The Online Citizen

Singapore questioned by the UN CEDAW Committee on gender equality and human rights

August 02
21:21 2011

Lisa Li /

Government accountability, Singapore-style: Announce your decision. Repeat stock answers. If the conversation gets uncomfortable, stop responding – wait for people to forget their questions – and the discussion is over.

This seems especially so for the issue of human rights in pragmatic Singapore, where in so many matters – like minimum wage, homelessness, Day Off for domestic workers, the mandatory death penalty, detention under the ISA, censorship, the treatment of foreign workers, people with disabilities, LGBT people and so on – the official narrative is that pragmatism rules, and Singapore just can’t afford to be idealistic about human rights.

Mdm Halimah Yacob with the Chairperson of the UN CEDAW Committee, Ms Silvia Pimentel

But can we really afford to ignore it? The presence of any form of entrenched discrimination is a time-bomb for any community – which is why I am glad that Singapore has at least ratified two international human rights Conventions (with reservations) – the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1995. This means our government has publicly committed to adhere to international standards of human rights for women and children, by making regular reports on progress, and taking questions and recommendations from independent human rights experts.

On 22 July 2011 in New York, Singapore’s Fourth Periodic State Report for CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) was presented by a team of government delegates led by Mdm Halimah Yacob, while Shadow Reports and additional information was provided by NGOs AWARE, Sayoni, Equality Now, SCWO, International Disability Alliance, GAATW & TWC2, H.O.M.E and Migrant Forum in Asia.

Interestingly, I found no mention of this in the Straits Times and Today, although on 19 July 2011, Channel News Asia featured a short article about the government delegates without mentioning the NGOs’ Shadow Reports (‘Madam Halimah leads delegation to UN‘), and on 20 July 2011, Yahoo! Singapore published an article mainly on AWARE’s Shadow Report to CEDAW (‘Employment Act still excludes too many women’).

The importance of Shadow Reports from NGOs

There is no doubt that we have a good track record for gender equality. Singapore’s delegates frequently referred to our system of meritocracy and opportunities regardless of gender, and it is generally true that “women in Singapore are not perceived as a disadvantaged or marginalised group, warranting special attention.” (Section 9.1, Pre-session working group report)

Nevertheless, the Shadow Reports play an important role in highlighting loopholes and inadequacies, by providing supplementary information omitted in the State Report. AWARE’s 273-page Shadow Report, for example, provided some rebuttals to the State Report, and documented forms of discrimination against women in matters related to employment and work arrangements, healthcare, financial security, violence and harassment, stereotyping in the media, foreign brides, foreign domestic workers, sex tourism, trafficking, political representation etc.

The Shadow Reports also proved useful during the discussion on queer (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered) women. In previous CEDAW Sessions, our government’s stock answers about queer women went uncontested, probably due to a lack of information. In fact, this year’s 84-page State Report submitted by the government did not mention queer women at all, as if issues related to discrimination against women on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity were not to be considered at all.

Defying this invisibility, this year for the first time, representatives from Sayoni (a community of queer Asian women based in Singapore) attended the CEDAW Session and also submitted a Shadow Report to the CEDAW Committee. Supplementing the complete lack of information in State Report, Sayoni’s 16-page Shadow Report detailed problems that queer women encounter in the law, media portrayal, curriculum, bullying, employment policies, taxes, maternity benefits, healthcare, housing, immigration etc., enabling the CEDAW Committee to ask our government more specific questions about the legal vulnerabilities and discrimination queer women face in Singapore. (See ‘Amazing Responses by CEDAW to Address LGBT Discrimination in Singapore‘, IGLHRC, 27 July 2011)

The CEDAW Committee’s recommendations for Singapore

With information from the State Report and Shadow Reports, our government delegates then participated in an intense session of questioning from the CEDAW Committee – over 116 questions in 5 hours – based on the Committee’s previous recommendations and the current state of gender equality in Singapore. Following that dialogue, the CEDAW Committee’s human rights experts commended Singapore for a number of achievements, and also published their concluding observations (dated 27 July 2011) which included recommendations:

  • To incorporate the CEDAW Convention into Singapore’s domestic laws (point 10),
  • To implement a strategy to eliminate stereotypes that discriminate women, including those based on sexual orientation and gender identity (Point 22a)
  • To criminalize domestic violence and marital rape (Point 24a)
  • Ratify the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (Point 26a)
  • To ensure paid maternity leave for all women employees, regardless of nationality and marital status, without forcing pregnant women to resign (Point 29, 30b)
  • To adopt legislation guaranteeing equal pay for equal value work (Point 30c)
  • To adopt legislation on sexual harassment at the workplace and schools, including sanctions, civil remedies and compensation for victims (Point 30d)
  • To adopt legislation ensuring that foreign domestic workers are entitled to adequate wages, decent working conditions, including a day off (Point 32a)
  • Ratify the ILO Conventions No.111 concerning Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation and the ILO Convention No.189 concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers. (Point 32d)
  • To review the current legal system governing marriage with a view to extending existing legal provisions to couples living in de facto unions (Point 34c)

Other recommendations referred to matters related to Singapore’s current CEDAW reservations, human trafficking, education, aesthetic clinics and spas, human trafficking, political representation, foreign wives, foreign domestic workers and so on.

Keeping the spotlight on human rights

Still, international scrutiny is not a magic pill. Now that the CEDAW Sessions are over, the international spotlight has swung away again from Singapore’s standard of gender equality, and all the other inter-related human rights issues.

Based on past experiences of accountability and public discourse in Singapore, I suspect it will be too easy for our government to let the difficult questions and recommendations lapse from political memory, or for them to dismiss the CEDAW human rights experts as foreigners who ‘know nothing’ of our ‘conservative society’, ‘Asian values’ or of ‘Singapore’s unique situation’ – much like how our government dismissed the recommendations by UN Special Rapporteur on Racism Mr Githu Muigai in April 2010. (See ‘MFA’s Response to the Press Statement of Mr Githu Muigai, UN Special Rapporteur‘)

Unless of course we keep the spotlight on. We may not agree on all the issues or recommendations or methods, but we don’t have to. For those of us who believe in the importance of human rights, we can continue to push for the elimination of discrimination in our own ways: Tell stories, ask questions, conduct surveys for documentation, run sustained collaborative campaigns, volunteer our energy and resources to help the disadvantaged or disenfranchised, discuss these issues in our homes, schools, media and community groups, or – very simply – continue to be kind and compassionate to people around us, protecting Others’ rights as we would our own.

Some suggestions for further reading and evaluation:

Read the Civil Society’s joint media release HERE.

  • popcorn

    How to have gender equality, so far no grooming for female PM, even the annuity payment, whether CPF or private, women get discriminated by receiving less.
    No human rights to talk about, the Judiciary is Govt controlled, anyone deemed anti PAP Govt have been arrested and jailed, or ISA nabbed without trial.

  • Sashaqueenie

    iVOTEahMENG, you sure are a very self centered individual. Do you really believe the world revolve around you, that the PAP would listen to you? They have been doing things their way for over 40 years. They are completely in love with their success story, the crowning achievement that is Singapore. No way were they going to let a Brit continue with his expose that only the elite in Singapore can get away with crimes while the poor and marginalised have no one to turn to. Even right now, the PAP, headed by the Lees, are adamantly self assured that what they have been doing is right. That all this talk about the preservation of human rights is complete hogwash. Everything, including all Singaporeans, are collateral damage to them. They will not take their reviews and condemnations seriously. The only way we can save ourselves is if there is a complete regime change. That the heads of states and departments and ministries are changed. Top to bottom removed. This will be the only way in which equality and human rights prevail in Singapore.

  • chris

    well done ladies! i’m proud to be singaporean because of you.

  • http://www, Bridget Tan

    I noticed that TOC left out completely the presence of HOME at the UN CEDAW Session and that we submitted a shadow report on discrimination against Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore and the need for an Anti Human Trafficking laws. In the Concluding Observations the Committee actually used our exact words to urge the State to ratify the ILO DW Convention and to enact an Anti Human Trafficking law and ratify the UN Protocol on Trafficking in Persons.

  • peter

    To the poster above, if the issues you represent are already getting so much coverage in the ILO DW convention, don’t you think you should give other ngos and issues a chance? Not nice to always hog the limelight right?

  • Simon

    As usual, the homosexuals had conveniently turned and twist the report into a fight for homosexuals rights…good try but the more they do it, the more push back you’ll get!

    Go for a vote, and I’m very very sure that majority of Singaporeans will support the government stand!

    We just cannot let these homosexuals change their deviant and abnormal lifestyle into gender rights, or disguise it as a fight against human rights!

    Homosexuality is merely another disease than those inflicted with had refused to aknowledge that they are sick!

  • theonlinecitizen

    Bridget, it’s corrected. Thanks for pointing it out.

  • bORN tHIS wAY

    yeap, MOTHERs & SISTERs , fight for us! fight for LGBTQ right! well done.

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  • dopppelganger

    Mdm Halimah Yacob who now heads the MCYS should put her own house at MCYS in order before she can represent the Human Rights of Women and Children in Singapore to UN CEDAW. I am referring to the rough deal dealt out to Baby Mohamed Isaac who was bundled off to Malaysia with his mother as soon as the latter got out of a Singapore prison. Consequently Isaac had to be put in an orphanage in Johore despite pleas by his caregivers in Singapore to allow him to stay in Singapore until the mother sort out things for herself in terms of her own livelihood. The caregivers were accused of wanting to adopt Baby Isaac which to the MCYS may be a heinous breach of cargiver’s contract. We did watch a video wherein Baby Isaac was dragged away from the caregivers amidst his pathetic protests. MCYS could easily have arranged for a later time for the mother to take the child. Instead they took the view that when the mother who is a Malaysian goes, the child goes with her, pronto. Incidentlally Isaac’s illegitimate father is a Singaporean who is still in prison in Singapore because of a drug offense.In this situation one has to ask whether the welfare of the child has been taken into account. He could have enjoyed the loving environment of his caregiver’s house for a little longer awaiting the time his mother could find a job and settle down. It could have been explored whether the present caregivers could even care for him in extended time if they waive any payment for the work as the mother herself has expressed the fact that she is unable to care for him at once. Also since the biological father is a Singapore citizen, does not this fact warrant some extra help to see to the welfare of Baby Isaac. Many people in Singapore have written in to Online citizen expressing their dismay at the callous treatment meted out to Baby Isaac. His rights as a child is certainly violated right in the presence of Halimah Yacob, who kept her mouth tightly shut during the whole episode while there is still a chance to do something good for the child. What sort of representation could such a person make to the UN about human welfare, especially the welfare of children? She is all caught up by her own safety zone, not wishing to rock the boat holding her precious job as an officeholder in Government. This kind of person can sit in any Committee, nursing all along nothing else but her own welfare. MCYS itself, the Statutory board she heads has no good reputation for helping people. It has been said that once you have to deal with the MCYS you are entering a world of rigmarole.

  • Hmm


    I can say the same about right-wing slimeballs like you, always conveniently and cowardly using homosexuals as a target whenever it suits you.

  • csaf

    “To criminalize domestic violence and marital rape (Point 24a) ”

    How does a husband rapes his wife? Pray tell. Some of these recommendations are more for the violence we see in western countries.

    We asians don’t have this sort of thinking. It’s called reasonable conjugal duty. I suggest they fix their own sit. We need to fix ours.

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  • blacktryst

    I applaud the NGOs bravery to send in shadow reports to the United Nations but yes, ultimately, the Singapore government will usually just ignore these issues as side shows rather than important societal issues. In all honesty, many countries including many in the western world, even in the states and Canada still routinely discriminate against women in terms of employment or salaries or even rights. To be truly democratic, all sections of society has to be given equal opportunities and rights, be they different in gender, race, religion or sexual differences.

    Reply @csaf. Non consensual sex is still rape no matter what even in the context of marital status. If a wife is being beaten by the husband, do you consider that reasonable conjugal duty? No. I assume you are male. Imagine if you had an abusive father/uncle who beats you all the time and even rapes you sexually, do you consider that reasonable familial duty? Of course not because it is Non consensual! Please get your ethics correct.

  • Mark

    Local press mentioned that MCYS renamed its Women’s Desk as the Office for Women’s Development. Guess to sort of pay lip service to being more concerned abt women’s rights…? The UN panel though was not convinced and quite sharp to spot it and say it doesn’t make a difference!

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  • Emma


    You are an absolute barbaric ignorant homophobic bigot.

    Every major scientific organization in the world has said that homosexuality is a normal and positive variant of human sexuality.

    It’s not a lifestyle or choice you bigot. It’s an inborn characteristic.