An animal's life is still a life

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.

The amendment has harsher penalties, but some animal activists have expressed worries that the authorities might not be able to enforce this. There are many difficulties in enforcement.

Because for a lot of the offences in this Act, you need to have clear evidence, and in cases of mistreatment or neglect or cruelty, a lot of it is done in private.

There was this case of a mongrel that was reduced to skin and bones when it died. The owner was fined $10,000 - the maximum penalty.

But if he hadn't taken the dog's body to the SPCA (Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and (instead) disposed of the body quietly, do you think he would have been taken to task? No.

That's why we proposed amendments to the law and propose to enhance the power of enforcement. The AVA will now have the power of investigation, and invite someone to assist in an investigation. It will also have the power to take photos, videos and audio recordings.

We did consider giving animal welfare groups enforcement powers but there might be administration issues. Rather, it could be a cooperative approach between such groups and the AVA.

You've talked about everyone playing their part in living harmoniously with animals. Do you have any advice for residents?

I see a lot more disputes arising from neighbours having pets. For example, about dogs barking.

I learnt that barking can be resolved in two ways. First, the dog may not have had the chance to socialise, so when it sees a stranger, it feels threatened and barks.

Second, you can send your dog for simple training, so he can learn to identify people. I don't think such training costs a lot, or, at least, it would not add significantly to the costs of taking (care of) a pet.

Actually, I asked the Pets Enterprises and Traders Association Singapore to conduct such training in my constituency, starting a year ago. So far, the outcome has been very encouraging and I look forward to formalising our collaboration.

Similarly with stray cats. Instead of asking how to get rid of these strays, I approached the Cat Welfare Society. Our town council works with the society to deal with complaints, or the cats themselves.

What happened to the other recommendations not included in the Bill?

Most have been adopted. Some of the recommendations are now part of licensing regulations, like our compulsory pre-sales screening of buyers in pet shops, which came into effect in January.

The AVA is still reviewing one more recommendation, about how to give the authorities power to prevent restricted acts, like ear-cropping, on animals. Some people clip their pets' ears to make a fashion statement, which I think is very cruel.

What has been the best part about working on the Bill? What's the worst?

The best part has been the teamwork, despite everyone coming from different angles. We were able to discuss things amicably, agree to disagree and listen to everyone.

The worst is that I never imagined I would spend 2½ years on this. But there are no regrets. I am very proud of what we have achieved.

Do you have pets of your own?

No, I don't, as a member of my family has a really bad allergy. And I didn't have a pet when I was younger either, because I grew up in a one-room flat.

But I spent some of my childhood in a kampung, and we got chased by some of our neighbours' dogs. Those were my unofficial pets.

Why are we seeing so many Private Member's Bills? (Mr Yeo's Bill and Mr Christopher de Souza's Prevention of Human Trafficking Act mark the fourth and fifth attempts to introduce the rare Private Member's Bill in Parliament's history.)

After a number of financial crises, we still stand tall, so it's timely for us to do more.

Also, media technology has moved quite quickly. We can hear more kinds of views now. Maybe that's why we can settle these non-economic issues now.

You were made the chairman of the Migrant Workers' Centre in 2009. Do you think another Private Member's Bill about foreign labour could be on the way?

For migrant workers' issues, we fortunately have a strong tripartite network. I have already pushed for a number of amendments through this network.

For example, a few years ago we had a lot of late salary payments. So we got the Government to amend the Work Permit Conditions under the Foreign Manpower Employment Act. In the code, I made it a point to include a new line, to ensure that employers pay salaries within seven days of the salary month.

So, no Private Member's Bill yet. The tripartite network is strong and I want to rest after these 2½ years on animals. (Laughs)

Will you continue with your work on animal welfare and see that any gaps that may surface from now on will be plugged?

I'm still on the committee and play an active role, even though I don't head it (Mr Alex Yam is in charge). It's just like how even though I have relinquished my Case (Consumers Association of Singapore) role, I am now in charge of a bigger "Case" - the Migrant Workers' Centre.

So I don't just look after animals, but also human beings!

Actually, I find it quite interesting that I have been given so many opportunities to deal with more emotive issues.

Like when I first started in Case, people said it was a "gone case", that I wasn't going to resolve any consumer frustrations. But I made my "case" with the new laws.

Now, looking at these animal issues, people were sceptical when we started, but, today, we have something to show for it.

Although it's not perfect, I consider this a big step forward.


This article was first published on October 25, 2014.
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