Certain ethnic groups marginalised by government policies, UN expert says

Singapore needs to better protect the human rights of low-skilled migrant workers and review policies that marginalise certain ethnic groups, a United Nations racism expert said Wednesday.

“I would strongly urged the government to act swiftly to ensure the protection of migrant workers’ human rights, as this is one area where the situation is quite dire,” UN Special Rapporteur on racism and xenophobia, Githu Muigai, told reporters after concluding an eight-day fact-finding mission here.

“While there may be no institutionalised racial discrimination in Singapore, several policies have further marginalised certain ethnic groups,” he added, highlighting various shortcomings in the government’s housing, education and employment policies.

He urged Singapore should extend and enhance the coverage of the Employment Act and introduce “a minimum wage for migrant workers particularly vulnerable to exploitation, such as construction and domestic workers.”

This would help address some difficulties faced by low-skilled migrant workers, such as a foreign labour system that leaves workers highly dependent upon employers, unilateral cancellations of work permits by employers, poor living conditions, and denial of medical insurance. The plight of many foreign domestic workers, who are excluded from the legal protections offered by the Employment Act, would also be alleviated.

While acknowledging Singapore’s efforts in fostering racial harmony and discouraging intolerance, Muigai found that some of the government’s policies may be counterproductive.

“Despite the existence of various policies and institutions seeking to provide all ethnic groups with equal opportunities, it would appear that the significance of ethnic identity has not diminished,” he said.

This has resulted in instances of ethnic marginalisation, such as the entrenchment of minority status through ethnic categorisations, the minority political representation dimension to the group representative constituency system, the academic under-performance of Malay students, and under-representation of minorities in the armed forces, police and intelligence services and judiciary.

To address these problems, he recommended the removal of ethnic indicators from identity documentation, greater flexibility in the implementation of ethnic quotas in HDB estates, special education programmes for Malay students to address historical inequalities, and the introduction of legal provisions prohibiting all forms of discrimination in employment.

He also urged the government to facilitate open public discussions on issues of ethnicity by easing laws that “aim to frame and limit any public debate or discourse on an issue considered as highly sensitive.”

“I think they stand in the way of a more robust and engaging debate in Singapore,” he said. “Singapore has a vibrant intellectual culture, and this culture should be exploited in the development of a national discourse.”

An international human rights lawyer by training, Muigai also recommended several improvements to Singapore’s legal framework, including legislation banning racial discrimination in all areas of life.

This would allow for the creation of reporting, reviewing and enforcement mechanisms on issues of racism, he said.

In addition, Singapore should sign up to international instruments, such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which prescribe an “irreducible minimum standard” for human rights protection.

Muigai, who is the first UN Special Rapporteur on racism to visit Singapore, had held meetings over the past week with government representatives, parliamentarians, legal professionals, academics and members of civil society and community organisations, and private individuals.

He expects to present more detailed findings to the UN Human Rights Council by June 2011. This will be the first report on Singapore by a UN Special Procedure.

Appointed by the UN Secretary General, the Special Rapporteur on racism is mandated to examine incidents of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, as well as governmental measures that are implemented to overcome them. Like all UN Special Rapporteurs, he can only visit countries upon invitation.

By Wong Chun Han

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Headline picture from this source.

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