geylang Catholic Centre was not appreciated. As in the case of Kailash and Malala, the government did not attempt to protect them form zealots in their midst. But unlike India and Pakistan, in Singapore, it was the government that was the obstacle to progress. It felt threatened for suddenly, they were told that certain policies were unfair and unjust. Take for instance, the simple case of unpaid salaries. It was easy for employers to cancel the work permits of the workers and send them home. The Ministry of Labour at that time did not bother to attend to such claims and it was much easier to let the employers send the workers home penniless. And so it was a matter of a few years that the centre was shut down and the volunteers arrested under the ISA.
Watching Malala and Kailash gave their speeches last night, I was thinking if it was ever possible for a Singaporean to win a Nobel Peace Prize or any awards of sorts for work local or overseas, such as work by Dr Ang Swee Chai. If the government sees itself as the sole authority that controls society and all its activities, it will never allow spontaneous volunteerism. Or if there was anything spontaneous, it will step in to “guide” its activities. It will want to ensure that every organisation is controlled. I see this happening today –the yearly funding of organisations, the government’s presence in all kinds of pro bono work, the co-opting of young people who have proven themselves to be good organisers into the PAP fold etc
As Singaporeans, we need to think hard about the kind of society we want to be. Do we want to agree with the government all the time, or do we want to sit back and ponder if there is something not quite right and take it upon ourselves to improve the situation. Do we need to look at the region around us. Is there a possibility of the people in the region getting together and making an effort to unite rather than to depend on governments to divide us.