I was planning to write about climate action and the need of a more committed political leadership in Nepal that can seriously focus on good governance and undertake whatever it takes to ensure a sustainable, greener and just future for the nation. But something else came up in my mind, perhaps unconventional for the type of writings of this column.
While going through my mailbox, I found the latest issue of We, The Citizens, a newsletter published by Kirsten Han, a civil society and human rights activist and writer based in Singapore. I started to follow the work of Han out of my interest in Southeast Asian affairs and my deep admiration for the “Lion” city of Singapore.
With appreciation for this place also comes a deep uneasiness about the civil and political rights there, something that too often is taken for granted by the international community.
The general elections in Nepal have brought out a new generation of young politicians that will be in a much better position to envision and realize good governance.
Too often we tend to underestimate the vibrancy of democracy here and the extensive freedoms and liberties that come with it. It is true the state at all levels could do a much better job on many fronts, people are frustrated with the mainstream political parties but at least Nepal is a democracy and people can speak and write freely.
It is not always the case in Singapore. Let me return to Kirsten Han. In her latest newsletter, the activist wrote about her bold decision to take Singapore’s state to court. It happened basically because a Facebook post she had written on May 10, 2022 was taken as contempt of the court. “The Attorney-General’s Chambers had directed the police to issue me a conditional warning,” she writes. “The warning stated that I have to remain “crime-free” for the next 12 months, or else the AGC reserved the right to charge me for whatever offense I’d committed, plus contempt of court.”
Politics may be in a mess in Nepal but Nepalis should be proud of what they have achieved in terms of civil and political liberties.
The contested post was presumably related to Han’s sharing of another post written by anti-death penalty activist and lawyer M Ravi, one of the most prominent human rights activists in Singapore, himself being under multiple investigations just for carrying out his duties as a lawyer and an activist.
Han could have just stayed quiet and moved on, avoiding any issue with the State but instead she boldly decided to suit the state, a process that cost her, only in the application fees, around 600 Singapore Dollar, a quite expensive endeavor if you think about it.
Singapore is expensive, we know that but even more if you work in human rights.
The Lion City is often seen as a model for the development of Nepal and many politicians often invoke it as a blueprint that should be followed. There are no doubts about the accomplishments of the political leadership of the People Action Party that has governed the island state since independence.
But this comes with a very unique form of iron rule that makes Singapore one of the worst places on earth for civil and political rights. Though the landscape slightly improved in recent times, in terms of human rights Nepal still seems like a paradise. For example, death penalty, which Nepal boldly renounced so many years ago, remains one of the most preferred tools of punishment for alleged criminals. Even activists like Han are threatened by the state. What happened to her in terms of Singaporean state’s overreach is no comparison to what many other activists had to endure.
Protests are basically outlawed there. Any act of peaceful and civil disobedience, even the most innocent one like holding an A4 paper placard in protest outside a court, can land you in jail unless you pay a heavy fine. This is what happened to Jolovan Wham, another activist, for holding an A4 “protest” paper for 15 seconds outside a tribunal.
Gurkhas in Singapore, probably the reason why Nepalis do not need a visa to get into the island state on tourism, cannot marry anyone else except someone with a Nepali passport. And there is a pitiful retirement package for them. This is the issue the government of Nepal needs to raise and deal with.
Singapore does not have only beautiful things. There are some ugly sides to it too. The same could be said for countries like Nepal. Politics may be in a mess in Nepal but Nepalis should be proud of what they have achieved in terms of civic and political liberties.
Singapore could offer some template of national development for Nepal. But Nepalis should cheer for their constitution and the levels of freedoms they have achieved after so many struggles.
Many Singaporean tourists enjoy coming to Nepal but perhaps it is high time to step up the people-to-people diplomacy and create some bonds and connections between the civil and human rights activists of Singapore and Nepal. There are so many preaching Nepal and its citizens what and how to do things. Nepali activists have so much expertise to help the tiny group of their peers in the Lion State.
Kirsten Han, Jolovan Wham and M Ravi have been despised by their government but they would be celebrity human rights activists here in Nepal. This is something Nepal can be proud of.