Human Rights: Every Singaporean Matters

Posted by Vernon Lee under Public Forums on 10 March 2000

Think Centre to take lead for Singapore's human rights initiative.

Human rights. That was the focus of the latest forum held by the Think Centre on 10 March 2000.

The question of whether "Every Singaporean Matter(s)" and whether time was ripe for a human rights commission to be set up in Singapore was at the hearts and minds of almost everyone of the 150 people who attended this forum.

Four speakers from a variety of backgrounds presented their views in this forum, chaired by James Gomez. They were Professor Val Winslow from the National University of Singapore; Ms Khoo Heng Kheow, President of Aware; Mr Sinapan Samydorai from the Asia Human Rights Commission and Dr Chee Soon Juan, Secretary General of the Singapore Democratic Party.

Each of the speakers brought to the audiences' attention that there was a lot of work to be done regarding human rights in Singapore. Basically, the idea of human rights not only needs to be concentrated upon by the government, but effort from the citizens is also needed. Singaporeans should not be afraid to discuss human rights. There was mention about the concept of "self-censorship" in Singapore and how many Singaporeans consciously or unconsciously "restrict" their own actions or the actions of others who dare to discuss the topic of human rights in Singapore.

Professor Winslow's opinion was that the time was right for a legitimate discussion of human rights in Singapore. His presentation gave insights into the possible lack of human rights in Singapore. Firstly, Singapore is run according to Asian values, which highlights community interest above self-interest. Secondly, an essential element of a well-ordered state is an adherence to the rule of law set out by the government. However, it is recommended that these two elements could focus more on perceptions of human rights rather than the law upon which it was based. The crux of Professor Winslow's presentation was that Singapore is now an economically secure country as most of the previous priorities of the government during the phase when Singapore was a developing nation have been settled. Thus, more concentrate should be placed on human rights issues by the government.

Ms Khoo presented on the topic of women's rights in Singapore and showed that there were some pressing changes that needed to be made to the existing constitution. Women were still being discriminated against, through discrete omissions in various organisations. Notably, some of the examples highlighted by Ms Khoo included examples of citizenship rights of overseas born children, quota on female medical students, hospitalisation cost of civil servants and income tax relief.

Mr Samydorai's humorous presentation kept the audience in perpetual laughter, which was a welcome change to the serious nature adopted by the previous speakers. The main focus of Mr Samydorai's speech was that the government should encourage citizens to participate in politics and create a positive avenue for this participation. How this can be achieved is though educating the people about human rights issues. He mentioned that there is still a sense of fear (of reprisal) among Singaporeans when asked to speak out about issues such as human rights. With this sense of fear present in every Singaporean, it would be difficult to encourage active participation in the governance of Singapore.

Dr Chee's much anticipated presentation was a surprise to many due to the dark picture he painted about the possibility of setting up a human rights commission in Singapore. Most in the audience would have hoped to hear how Dr Chee would recommend the setting up of such a committee, but what the audience got was a bleak glimpse of the future of human rights in Singapore. Reading between the lines, Dr Chee's speech highlighted the fact that until the government was willing to take a major step in changing its stand on some laws such as the ISA and freedom of speech, association and press, it would be impossible to have a human rights commission in Singapore in the near future. However, Dr Chee did mention that he was still hopeful that such a commission could be established and was willing to participate in discussions about it.

So how did I feel after this forum? I went home with some hope that a human rights commission would be set up in Singapore. When this will be done, I do not know. I sense that lot of work will need to be done and contributions from every Singaporean will be necessary.

But there was enough reactions from the audience to suggest that was interest in moving the process forward.Men, women and young person had their bit to say. It is a good sign that the Think Centre had indicated that the next step was to examine the feasibility of establishing such a commission and that it will take the lead in this intiative. I remain hopeful that one day the commission will materialise and as the Singapore 21 ideology states, every Singaporean will indeed matter.

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