ASEAN and human rights – moving Singapore away from old-world thinking

thinkcentre featureBy Howard Lee

Mr Soe Min Than and Mr Ted Tan, both members of human rights group Think Centre, were among the few representing Singapore’s civil society organisations (CSOs) at the recently held ASEAN People’s Forum (APF) in KL, Malaysia.

Think Centre, which also co-hosted the Singapore leg of the APF in 2007, was involved in two workshops this year – “Increasing Awareness on Labour and Migrant worker Rights in ASEAN”, and “Death Penalty in Southeast Asia: Towards a Regional Abolition” – which they co-organised with other CSOs in the region.

Both Mr Soe and Mr Tan were active members in the regional working committees supporting the role of the Malaysian national organising committee.

TOC caught up with Mr Soe on some of the key issue they brought up at the forum, the progress of humans rights issues in Singapore and the ASEAN region, and where they hope Singapore can move on from the forum.

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What were the pressing issues in Singapore you raised at the forum? What was on Think Centre’s wish list?

Addressing migrant labour issues and the issue of the death penalty.

TC hopes that after 10 years, ASEAN will formally recognise the ACSC/APF and allow for regular and meaningful engagement between CSOs and the governments. Without formal recognition, any attempt at engagement by the people’s forum will fail – as has been the case all along.

The latest example to this being the interface session between CSO representatives and ASEAN leaders at the ASEAN Summit, which allowed a mere 15 minutes of talk time, and ASEAN governments had no consensus to allow CSO representatives to be independently chosen by those CSOs involved in the APF.

APF 2015 logoASEAN as a group has not generally been very strong on human rights issues. How far do you think the Forum can go to improve this?

The Malaysian organisers have tried to get around the problem of getting ASEAN governments to listen to issues of their people by changing the format this year. For the first time, a number of government ministers and parliamentarians were invited to participate as speakers or panellists in town hall style meetings which gave CSO participants a chance to ask tough questions directly.

It is a rather novel approach and it is hoped that this encourages civil society to be more open minded, moving away from preconceptions and blind tradition within our processes in trying to engage ASEAN.

How does Singapore fare in human rights compared to other countries in the region, given that countries like Myanmar are now gradually opening up?

Singapore’s human rights record is not as egregious as a number of our neighbours. This is due to the government’s success in marketing Singapore’s economic success to the world that is based on a certain mode of governing for the past 50 over years. This success in marketing Singapore makes it easier to mask conditions that are not conducive to the respect, promotion and protection of human rights.

One example is press freedom. According to the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, Singapore ranks at 153 – worse than 7 other ASEAN member states including Myanmar. The best among them was Thailand at 134. But do also note that none of them are seen as exemplary according to the index.

Comparison is a good gauge of where we may stand, but to tackle the causes of these restrictions and violations of human rights, we need to bring the issues into wider discussion by the public – a role that is usually fulfilled by the media. Apathy usually only exists when the people are not-well informed, and the issues are unfamiliar to them.

Another area to examine is the death penalty and the right to life. Some argue that the death penalty is a deterrent for the most serious crimes. If deterrence was a serious policy strategy, why do we not have active campaigns on drug use or the dangers of violent behaviour compared to campaigns we see on smoking? Does it truly reflect our value of human life? Why do we not hear of foreign policy to have joint effort with other countries which educates their citizens of the danger of capital punishment in drug trafficking or dangers of carrying unknown packages for others? Without political will to implement these simple campaigns, even more useful long term campaigns that directly help communities to become resilient to drug abuse will never see the light of day.

5732823356_death_penalty_xlargeMuhammad bin Kadar, who was executed a week earlier in Singapore, was a known drug user and he had committed murder while robbing his neighbours to fuel his addiction. His case highlights the danger of thinking that the mere existence of the death penalty is a talisman to ward off serious crimes.

In perspective, without adequate investigation of related social issues, we are allowing someone’s parent, child, sibling, relative, friend or neighbour to end up in the plight of having to face the noose. If there is dangerous cliff, we should and must warn those in our community and even visitors unfamiliar to the area, put up railings so that chances of people falling off is greatly reduced.

Mere announcements on planes of drug trafficking charges carrying the death sentence speaks ill of our sense of responsibility. We are just waiting for people to fall off that cliff.

Not everything can be condoned for the benefit of the many, especially the right to life, and many countries like Singapore do not even make its use seem like a last resort. We are still stuck in the same line of primitive thinking and flawed reasoning, that for the benefit of society we need to continue condemning men and women to death. Whether it is an unknown like Muhammad bin Kadar or the widely covered ones like the Bali Nine, the practice of the death penalty is an affront to human dignity.

Does ASEAN as a group have the ability to push for change, or will it still be very much each country for itself?

I think it is best answered with the words of Former Malaysian Foreign Minister, Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar, when he addressed the APF, “We cannot allow our region to be bogged down with problems that are prolonged or intensified by the blanket application of non-interference.”  In our view, there is definitely some potential for ASEAN to level up to be a more effective regional organisation that can effect change from within but without the involvement of the people, it will be very difficult.

If this notorious policy is not reviewed, few changes will continue at the current pace and any dreams of an ASEAN economic community will be unrealistic or flawed in its implementation. The policy will continue to be used to sweep away any issue each country wants to ignore or kept hidden.

We have recently encountered some incidents, such as the abuse of foreign workers, the curtailment of free speech, and some recent developments on the death penalty. How do you think these human rights issues will affect our standing in the ASEAN region?

ASEAN in its current form does not influence each other from the perspective of human rights. On one end it is related to the non-interference policy and no ASEAN government has proposed that to be reviewed. On the other, if Singapore or any other county that faces these issues do not address them from the lens of human rights, it has cross-cutting implications on our value for human decency and equality, whether it involves our own citizens or that of our neighbours.

workersIn Singapore’s case it may affect our Trade with blocs like the EU that looks for partners that respect fundamental human rights, including the right to life. Other implications include the sustainability of labour policies. How sustainable is it for our economy if Singapore keeps looking for the cheapest sources of labour with few or no regard to international labour standards? With such policies, we would find ourselves overwhelmed in working to fit in migrant labour coming from even more different cultures compounding the difficulty we already have with being a good employer nation to the ones we already take in.

Abuse of foreign workers raises the question of how employers generally see workers. We must recognise the danger of an employment culture which discriminates and dehumanises the worker. Although the most serious abuses are borne by the low wage foreigners, has there been investigation into why that is so? What makes employers feel so bold to perpetrate these abuses? Is it capacity in enforcement by relevant authorities? Is it the issue of mind-set of employers that we need to tackle? Do we do enough to emphasise the humanness, the value our workforce holds, be it local or foreign, beyond productivity figures? These questions all have implications for all workers here and thorough investigation and study is warranted.

The current problems are a direct indication of the lack of understanding of the principles of human rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We should ask why there is not greater interest in human rights education within our society. Do we not value greater understanding and mutual respect among peoples? And do we not aspire to higher levels of human development and capabilities beyond what we have already achieved in Singapore?