22 March 2012
Think Centre, Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign (SADPC), SAYONI, Singapore Working Group on Migrant Workers, Post-Museum, Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Federation of Singapore and We Believe in Second Chances welcomes the visit to Singapore by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon since his last visit in 2009. It is important that the UNSG remains in touch and up to date with the developments of this small nation state within the developing context of the South East Asian region. We and some individual members of the civil society who are concerned with the state of human rights situation and democracy in Singapore wish to highlight to the UNSG a few key human rights related issues that he should refer to in his discussion with the Government of Singapore (GOS), in no particular order, to ensure greater enjoyment of human rights as envision in the UDHR as follows:
Low Level of Ratification of Core International Human Rights Treaties and Conventions
1.Singapore has been a member of the United Nations since her independence in 1965. However till date, the Government of Singapore (GOS) has only ratified 2 human rights conventions namely, CEDAW and CRC. While the Government has expressed, through its delegation sent to the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Singapore’s human rights records during the May 2011 session, that it takes its international obligations seriously and are continuously examining the feasibility of ratifying the remaining key human rights conventions.
2.It remains an unsatisfying situation that the GOS has not been able to account for its reluctance to ascend to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Especially given that Singapore has now attain relatively high levels of economic and human development which was based on, in no small part, much sacrifice of Singaporeans both past and present. And also given that Singapore is and wants to be seen as a legitimate democracy as demonstrated by the commitment and adherence to conducting regular elections albeit with features only unique to Singapore.
3.It is high time that the GOS recognise that Singaporeans deserve to have our rights to established standards of civil and political rights and economic socio-cultural rights, be fully respected and protected. Furthermore, it should be recognised that ratification of human rights treaties help to create an impetus towards the progressive realization of the advancement of the rights as contained within the various key human rights treaties. More importantly it serves to strengthen the domestic human rights framework that can then be committed into aligning legislation and policies, in accordance to international standards, to protect and to ensure the fundamental set of human rights and freedoms as enshrined in the UDHR.
Commitment to Conduct Free and Fair Elections
4.National elections are currently conducted and administered through the office of the Elections Department. While the GOS’s constant refrains that public officers have a duty of impartiality during the conducting of national elections, the current arrangement is untenable with regard to electoral independence since the Elections Department is under the direct purview of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The arrangement also lends itself to creating the perception and fear amongst the voting population that their vote is not secret and is traceable.
Freedom of Expression
5.The right to freedom of opinion and expression remains an evergreen exigent issue. We urge the UNSG to encourage the GOS to fully respect and protect rights of Singaporeans of freedom of opinion and expression without overlaying it with numerous codes of conduct and soft laws especially in the cyberspace realm.
6.The Government continues to control all avenues of speech and expression, especially those relating to politics, through a multitude of legislative and institutional means at its disposal. Censorship remain pervasive at almost all levels of society (at both state and non-state levels) hampering any natural development of an alternate political discourse. The organic development of local arts and cultural groups are crippled through the government’s effective influence and control over physical space use for performances and exhibitions, and issuance of financial grants. The easy willingness of senior political figures, to file defamation lawsuits against political critics or opponents, represents the Damocles sword stabbing away at the state of free expression in Singapore. The will of the State to retain control and leverage with regard to freedom of expression also extends to the cyberspace realm. In the most recent parliamentary debates (March 2012), the Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts has proposed to encourage the development of a community-driven Internet code of conduct.
Freedom of Information and Civil Society Engagement
7.Since the most recent general elections in 2011, the Government of Singapore has made positive attempts in portraying itself to be more open and responsive to the voices of the people. However it is found wanting in the aspect of engagement with civil society. It practises selective engagement and does not freely share information – much of which are controlled by the Official Secrets Act. A recent example of selective and less open engagement revolves around Bukit Brown. It is the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China and is considered a historical site with heritage, biodiversity and environmental significance. The Bukit Brown cemetery is recognised by many civil society groups to be worthy of UNESCO heritage site status however as Singapore is not a signatory to UNESCO, such a significant site is in grave danger of being destroyed in the name of development. Whereby selected independent civil society groups were invited to participate in a closed-door briefing session on the government’s decision to carry on its development plans for the area – contrary to the request for a consultation session to discuss alternatives. Also, as the GOS has a disproportionate amount of influence and control over mainstream media, this allows it effective control over information that may convey less than favourable impression of the State. This shapes public opinion that is based on incomplete information.
8.We urge the UNSG to encourage the GOS to be more willing to engage civil society in an open and transparent manner rather than the old habitual top-down approach.
9.The Government of Singapore continues to retain and rely on the use of death penalty and in particular, mandatory death penalty, to address the issue of trafficking and sales of drugs. However to date the GOS has failed to demonstrate how the use of the death penalty has any impact on the “war on drugs”. We maintain that drugs related issues like addiction and trafficking should be evaluated and dealt with as a social issue stemming from accumulative and layered problems of a highly modernised urban society; and that alternate sentencing options should be used in place of the death penalty. The GOS should adopt a more rational and humane approach to drug-related problems, and impose an immediate moratorium on executions, and take serious consideration to implement the abolition of the death penalty.
Ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
10.The Government of Singapore has announced its intention to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities this year. We urge the government to not approach the ratification based on a welfare providence angle. Instead, it should also acknowledge the civil-political and economic social-cultural rights dimensions of the convention. In this regard, we urge the UNSG to convey to the GOS that no reservations should be placed on any of the CRPD articles, in particular the following: Article 9 (Accessibility), Article 15 (Freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment), Article 21 (Freedom of expression and opinion, and access to information), Article 24 (Education), Article 27 (Work and employment), Article 29 (Participation in political and public life), Article 30 (Participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport). Also in the lead up to the ratification, the government should engage persons with disabilities directly, as part of their obligations to consult civil society, rather than through service providers/welfare organisations.
Labour Rights in Singapore
11.We encourage the UNSG to urge the GOS to put in greater efforts to protect the rights of both local and migrant workers comprising the labour force of Singapore. Local workers are vulnerable to the buffeting force of globalisation. Many were not spared from the deleterious impact of various global economic and financial in the past decade. On the other hand, as a consequence of Singapore’s rigid openness to the global economy, migrant workers (including both unskilled and skilled) now make up one-third of the labour force and they are now increasingly face negative social backlash with tendencies towards racial discrimination. The GOS should ensure that a balanced approach can be taken by adhering to international labour standards with reference to the International Labour Organisation’s Core Labour Standards; and by enhancing better social protection for the vulnerable segment of Singaporeans who are unable to benefit from globalisation such as through the calibrated implementation of a minimum wage.
Persons of Different Sexual Orientation and Gender Identities (SOGI)
12.In Singapore, LGBT community faces institutionalize discrimination that cascades and justifies discriminatory public policies or legislation. For example in the areas of criminal law, Section 377A of the Penal Code criminalizes consensual sex between two men. In the media, censorship is applied and only negative portrayal of LGBT persons is allowed. In the barriers to association, LGBT groups are not allowed to register officially with the Registrar of Societies, which deny legal status and cause the inability to raise funds in any organized way. There are also no anti-discrimination laws or equal opportunity legislation in Singapore and discriminated individuals have no recourse. The GOS must acknowledge and recognize that rights of persons with different sexual orientation and gender identities remains vulnerable and unprotected from conservative societal forces and institutionalized discrimination, whose actions and speech infringed on fundamental human rights and freedoms.
Singapore and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD)
13.The Government of Singapore should play a positive and constructive role to ensure the currently developing ASEAN declaration on human rights should not undermine international human rights standards. The GOS must endeavour to consult with civil society including independent groups.
Singapore and the United Nations
14.Last of all, we urge the UNSG to encourage GOS to better cooperate with the United Nations Human Rights Council and related UN human rights agencies, in particular the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the OHCHR to help develop a framework to conceptualise and implement a long term human rights plan of action for Singapore.
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