At Asean, Singapore choosing to be anti-human rights

“The guy from Singapore is the one who would raise his voice and is really showing his opposition to include SOGI,” came a report from an LGBT group in Manila. SOGI stands for ‘sexual orientation and gender identity’. The report was referring to a previous civil society consultation exercise held by the Asean Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (Aichr) as it proceeded with its work of drafting an Asean Declaration on Human Rights. Civil society groups were pressing for inclusion of equality for gay, lesbian and transgender people within the scope of human rights.

Few Singaporeans would even know about this consultation exercise. Our media, both mainstream and otherwise, pay it next to no attention. This blackout certainly suits our government’s aims for Asean when it comes to the matter of human rights. Whatever Asean produces is not intended for domestic applicability; it is intended as a figleaf to fool the rest of the world into thinking that we’re doing something about human rights while abuses carry on unhindered. The figleaf purpose requires Asean and Aichr to say something that resembles a commitment to human rights. However, to preserve the government’s freedom to abuse human rights, it has to be toothless and better yet, hidden away from citizens. No one will hold our government to account if no one knows about it.

Aichr consultation September 2012

At the latest consultation exercise held 12 September 2012 in Manila, a report I received was that Aichr representatives (one each) from Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei  had been given directives by their respective governments to oppose any mention of SOGI in the Asean Human Rights Declaration. Representatives from Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia were “very” supportive of inclusion. The Indonesian representative even voiced his view that SOGI be stated at least once in the declaration.

Malaysia’s Aichr representative, Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, was reported to have said, “I cannot use my personal decision since together with Brunei and Singapore, we have strict instructions from the government to oppose LGBT rights inclusion in the declaration,” suggesting that his personal views conflicted with the instructions from his government.

From the floor, comprising various civil society groups, a member of a Malaysian Muslim Youth Group — believed to have been invited to the consultation by the Malaysian government — declared his opposition: “Even if we agree that LGBT persons should not be discriminated against, they are abnormals and should not be in the declaration and should be deleted…..”

Ging Cristobal, an LGBT activist from the Philippines, rebutted his statement and again recommended the inclusion.

The Malaysian Youth Group guy then replied, again declaring his strong opposition and asking for its deletion.

Ging then rose to say that an attitude like his is clearly what inequality and discrimination looks like —  maligning LGBT persons by claiming we are “abnormals” and by denying our rightful space in the declaration.

But for Singaporeans, the more pertinent question is: Why does Singapore wish to be associated with such backward views?

Singapore government loves to be backward and enjoys shooting itself in the foot

Remember how a few years ago when the United Nations General Assembly was debating a motion on the abolition of the death penalty and Singapore chose to lead the pro-death camp? We were soundly defeated in the vote. In fact, we are ourselves now crawling in retreat, recently removing the mandatory penalty for small-time drug traffickers and cutting some slack to judges on the matter. It’s like championing the flat earth theory only to discover, oops, the world is round after all.

Something is very wrong with the way we formulate our foreign policy positions. Our government comes across as crazed defenders of archaic views abroad without even seeming to know that domestically, Singaporeans themselves have evolving attitudes. How are Singaporeans best served by this kind of governmental incompetence?

The pretence that is Aichr

Coming back to Aichr, its very set-up reflects badly on Singapore and our neighbours. Its powers are extremely limited. More accurately, it is not a commission at all but a pretence at being a commission.

To understand what I mean, it will be helpful to take a comparative look at what the Organization of American States (OAS) has. There is both a human rights commission and a court of human rights. The commission, to go by its Spanish name Comisión Interamericana de los Derechos Humanos (CIDH), has these responsibilities, among others:

  • Receives, analyzes, and investigates individual petitions alleging violations of specific human rights protected by the American Convention on Human Rights.
  • Works to resolve petitions in a collaborative way that is amiable to both parties.
  • Monitors the general human rights situation in the OAS’s member states and, when necessary, prepares and publishes country-specific human rights reports.
  • Conducts on-site visits to examine members’ general human rights situation or to investigate specific cases.
  • Refers cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and litigates those same cases before the Court.
  • Asks the Inter-American Court to provide advisory opinions on matters relating to the interpretation of the Convention or other related instruments.

Source: Wikipedia accessed 14 Sept 2012, emphases mine.

In other words, the commission receives petitions from individuals, investigates them and either tries to resolve them with the government concerned or brings the perpetrator of human rights abuses (which may be a government) to court .

For more information about the court, see this article in Wikipedia

In order for the commission to act effectively, CIDH commissioners — there are seven in all — act in their personal capacity, applying their best judgement to cases brought to their attention. They are elected by the OAS General Assembly and do not represent their countries of origin.

Already you can see how castrated the Asean so-called equivalent is. Aichr commissioners have to act on the instructions of their governments, even when the biggest abusers of human rights are in many cases, governments themselves. Worse yet, by adopting  “consensus” as a method of decision making, Aichr is close to meaningless. Moreover, without a court to issue binding rulings, any “suggestions” by Aichr might as well be as good as toilet paper.

Unlike the terms of reference of the CIDH, which can receive complaints about human rights abuses directly from individuals, Asean specifically requires citizens to route their complaints via national human rights bodies. Not only does this create a way for governments to filter out abuses that they wish to cover up, Singapore has not even bothered to set up a national human rights body.

Even the current civil society consultation exercise leaves much to be desired. Which civil society group gets entry is carefully chosen. Nor is there a draft circulated for discussion — a fact that Forum-Asia criticised strongly in a booklet issued earlier this year [see addendum].  Aichr, almost surely acting on the demands of some governments jealous to guard their power, is keeping the process as opaque as possible.

This is not to say that the American set-up is working wonderfully. Enforcing human rights is still an uphill task though it has its share of successes. For example, earlier this year, it ordered the reversal of a Chilean move to separate a lesbian mother from her children. The more important thing to note is that if despite a stronger set-up in the Americas, it is still an uphill task to obtain protection of human rights, what hope is there for Asean?

Why our government is not acting in Singapore’s best interest

The larger point of this essay is this: the Singapore government is, as usual, being very short-sighted about Asean. It wants to keep Asean as merely an inter-governmental talk-shop, producing figleaves to hide its naked abuses of power. This is the only way to explain Singapore’s approach to Asean.

Yet Singapore’s  long-term interest is probably best served by a vibrant, integrated Asean. This however, cannot be achieved by governments alone. The citizens of various Asean countries must feel that they are together as one, across a multiplicity of dimensions — social, economic and legal, etc. It takes an infinite number of individual decisions to trade and invest in each other, and to care about social problems in each other’s countries, thus pooling economic and social resources. Not only will that produce a dynamic economic region, a rising consciousness among individuals of their quasi-citizenship in Asean will serve as a social and political bulwark against foreign meddling. Then, no single government in Asean can stray far from the interests of Asean, to serve, for example, the interest of China or India. The people of that country, e.g. Cambodia or Burma, feeling themselves as belonging to Asean, will not allow it.

To get there, Asean governments need to let the people take ownership of Asean. We must cure the democratic deficit that stunts the region. To keep Asean on a short-leash as merely an intergovernmental body operating behind a closely guarded veil of secrecy is to defeat this long-term goal.

But why do I say it is in Singapore’s best interest? Consider the alternatives. No small state can exist for long in a world of increasing integration. The age of discreet sovereign states is coming to an end. The new world order is one of multi-layered political systems with different levels controlling different areas of politics and the economic activity; and with intersecting circles of social mobilisation, not always coterminous with political borders.

Given this trend, we’re either going to be within the Indonesian orbit or a part of China. If these don’t sound palatable because we’d have no influence at all when absorbed into much larger countries, then we’d better work hard at building Asean. But to do that, Asean must first command the respect of the people. Having a so-called human rights commission that denies human rights is surely the wrong way to start.

ADDENDUM, 15 Sept 2012

Apparently a draft has just been circulated, and heavily criticised by civil society organisations. See 5 reasons NGOs reject current version of Asean Human Rights Declaration on Interaksyon.

5 Responses to “At Asean, Singapore choosing to be anti-human rights”

  1. 1 Anon w3X6 14 September 2012 at 15:54

    For all its talk about equality and democracy, the Singaporean government really hasn’t done much for either. And that’s putting it mildly.

    And I agree, I have no idea why the SG government clings on so desperately to such backward views. My hypothesis right now is that the PAP voting base is comprised in large part of the older generation, who are more likely to hold these views, so it’s in their interests to pander to this demographic. In addition, the SG government does like to have quite a lot of power, and wants to ingratiate itself with other countries with powerful governments, which tend to hold socially conservative views. Another possibility is that it’s afraid of the SG society becoming more liberal, as liberal societies do tend to value things like free speech.

  2. 2 yuen 14 September 2012 at 16:51

    > Our media, both mainstream and otherwise, pay it next to no attention.

    we know why the mainstream media act this way; the interesting question is why the “alternative” sources go along?

  3. 3 Duh 15 September 2012 at 02:43

    The problem disappears when one considers Singapore as NOT a democratic nation, isn’t it? The problem surfaces when one is deluded by various ‘official’ and ‘wayang’ sources that Singapore is a democracy, like that Queenstown show the PAP did for the royal couple. Save yourself the agony and wake up to reality.

  4. 4 Nick Lim 15 September 2012 at 10:17

    3 possible reasons why the Singapore govt is backward in policy thinking. First, the world views of the PAP policy-makers are circumscribed and constrained by the ideological bias of the party- communitarianism and authoritarianism. Anyone holding alternative views would not have risen to the top echelon of the party or succeed in the bureaucracy. Second, self-preservation instinct of policy-makers and bureaucrats dictates “sailing with the wind” on policy matters- a different moral or philosophical opinion or standpoint is not worth the risk of losing a multi-million dollars career. Third, many scholars holding high positions in govt are there as a result of the academic performance in their teenage years. Most of them came from the science stream and studied extremely hard but only for subjects required for examination. This inevitably leads to a narrow world-view and limited interest and understanding of current affairs, history, politics, philosophical discourse, etc. Thus when some of them are elevated to high political office and had to speak publicly on policy matters, their shortcoming and limitation became obvious.

  5. 5 ape@kinjioleaf 15 September 2012 at 15:18

    Assuming Singaporeans are conservative in majority, why should the govt not announce their stand to the Singapore public?
    If Singaporeans, by the majority, supports SOGI, then why should our govt be against it?

    Any idea why Singapore opposes the inclusion of SOGI into the declaration? Perhaps it’s not principle of equality regardless of sexual orientation but certain clauses or implications in the SOGI?

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