(New York) – The Singapore government should cease violating fundamental free expression rights citing self-serving historical and cultural justifications that only tarnish Singapore’s global image, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2012.
Singapore’s rights record went before the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process in May 2011. The government either rejected outright or contested the premises of many recommendations for improvements in civil and political rights. Concerns cited included the use of preventive detention, the use of defamation suits to silence critics, restrictions on public protests, regular use of corporal punishment for a wide range of crimes, and criminalization of same-sex relations between men.
“Singapore’s claims of exemption from human rights standards are just lame excuses for abuses,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The people of Singapore deserve the same rights as everyone else, not more clever stories justifying government oppression.”
In its World Report 2012, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including popular uprisings in the Arab world that few would have imagined. Given the violent forces resisting the “Arab Spring,” the international community has an important role to play in assisting the formation of rights-respecting democracies, Human Rights Watch said in the report.
In Singapore, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) remained in power in 2011 in an election that saw the party garner its lowest winning margin since it took power in 1959.
The government maintained virtually unlimited powers to detain suspects without charge or judicial review, using the Internal Security Act and the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act. These laws have been used to incarcerate outspoken activists for prolonged periods without trial, as well as criminal suspects who should be charged under the penal code. In dealing with terrorism suspects, the government should use the criminal code to prosecute in accordance with international due process standards, Human Rights Watch said.
The Singapore government also kept tight control over broadcast, radio, and print media, using a web of interlocking laws and policies that enable censorship and control over media, films, video, music, sound recordings, and computer games. The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act requires publications to renew registration annually and gives government officials a free hand to control circulation of foreign publications that allegedly “engage in the domestic politics of Singapore.”
The right to freedom of association is also sharply curtailed. The Registrar of Societies is empowered to deny registration to associations of 10 or more members on the grounds of being “prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order.” Police permits are required for any public event involving five or more people. And the government uses contempt of court, criminal and civil defamation, and sedition charges to rein in critics.
Police rejected an application by the advocacy group Singaporeans for Democracy to hold a “Singaporeans United Against Racism” rally at the Speaker’s Corner, a legally designated spot for rallies, on December 10, International Human Rights Day.
On July 9 the 76-year old British author Alan Shadrake completed his contempt of court sentence for “scandalizing the judiciary” by alleging in his book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, that the ruling party had interfered in court decisions involving capital punishment. He was immediately deported.
“Use of court sanctions for criminal defamation or ‘scandalizing the judiciary’ discourages Singaporeans and foreigners alike from digging too deeply into problems of Singaporean governance,” Robertson said.
The government also maintains mandatory death sentences for 20 drug-related offenses and judicial sentences that include caning, which amounts to torture. Both punishments should be banned for being in violation of international law, Human Rights Watch said. The government should also repeal antiquated British colonial laws on same-sex relations that are discriminatory and an invasion of privacy.
Singapore took measures to improve rights protections for the approximately 196,000 foreign domestic workers in the country, Human Rights Watch said. But the government should take the next step and ensure that these workers are included under the Employment Act so they can fully access their rights under law.
“Singapore’s leaders may sometimes listen to the electorate’s concerns over social and economic rights, but they are apparently deaf to pleas for political space to organize and speak out without fear of prosecution,” Robertson said. “It’s telling that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his 2012 New Year’s message didn’t say a single word about civil and political rights.”