Siew Kum Hong

We have spent more than enough years hearing about our obligations as citizens without a corresponding discourse on our rights.

I came late to activism, and later to human rights activism. Although I’ve always firmly believed in the importance of human rights, I never really delved into the subject, other than some scratching of the surface during my law school days. Like so many other Singaporeans, I took subjects that were more “practical” and “relevant” to my future professional career.

Serves me right then for the steep learning curve I am now experiencing, just when time is at a greater premium than at any other point in my life, because I now understand that human rights are at least as practical and relevant to my life as a whole as anything else out there.

The most profound realisation that has struck me since I started taking baby tip-toes into the sea of human rights activism is how human rights permeate so many aspects of life. Many, if not most, Singaporeans mistakenly associate the term with the lofty ideals of civil and political rights, such as the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

But it is a mistake to limit one’s conception of human rights in such a manner. They might be the most headline-grabbing, but they fail to do justice to just how many aspects of daily life human rights are concerned with.

After all, human rights include social, cultural and economic rights as well. For example, Article 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Agreement to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a pre-condition to membership in the United Nations. Singapore as a UN member-state therefore has the obligation to comply with Article 25. I think we fall at least a little bit short, especially on the second part of the article.

Here are two other examples of how seemingly mundane matters that were recently in the news in Singapore can be re-cast as human rights issues when analysed through the prism of human rights.

Firstly, the 1June edition of the Sunday Times carried a story about how children were not having meaningful school holidays at all, what with tuition and enrichment classes galore. Well, Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which Singapore has acceded to, provides:

1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

2. States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.

I certainly agree that parents acting in the best interest of the child and with due respect for the views of the child should be entitled to decide whether the child should go for an endless stream of classes during their precious school holidays.

However, I think it is valid for us to question the role of the state, and specifically the education system, in facilitating, encouraging and perpetuating such a state of affairs, and whether the state should institute changes for better compliance with its obligations under the CRC.

Secondly, we do not require foreign domestic workers (FDWs) to be given a mandatory day off (whether weekly, monthly, or even at all). Article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (which Singapore has not signed) provides for

the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work which ensure, in particular … (d) Rest, leisure and reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay, as well as remuneration for public holidays.

Article 25 of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which Singapore (and to be fair, most other receiving countries) has not signed, provides:

1. Migrant workers shall enjoy treatment not less favourable than that which applies to nationals of the State of employment in respect of remuneration and:

a. Other conditions of work, that is to say, overtime, hours of work, weekly rest, holidays with pay, safety, health, termination of the employment relationship and any other conditions of work which, according to national law and practice, are covered by this term; …

2. It shall not be lawful to derogate in private contracts of employment from the principle of equality of treatment referred to in paragraph 1 of the present article. …”

Meanwhile, Singapore has acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), but ironically with a reservation that withholds the labour rights under the Employment Act from FDWs. So much for elimination of discrimination.

What I have sought to do in these examples is to illustrate that many issues not commonly associated with human rights can and do have a human rights element. What is lacking in Singapore is the knowledge, awareness, willingness and desire to analyse issues from a rights-based perspective.

Yes, there are many who do not know better. But there are many who do know better, but dare not articulate a rights-based discourse for fear of a negative reaction from officialdom. As a result, they tip-toe around the human rights elephant in the middle of the room.

I think we have spent more than enough years hearing about our obligations as citizens without a corresponding discourse on our rights. The emergence of a rights-based discourse in Singapore is long overdue. There are many different ways in which one can work towards this. I am hopeful that, in my own small way, I am part of this effort.

About the author:

The writer is a Nominated Member of Parliament and corporate counsel. He is a firm believer in the importance of human rights, despite being non-religious and more frequently accused of being overly-moderate than fanatical. Since late last year, he has been part of MARUAH Singapore (, a human-rights group that seeks to facilitate and inform the establishment of the ASEAN human rights mechanism from a Singapore perspective.

Kum Hong also has a personal blog here.

TOC thanks Kum Hong for taking the time to pen this for us.


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