Advocate of the Year – Braema Mathi
Braema has been a champion for social justice for more than 15 years. As founding president of Maruah, the nascent Singapore human rights NGO, she has in recent years marshalled the goodwill of like-minded groups and individuals to shape a series of meaningful and timely interventions in public discourse. In September 2011, Braema made the first oral statement by a Singapore NGO as part of the Universal Periodic Review of the republic at the United Nations Human Rights Council. Under her leadership, Maruah also ensured that human rights perspectives were inserted into national debates, such as on the Little India riot, restrictions of internet freedom, Parliamentary and Presidential elections, and Internal Security Act arrests. Maruah’s activities belie its almost non-existent resources, and attest to Braema’s ability to mobilise volunteers from a wide range of civil society and professional groupings. Her path breaking civil society work has made it easier for the next generation of activists to forge ahead.
Advocate of the Year – Louis Ng
Louis, the founder of animal welfare group ACRES, has won over quizzical sceptics and pushed his cause to the cusp of mainstream respectability. When necessary, he has confronted iconic tourism industry institutions, shaming them over unethical practices. He has campaigned for Singapore to take more seriously its obligations under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. ACRES’ undercover investigations into the Traditional Chinese Medicine sector led to the launch of an Endangered Species Labelling Scheme. When possible, ACRES has formed partnerships with the establishment – growing an active schools programme, making itself indispensable to the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore, and working with government grassroots organisations. Holding a Masters in primate conservation, Louis has earned respect with not only with his passion but also his professional expertise. Civil society groups and individuals with decades more experience have come to regard him as an advocate to emulate.
Advocacy Organisation of the Year – Bukit Brown ‘Brownies’
The Bukit Brown ‘Brownies’ are an internet-age social network dedicated to the preservation of a 90-year-old abandoned cemetery. The loose, unregistered group of around 15 Singaporeans has demonstrated extraordinary resolve, resourcefulness and resilience. Refusing to be deterred by the failure to save the cemetery from the juggernaut of Singapore’s infrastructure projects, the group has worked tirelessly to embed Bukit Brown into the public’s collective memory. Its free guided tours have attracted around 11,000 visitors, despite the lack of toilet facilities, a sheltered meeting place or refreshments kiosk. Members of the group have also uncovered new information about the site, including finding the graves of Seah Eu Chin and Chia Ang Siang. Initially typecast as unreasonable rabble-rousers, the Brownies have reached well beyond the activist community and seized the imagination of Singaporeans from all walks of life.
Singapore’s pre-eminent historian, Wang Gungwu, wrote approvingly in The Straits Times of the Bukit Brown effort and similar campaigns: “These remind us that national efforts to create uniformity can be repressive and intolerant, and global attractions that shine briefly do not take root. It is what flourishes within one’s home and family and is celebrated in our neighbourhood that cuts deeper. For a community to thrive, it is vital for each to defend the right to preserve what its members want.”
The Brownies’ lobbying efforts have also gone international. It succeeded in placing Bukit Brown on the World Monuments Watch 2014 list of 67 threatened sites across the globe. The World Monuments Fund has joined the Brownies in calling for more government transparency and a participatory environmental impact assessment of the development plans. Arguably, the Brownies’ efforts have succeeded in cultivating something even more precious than the cemetery itself – a growing community of Singaporeans who treasure their common heritage and are determined to keep it alive.
Most Promising Advocate – Chan Li Shan
Li Shan, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 24 in 2008, told all in her first-person account, A Philosopher’s Madness, published by Ethos Books in 2012. Her courageous decision to come out as a recovering schizophrenic was hailed by health professionals as a significant step to combat the stereotypes and stigmatisation suffered by patients of mental illness. She did not stop there. She has gone on to give talks and interviews and write articles on mental illness. While appealing for more understanding from society, she avoids self-pity, saying that her psychosis has strengthened her, making her less self-centred and more focused on how she can contribute to the world. Her journey in transforming adversity to advocacy is an inspiration to others.
Most Promising Advocate – Damien Chng
Damien, alongside more seasoned advocates, played a role in Parliament’s partial reversal of the mandatory death penalty in 2012. He was seized by the death penalty issue in the course of reporting the Yong Vui Kong story as a citizen journalist. While still an undergraduate, he co-founded We Believe in Second Chances to urge young Singaporeans and the wider public to rethink capital punishment. He also assisted human rights lawyer M. Ravi on capital cases. He authored Second Chances’ report on amending the mandatory death penalty, which was circulated to various Members of Parliament. Now a second-year law student, he is preparing to enter the extremely thin ranks of public interest litigation. He shows the promise to be at the forefront of the long struggle for full abolition of the death penalty.