This speech was written to be given at the beginning of the 2004 academic year by myself as the immediate past president of the group to the Melbourne University Amnesty International group. It was never actually delivered because the executive made a decision to, instead, start the year with a fun group activity.
Hello everybody and welcome to the first amnesty meeting for the year 2004. How is everybody today? Good? Happy to be here? For those don’t know me, my name is Daniel Yeow, I’m a Sagittarius, I like Pavlova, horse riding and long walks in the park. I’ve been a member of this group for nearly four years now and let me tell you now, that journey has been inspirational. In those four short years I have been witness to the work of some amazing individuals, individuals who have challenged the accepted standards of the day.
Standards, what are they? In the good ol’ days a standard was a big sign which you took into battle so that your troops wouldn’t get lost in the melee. Today we are surrounded by standards – standards of living, standards of education, health standards. We often talk about “minimum standards”, very unlike standard-bearers from the old days who were selected for being great champions and examples to which others could aspire to. Perhaps the evolution of the word is an indication of the times in which we live, that we are content to be satisfied with a bare minimum standard.
And why not? The world we live in is a much more advanced and civilized one compared to when standard-bearers lead their men in Gaugamela, Cannae and Zama. I, for one, believe that the establishment of minimum *living* standards is about as important a step in human evolution as the invention of agriculture, ok… maybe not quite as important, but certainly more important than, say, Ben and J-Lo’s wedding. (don’t even get me started on today’s journalistic standards).
But why do we care? We have all been brought up in a society with a very high standard of living. We are afforded great political freedom, indeed, we are afforded a great deal of freedom in general. But, just as people around the world are denied many of the bare minimum standards which we take for granted, we too set ourselves unusually low standards. We here, are all extraordinarily privileged, but how many of you will be content to leave university having learnt and experienced little more than that required to obtain your degree?
Someone once said, that the true measure of a person is to observe what they do when they have naught but free time. For all of you here who either don’t know or don’t realize, when one is at university, one will have A LOT of free time. What will you do with it?
This is where it starts. University, for many, is a person’s first real taste of absolute freedom. No one has to go to lectures, no one has to go to tutes, no one has to go to the next amnesty international meeting, it is entirely up to you. I believe, as this is a learning institution, that first and foremost you should learn as much as you can. Just remember that there is much more to be learnt than that which is taught in your subjects. Applying what you’ve learnt too is an important step, how are you going to challenge yourself? Will you raise your own standards? Don’t ever be fooled into thinking that the only thing that makes a difference around here is that piece of paper you get when you graduate.
Differences can be made everywhere. If you write a letter to a political prisoner it can be (and I’m quoting a real prisoner of conscience here) “like a drop of water to a thirsty man wandering the desert”. If many individuals each write a letter, it can set someone free. Never underestimate the difference that one person can make.
Last year, a member of this group decided that he would try and make a difference. He organized an amnesty comedy night, the first of its kind in Australia ever. He convinced many of Australia’s leading comedians including Paul McDermott, Wil Anderson and Dave o’Neil (among many others) to donate their time to a stage show in front of a thousand people under the banner of amnesty. Despite being a good fundraiser, its importance in raising awareness about human rights cannot be overstated. For nearly four hours last October, a thousand people were treated to an unforgettably enjoyable experience, not to mention the impact the event would have had on venue staff, stage crew and the like. All this, because of an idea that one person had. A person who, like you today, was sitting in this room and was unhappy about the state of human rights in the world.
This is not unlike the history of amnesty international itself. Founded in 1961 by a lawyer who read in the paper about some students, just like you, who were imprisoned without trial for seven years for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom. He wrote an article which called on readers to write letters to the Portuguese government to free these “Prisoners of Conscience”, and they were freed. The rest, as they say, is history.
And with that, I encourage you to learn as much as you can before you make any sort of commitment. I do hope though, that as you learn more about the state of human rights in the world you will be, as I have been, compelled to act. Its not much fun staring at the big picture of human rights abuses in the world (try reading amnesty international’s annual report in one sitting without getting depressed), but it does feel good to chip away at it, bit by bit. I challenge all of you to raise your standards and be the standard bearers of human rights here at the University of Melbourne, so that people living in countries where human rights are sub-standard, may one day enjoy the standards which we accept as standard. Thank you for listening.