When it comes to human rights, Singapore is not the country that springs to mind. After all, Singapore has not acceded to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Internal Securities Act still remains in force.
Perhaps the best way to determine the place of human rights in Singapore is to examine how human rights are defined.
Generally speaking, human rights can be divided into (1) economic, social and cultural rights; and (2) civil and political rights. Economic, social and cultural rights are broadly speaking, socio-economic human rights, such as the right to education, the right to housing, and the right to health. For the most part, Singapore fulfils these although there are clearly issues concerning the right to housing, as can be seen by the recent sky rocketing HDB prices and the DBSS debacle. There is also criticism levelled at the cost of health care in Singapore. By and large, however, these rights are mostly met and where they fall short, there are ongoing attempts to rectify the failures. Whether these attempts are sufficient are the subjects of another discussion.
Civil and political rights are a class of rights that protect individuals' freedom from unwarranted infringement by governments and private organizations, and ensure one's ability to participate in the civil and political life of the state without discrimination or repression. This is the area where most criticism is levelled against Singapore. Singapore has been a one-party state for over 50 years and there is certainly evidence to suggest that opposition politicians were strong armed into submission. Operation Spectrum also looms like a black cloud in the not-too-distant past. In addition, Singapore was ranked 133rd out of 175 nations by Reporters without borders in the Worldwide Press Freedom Index in 2009. (And even dropped to 136th in 2010.)
From a holistic approach, despite Singapore's human rights record being far from satisfactory, it is not fair to say that human rights do not exist in Singapore, and activists who claim otherwise are not looking at the entire picture. While Singapore has not ratified many international treaties, it has acceded to CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women), albeit with reservations. The government of Singapore has also expressed its intention to accede to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) by 2012.
Of course, much can be done to improve its reputation and much remains to be done by way of introducing more clearly defined civil and political rights. However, in order to seek improvement and achieve a healthy balance between international norms and what Singaporeans want, we need to first understand the situation in Singapore.
The first distinction that needs to be drawn is the difference between what Singaporeans want and what the government wants. To achieve what Singaporeans want, their interests have to be fairly and accurately represented in Parliament. If GE 2011 is anything to go by, this is slowly coming into being.
Secondly, Singaporeans need to be informed adequately with regards to what constitutes human rights. This can begin with the education system. I am not talking about a major overhaul. All I am suggesting is for human rights to be introduced into the education system. This will breed awareness and in awareness, discussion.
At this point in time, there is a certain resistance to the notion of human rights as being "Western" in nature and thereby any attempts to introduce it could be deemed a "western interference". While there may be some truth to this, there is a danger that in our aversion to deemed interference, we dismiss that which can benefit our society in one broad brush without even considering its merits.
There is also the issue of insufficient press coverage. Singaporeans may not be aware of certain incidents which have led the world community to admonish Singapore. These incidents while reported widely worldwide received scant coverage in Singapore.
For instance, many may not be aware that Mugabe was in Singapore for secret cancer check ups in 2008. Similarly, they may not have been aware that in 2009, Mugabe and his family holidayed in Singapore. Being linked to Mugabe is controversial because while his visits were of a private nature, there is widespread knowledge and indeed strong evidence of his abuse of human rights in his home country of Zimbabwe. Had Singaporeans known of his reputation, they might have opposed his visits to Singapore!
With alternative news outlets such as The Temasek Review, The Online Citizen, Mr Brown, Yawning Bread and many other blogs, information is slowly trickling to citizens.
Leaving discussions on gay rights and the death penalty aside, many in our society actually support the proliferation of human rights in Singapore. If comments on popular news forums are anything to go by, many Singaporeans want the infamous ISA to be abolished. They have also called for increased freedom to be given to reporters reporting on political issues in the mainstream media. Most Singaporeans also want equal coverage to be given to the agendas and speeches of opposition parties in main stream publications.
(As an aside, I am not including gay rights and the death penalty in this discussion because while these rights are important, I am aware that Singaporeans remain sharply divided over these issues and to introduce these into our present discussion would detract from the point of this discourse.)
My point is this. For Singaporeans to enjoy the rights that they want, they first need to be made aware of their rights. The PAP only backpedaled when they realised that they could no longer hide their mistakes. Awareness and information are therefore powerful tools. If Singaporeans are made better aware of what human rights truly mean, based on international standards, they will be in a better position to choose what rights they want and pressure the government into giving them.
Introduction through the means of education in school is one way, going forward. At this point, however, what we need to do, is raise the profile of the concept of human rights in Singapore. The human rights logo initiative involving both Germany and Singapore, among others, is therefore an excellent idea. Many netizens have dismissed Singapore's participation as "madness". I beg to differ.
By involving Singaporeans in the design of this logo, it is popularising the notion of human rights in Singapore. In coming up with a logo design, Singaporeans will have to think about human rights and what it represents to them. With critical thought, comes understanding, and with understanding comes a genuine ability to formulate a brand of human rights which will serve the dual purpose of being both Singaporean and yet be on par with international norms.
It will also put Singapore under the international spotlight. The Singapore government will be put in a highly uncomfortable position if it participated in the design of the logo but yet did nothing to improve its reputation! By recognising Singapore as a partner in this project, Germany is putting Singapore in a position of responsibility, giving it added impetus to reform its own system. If the world sees Singapore as a country that respects human rights, Singapore and Singaporeans will gradually come to see themselves as such and act accordingly. It is therefore positive reinforcement.
Where publicity amongst Singaporeans is concerned, this project has already gone a long way. When asked how Singaporeans can contribute to this effort, Mr Michael Windfuhr, Deputy Director of the German Institute for Human Rights, replied "I would like to thank all the people that have already participated - many of them from Singapore!"