(Geneva) - United Nations member states should denounce Singapore's severe restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly during the country's first-ever Universal Periodic Review (UPR), Human Rights Watch said today. The review, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, is scheduled for May 6, 2011.
With Singapore's national elections on May 7, Singaporean citizens should demand that candidates seeking their vote publicly support rescinding laws and practices that violate fundamental human rights, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch urged UN member states to reject Singapore's claims of "specific national circumstances" that negate the universality and indivisibility of human rights, as set out in the government's national report for the UPR.
"Singapore claims exceptionalism as a way to dismiss international criticism of laws and practices that block meaningful access to free speech, association, and assembly," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Such appeals run contrary to the universality of human rights and mask Singapore's long-established pattern of civil and political rights abuses."
Human Rights Watch, in its UPR submission, highlighted areas where Singapore's rhetoric has not matched the reality of a rights record in accord with international standards and has outlined recommendations for improvement. They include:
Freedom of Expression, Association, and Assembly
Singapore's rules governing the formation and activities of political parties and political organizations impede airing of opposition viewpoints. To comply with international human rights standards for freedom of association and assembly, Human Rights Watch urges revision of the 2009 Public Order Act, which requires a permit for "any cause-related activity," defined as a show of support by one or more persons for or against a position, person, group, or government. Influential online media such as The Online Citizen are forced to register as "political societies," restricting their ability to raise funds and to retain their reporting flexibility. The Speaker's Corner, the only outdoor space in Singapore where speakers and demonstrators are not required to have permits, was declared off-limits for all activities as soon as the general election was announced on April 19.
Peaceful critics of government leaders are targeted in government-initiated criminal defamation cases that result in prison terms and monetary fines severe enough to trigger bankruptcy. Although it has been 47 years since Singapore last experienced communal violence linked to ethnic identity, the government has continued to use this rationale to deny free expression on matters of race or religion, to refuse the right to public assembly without police permission, which is rarely granted except in very limited areas, and to maintain draconian restrictions on publishing and the media.
The government decision to prosecute Alan Shadrake, a British journalist who authored Once a Jolly Hangman, Singapore Justice in the Dock, exemplifies its willingness to silence accusers rather than tolerate criticism. In November 2010, Shadrake was sentenced to six weeks in prison and a SGD 20,000 (US$16,260) fine on contempt of court charges for "scandalizing the judiciary." He had alleged that court decisions in capital cases, which mandate execution for murder, treason, and some 20 drug-related offenses, were influenced by political and economic pressures, biases against the "weak," "poor," and "uneducated," and interference by the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). The government prosecutor argued that Shadrake's insinuations and allegations "muzzle confidence in the courts' impartiality, integrity, and independence." At Shadrake's appeal in April, the prosecutor contended that Shadrake had "transgressed" the limits of free speech and fair criticism and had "maligned the entire judiciary," thus endangering public confidence in the judiciary. The Court of Appeal has yet to issue a ruling.
Criminal Justice System
Human Rights Watch urges UN member states to call on Singapore to make substantial reforms to laws permitting the use of preventive detention - indefinite detention without charge - which Singapore defends in its National Report as "a last resort" when threats to public security, safety, and order are severe. The Internal Security Act, the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions), and the Misuse of Drugs Act all contain provisions that violate internationally recognized rights to due process and a fair trial. Under those provisions, arrest warrants are unnecessary, judicial review is not required, and detainees are expressly forbidden from contesting their detention through the criminal justice system.
Delegates at the UPR should press for legal reforms to end Singapore's widespread use of corporal punishment, both as judicially sanctioned punishment for some 30 offenses - in 2010 some 3,170 people were sentenced to judicial caning in addition to prison time - or as administrative punishment in the military prisons, reform schools, and secondary schools.
"Caning is nothing more than a form of torture," Robertson said. "Singaporean authorities should revoke all laws and regulations permitting such barbaric practices, which belie Singapore's claim to being a modern and just society."
Singapore's Trade Unions Act gives private sector workers the right to form or join trade unions, but the rights are compromised in practice. Foreign workers, who comprise close to one third of Singapore's work force, may not serve as trade union officers, trustees, or staff without Ministry of Manpower approval. Legal recognition of unions is further subject to the approval of the Registrar of Trade Unions who can refuse or cancel registration or rewrite a union's rules. Collective bargaining is also restricted because rank-and-file union members do not have the power to accept or reject collective agreements negotiated by their representatives. Unions affiliate with the umbrella National Trade Union Congress (NTUC), which since its inception has been closely allied to the ruling People's Action Party and which is disinclined to permit union members who support opposition political groups holding office in affiliated unions.
Foreign Domestic Workers
A standard contract for migrant workers is required by the government, but fails to address issues such as long work hours and poor living conditions. Instead of guaranteeing a weekly day off and a set number of daily rest hours, the government allows the employer and employee to negotiate rest days within set limits, and an employer may without penalty disregard recommendations for a minimum number of daily rest hours. The contract also fails to prevent denial of annual or medical leave, requires immediate deportation of a pregnant migrant worker, and stipulates that no foreign domestic worker may marry a Singaporean citizen.
"Freedom of association remains an illusion for foreign workers in Singapore," Robertson said. "If the government is really serious in its rhetoric of being an advocate for workers, then it should immediately rescind laws and practices that violate their rights."
Member states at the UPR should demand that Singapore improve its shoddy record of cooperation with UN human rights mechanisms, including the Human Rights Council's special rapporteurs, Human Rights Watch said. Two special rapporteurs - one in 2006 on the situation of human rights defenders, and the other on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions - have requested to visit Singapore. The government has not responded.
Singapore also has a poor record, especially among ASEAN members of ratifying international human rights instruments. It has not yet ratified core UN treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families; the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance; and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
"Singapore's first-ever UPR review provides the opportunity to establish a baseline to measure future improvements in the country's respect for human rights," Robertson said. "States should call on Singapore to demonstrate its commitment to human rights by ratifying all core UN human rights instruments and living by them."