Regional NGOs do not do enough for Singapore’s human rights issues, says media and political activist
(Bangkok, 17 May 2006) Regional NGOs (non-governmental organisations) lack proper responses to human rights issues in Singapore, said a media and political activist during a discussion held at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand on 16 May 2006.
James Gomez, who was also an electoral candidate from the opposition Workers’ Party in Singapore, presented his observations and analysis at an informal discussion session in the Bangkok venue. This was attended by representatives from FORUM-ASIA, SEAPA (Southeast Asian Press Alliance), other organisations and journalists.
“Regional NGOs need to respond in a coordinated, timely and competent manner, and they need to show more interest,” said Gomez, referring to the recent Singapore parliamentary elections and the case involving himself in its aftermath.
Gomez was detained by the Singaporean authorities as he was about to leave the country after the elections, following a complaint by the Elections Department that he had intimated and threatened some of its staff. This was due to an incident arising from an administrative foul-up in his dealings with the department, which was “blown out of proportion” by Singapore’s mainstream media and made into an election issue by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Charges were dropped against Gomez after about a week, and he was allowed to leave the country. He spent a few days in Bangkok to hold meetings with several organisations, en-route to Sweden where he works as a researcher.
Although a few regional NGOs sent representatives separately to observe and monitor the Singapore elections, the lack of appropriately strong responses from regional NGOs led Gomez to question the efficacy of regional organisations such as human rights and press freedom groups. “What is the human rights focus of these groups and how much of a priority is Singapore for human rights issues in the region?” He asked.
He emphasised that there will be a growing “buzz of political party activity” because civil society organisations are weak or almost non-existent in Singapore, so regional NGOs should increase their monitoring of human rights violations committed in particular against individuals from Singapore’s Opposition parties.
Ruki Fernando from FORUM-ASIA said that Singapore needs more activists like James Gomez to stir up public and regional interest, as well as more time to develop this interest. Roby Alampay from SEAPA said that his organisation cannot work with the government-dominated traditional media in Singapore, but sees potential with new media, for example bloggers – people who have personal websites on the internet.
“We can work with bloggers, but they need to have the courage to come out on their own as well,” said Alampay. “Momentum has to come from Singaporean bloggers, and we also need to see trends and progress.”
Lance Woodruff from Thai news agency MCOT said most regional NGOs and civil society organisations do not do much on Singapore not because of a lack of interest or concern. Instead, he said, there is a common perception based on the authorities’ reputation for restrictions: “‘They won’t allow you to do anything anyway, so why bother [to cover Singapore]?’”
Singapore has been ruled by the PAP since its independence in 1965. It is considered a “one-party” or “dominant-party” state, and the recent elections returned the PAP to power on the polling day, 6 May 2006. The Opposition retained its previous two out of 84 seats and did not gain any more seats in parliament.