Civil society kicks off ASEAN Charter involvement (belatedly)

Posted by under Public Forums on 5 September 2007

25 August 2007, the Singapore Working Group for ASEAN organized an indoor forum on the theme "ASEAN Charter - What's in it for you & me?".

The usually quiet civil society in island-state of Singapore kicked off its ASEAN Charter engagement after much protracted silence. On Sat 25 August, more than 50 activists, academics, commentators, politicians and students gathered at the Singapore Council of Women Organisations (SCWO) seminar room for a forum-consultation on the theme "ASEAN Charter - What's in it for you & me?".

With an eye on the soon-to-be-concluded ASEAN Charter, the session attempted to explore the public role of civil society organisations (CSOs) in economic, social and cultural development in the new scheme of things come November 2007.

After introductions by moderator Russell Heng, TWC2, the venerable Ron Chandran Dudley, Disabled People Assoc (DPA) shared how he got involved in Disabled People's International as people-centred movement across borders. He also spoke candidly on how he engaged the government to start DPA and how far it has come of age today. In ending, he said his wish for the Charter to be inclusive of disabled people rights in areas of economic and social justice.

Sinapan Samydorai, Think Centre (TC) then gave a presentation on the Charter's origins, its uncanny elitist agenda and how ordinary people were not involved in its drafting. He said that while the rich and influential economic class interests were looked into, the Charter failed to address who else would benefit as economic high growth from ASEAN free trade area did not alleviate poverty.

He wondered how an ASEAN magna carta could emerge through Singapore's 3Cs approach to chairing ASEAN - working together on Challenges, building a closer ASEAN Community, leading the agenda-building for the Charter. To be truly people-centred, he argued for a social model of the Charter with minimum wage laws, basic levels of social standards, respect for labour rights, free movement of people across borders.

Alvin Tan, Necessary Stage shared on inter-cultural theatrical collaboration in the region since 2000s. Such plays explored social issues on ethnic identities, narratives of cultural diversity and involved countries like Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia. For the Charter, he hoped for an arts coordinating body to be formed so that cross cultural collaboration and research grants were possible to raise awareness of asean's art and culture among people and cultural capacity building.

HOME's Jolovan Wham next shared about their work in Singapore and the region even though ASEAN was slow to protect workers' rights. He stressed the importance of common social suppport system and political will to help migrant workers in member countries, especially on health (Aids problem) and social justice (human trafficking). Civil society thus had a key role in assisting migrant workers in member countries and advocate their rights. Ultimately the Charter ought to address migrant workers issues as a whole within ASEAN.

Prominent social commentator Leong Sze Hian took centrestage next and presented rising statistics on S'pore's CPF, housing, transport fees, healthcare, education costs. He suggested that if widening income gaps in developed economies like S'pore, Malaysia, Phillippines had human rights abuse issues, what of the less developed ASEAN economies? To him, the Charter had to address this issue of unequal wealth distribution, with key input from civil society.

During floor time, moderator Alex Au, People Like Us, raised the point that we risked losing focus on the contents of the Charter by worrying about long term issues of ASEAN integration and empathy for fellow members. Senior citizen Koh Seow Tee asked if we were in any position to lobby for a people-centred Charter inspite of all the economic gloss painted by the government.

In reply, Samydorai shared about the roles and input by Eminent People's Group (EPG)and the High-level task force (HLTF) for the Charter development. While EPG accepted input from the Solidarity for Asian Peoples' Advocacy [SAPA] Working Group on ASEAN, HLTF was not open to civil society consultation.

To this end, Bangkok-based Forum-Asia penned an open letter to the HLTF to appeal for preview of the Charter contents. Copies of the letter were shared with the participants. Think Centre had been a longstanding affiliate of Forum-Asia, a network body coordinating Asian civil society activism in human rights and development.

The familiar figure of Dr Chee Soon Juan rose to urge everyone to go out to the masses to solicit support for this Charter. He advocated for civil society to push our government to consult the public on the Charter and not left to work independently in the lead-up to November.

Ms Braema Mathi, AWARE/TWC2, cautioned that any civil society initiative can only happen with sound understanding of the issues at hand and pointed out the lack of time left to give our input on the Charter. To her, the urgent issue was how to increase representation and visibility of civil society championing a people-centred Charter. She shared that there were 2 ways for wider participation - either we got together as a committee of individuals in their private capacities or as a committee of individual organisations.

Samydorai echoed Braema's call and invited everyone to to join the Singapore working group's upcoming meeting in September. While anyone, including opposition politicians were welcomed to join, he declared that any agenda and all decisions made would be collective in nature.

On this spirited note, the forum-consulation on the ASEAN Charter came to a close with several outstanding deliverables - how will civil society make its muted voices heard, what form of lobbying would be effective at this concluding stage of the Charter, where would civil society stand come November 2007 at the official signing of the Charter? Ironically in this city of possibilities, an inclusive society we call home.

Sources and Relevant Links:

Singapore Working Group for ASEAN The Draft ASEAN Charter: Is it people-centred? 26 August 2007

Singapore Working Group for ASEAN Draft ASEAN Charter must be distributed to the people 25 August 2007

Singapore Working Group for ASEAN ASEAN Civil Society Conference


Forum Asia 40th Anniversary Highlights the Need to Set ASEAN on a New Path 09 August 2007

Forum Asia ASEAN: Need for Greater Civil Society Involvement 09 August 2007

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