Is the time right for Singapore to have a human rights body?

TODAY reported on the issue of setting up a human rights body in Singapore, with MARUAH being quoted in the article. Click here for a UN webpage explains what is a human rights body, commonly known as a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI).

Is the time right for Singapore to have a human rights body?

Tuesday • December 4, 2007

Nazry Bahrawi

AS chair of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), Singapore had pushed for member countries to embrace human rights principles in the new charter adopted last month.

The Republic’s closest neighbours — Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia — have incorporated a national human rights body in their political frameworks, with even Cambodia considering setting one up.

As some of the lawyers, politicians and practitioners whom Today spoke to believe, there has never been a more opportune time for the Republic to establish a human rights body of its own.

In fact — ahead of International Human Rights Day this Saturday — Member of Parliament (MP) for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC Michael Palmer says, it might even be “incumbent upon us” to do so, given our chairmanship of ASEAN.

While agreeing such a body was needed, Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong, a member of MARUAH (Singapore Working Committee for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism), cautioned against conflating the need for a national human rights body with Singapore’s status as ASEAN Chair.

He said: “Does it then mean that after Singapore ceases to be Chair, the rationale for having a national human rights body also ends? That cannot be so.”

Lawyer Kala Mohan, on the other hand, echoes a long-held sceptic’s view — that Singapore does not need a human rights body, for we have good laws already in place. It is sufficient that we subscribe to a central human rights body under ASEAN, he argues.

“If a human rights body is formed in Singapore, then the Government will have to pass new legislation to regulate that. If it conflicts with other laws, then all these will have to be amended as well,” he told Today.

But should the Republic choose to tread this road, Dr Terence Chong, of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, thinks a good starting point is to explore the debate of human rights as enshrined within the ASEAN Charter.

ASEAN had drawn criticism from civil society organisations on this. Said Dr Chong: “ASEAN has yet to even define what human rights means or entails. Until a list of sacred rights is nailed down, governments can always defer to local laws when such rights are abused.”

What form could a national human rights body in Singapore take? Some say it must, above all, be independent of the Government to be taken seriously.

At the same time, MP Baey Yam Keng of Tanjong Pagar GRC warned against the body becoming a “lobby group” or an outfit to meet “the agenda of other countries or organisations”.

He said: “It should not be there just for the sake of advocacy. The issues in human rights have to be cognizant of the society they are applied to, the stage of social development and the degree of sophistication of the country and people. It should be a bottom-up organisation.”

Its members, said former NMP and lawyer Chandra Mohan Nair, can comprise retired politicians, judges and civil servants including permanent secretaries, as well as activists and academics.

Should such a body materialise, he believes its first job could be to review aspects of liberties as enshrined in the Singapore Constitution.

Agreeing this was the best place to start, Mr Palmer added: “The most contentious issue is probably freedom of speech. It is always on the tip of everybody’s tongue and something they might want to review.”

Think Centre president Sinapan Samydorai, meanwhile, would like to see such a body actively educate the public about human rights. Currently, he says, awareness here is largely limited to university students from the sociology, political science or law faculties where such issues are discussed.

Mr Samydorai is part of the Singapore Working Group on ASEAN — a coalition of seven civil society organisations — which is planning to hold, on International Human Rights Day this Saturday, a forum on the concerns of the disabled, sexual minorities, migrant workers and single mothers.

But despite their differing views over the composition and tasks of a national human rights body, most pundits agree on one thing — that one vital challenge will be to get the Government’s buy-in.

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