An animal's life is still a life

An animal's life is still a life
MP Yeo Guat Kwang (Ang Mo Kio GRC).

He is known for tending to consumer protection, when he was Case president, and foreign labour issues as Migrant Workers' Centre chairman.

But now, it's animals.

Veteran backbench MP Yeo Guat Kwang (Ang Mo Kio GRC) has proposed an amendment to the Animals and Birds Act - one of two Private Member's Bills to be introduced next month. He himself does not own a pet. However, the animal lover tells Rachel Au-Yong about giving a voice to the voiceless.

You've never really been known as a big animal rights supporter. How did you end up working on this Bill?

Back in 2012, there was a lot of attention on animal welfare issues, because there were a number of cases in the media. During one Government Parliamentary Committee meeting, Minister (for National Development) Khaw (Boon Wan) said it might be time to look at this.

So when he approached me to chair the Animal Welfare Legislation Review Committee (AWLRC), I said okay, because then I can go about trying to get things done. I don't believe in "barking". Because you can bark till the cows come home, and still nothing gets done.

It's more effective to spend that time talking to people who can help me bring about change. Although I can't keep pets, I love animals. Don't you think they are cute?

I find it unacceptable to see people not just performing cruel acts, but even just not taking responsible care, because an animal's life is still a life.

So why a Private Member's Bill? (Mr Yeo's amendment is supported by four other MPs - Mr Alex Yam, Mr Gan Thiam Poh, Mr Vikram Nair and Mr Edwin Tong.) Why not pass your findings to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA)?

Through the process, I became more convinced that animal welfare was a shared responsibility and that everyone needed to play their part. You can't just rely on enforcement.

After the review committee looked at where the gaps in the Act were, we formed another committee, the Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration Committee. We also had many public consultations.

We wanted to see how everybody could play their part and make Singapore a lovely place for everyone, including animals.

Tell me what the amendment is about.

We had about 24 recommendations in total, six of which are going into the Bill.

We have heavier penalties for animal welfare and cruelty offences, in particular for those committed by animal-related businesses and repeat offenders.

Extreme people should get extreme penalties. That's why we have tiered penalties, so we can take the culprit to task. But do we just want deterrence? Or is the desired outcome that everyone knows what the right way to treat animals is?

We realised we still needed to define "responsible care", or it'd be up to the authorities to do so. But that meant we spent more time working on that.

So the amendment took longer than expected?

After a year of studying and reviewing the Act, I told the press in March last year that I would be able to put up a proposal for an amendment to the Bill in about six months.

But as we looked at the gaps in the law, we thought we might as well do something more comprehensive. That way, we don't just go after someone who does wrong, but also help everyone to do the right thing.

So we came up with a code of animal welfare. Luckily, some countries already have this, so we could take it and shape it according to Singapore's context.

But the whole journey still took 2½ years!

Why did setting up guidelines about how to treat animals take so long?

First, we had to define what the basic things in taking care of an animal were. So, for example, sufficient space and drinking water. Then some people asked which animals would drinking water extend to, and whether birds would be included.

This led to a discussion about whether we would also need to provide bathing water as a minimum standard, because some birds clean themselves.

But then other people raised the point: What if you put such a huge cup of water for a bird to bathe, that it ends up drowning?

In the end, we decided that drinking water was important but bathing water was not a necessity. Now the welfare code has two parts: a minimum standard, and a higher-level, "good practices" one.

For those who aren't treating animals well, the AVA can use the code and tell them specifically how to do better. But for those who can aim higher, they can look to the "good practices" part.

Maybe one day our high standard will become a minimum one. But for now, we must take one step at a time.

You had meetings with a diverse group, including animal rights activists, business owners, government officials and members of the community. What did you learn from this process?

A lot of it was about balance. Those who love animals must see how they can balance the concerns of their neighbours, who might not be comfortable with animals in their living environment.

So we had all these different people come together.

For example, some challenged those who were asking for very harsh penalties, "You want to make the penalty for treating an animal cruelly higher than that for ill-treating a person?"

We were reminded that we can't just look at other countries' harsh punishments, but must also look at what Singapore's punishments for offences against people are like. It was part of the balancing process.

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