Passionate. That was the only word that best describes the Think Centre's latest forum. Titled 'Every Singaporean Matters' the forum focused the development and scope for human rights in the island.
With a broad array of speakers from different backgrounds and disciplines, the forum signalled for public education of human rights and more interestingly an establishment of a study committee to explore the feasibility of a human rights commission or a judicial ombudsman to safeguard fundamental liberties of Singaporeans.
Professor Val Winslow of the National University of Singapore, Ms Khoo Heng Kheow, President of Aware, Mr Sinapan Samydorai of the Asia Human Rights Commission and Dr Chee Soon Juan, Secretary General of the Singapore Democratic Party were the keynote speakers of the forum. James Gomez, the centre's point man, in usual savvy style, chaired the forum.
Definitions of human rights are vast and most of the time controversial. However, all the speakers did not focus on abstract notions or theoretical frameworks; they all went into the heart of the matter of making human rights 'Every Singaporean Matters'. Even though the different speakers began from different premises, they all agreed that "it is time" to openly discuss human rights in Singapore. "All governmental and non-governmental organisations should come together to map a plan for a successful implementation of human rights in this country", according to Mr Samydorai. The sentiment of the 150 strong crowd at the end of the forum was to support a local human rights institutional framework.
In this sense, the potential initiatives can tap into the recommendations of the 1966 Wee Chong Jin Constitutional Commission which called for legislation to protect fundamental liberties and also to check executive authority. As Prof. Winslow calmly stated, then the government of the day had other 'pressing priorities'. Now with an economically vibrant state the underpinnings of nationhood can be built upon our own ideas of human rights. The university professor was also not far off the mark when he claimed that the trends of international politics are forcing states to negotiate a balance between security and human rights.
Ms Khoo's thorough presentation on the nature of patriarchal legislation in Singapore showed both her personal knowledge and experience of women's' rights. Her methodical style illuminated some of the inconsistencies and contradictions in our system and she went on to show that there needs to be some serious legislative changes and public education initiatives if there is to be any changes. She also said that AWARE was closely monitoring the workings of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission to learn hot to enact positive legislation. This is an interesting development because it would mean that there is an ongoing momentum for other local NGO to make plans for more human rights legislation.
Mr Samydorai's, the third speaker, approached the subject of human rights with humour. Entertaining, informative and with a tendency to draw laugther from the audience he managed to sketch out concrete plans for a potential human rights programme and institution in Singapore. (For a detailed assessment of Mr Samydorai's recommendations please view the full text of his speech in this website.) These were useful recommendations primarily because of his experience with the Asian Human Rights Commission and they must be astutely analysed.
Dr Chee Soon Juan painted a pessimistic and hopeless future for human rights in Singapore and surprised everybody. Whether it was a tactic to capture the headlines or simply to embody that he was 'beyond human rights' remained unclear. However, Dr Chee has been a steadfast fighter for human rights and was jailed for attempting to speak without a licence. His scathing criticisms of the PAP's tactics provided some measure of evidence of why he believed a human rights programme in Singapore will be futile. On the other hand, he remained hopeful and was willing to participate in any discussions pertaining to an establishment of a committee to set up a human rights commission.
The question and answer sessions covered a wide scope from political apathy right up to a comparative study of human rights. However, the most interesting question was posted when one of the members of the audience asked whether having Dr Chee on the human rights study committee would be a liability. It was a valid question especially when Dr Chee himself alleges that there is a media black out on him. However, Dr Chee retorted that he would be willing to sit on any committee if invited and hoped that those pushing for the initiative would not consider him a liability. Yet it is a sad state of affairs that sometimes-noble issues cannot be sought because of domestic power politics.
The passion of this forum ended with a firm commitment that the next step would be to do a feasibility study on opening up a human rights commission. The Think Centre is already working on the Public Entertainments Act and this can be incorporated into the study committee for a Human Rights response for Singapore. This could be a turning point for civil society and all non-governmental organisations in Singapore. The opportunities are limitless and heading towards this uncharted waters is indeed exciting. Are we going to make history or is history going to prove that Singapore is not worth the effort?
Whatever it is James Gomez personifies the Singaporean of the 21st Century when he says " I am prepared to throw myself into uncharted waters for the benefit of Singapore because Every Singaporean Matters. What about you." Well that is the spirit of S21, isn't it?