Think Centre – 2012 National Day Message
Strengthen our collective spirit to sustain our home
10 Aug, Singapore – Think Centre (TC), Singapore's oldest political association, calls on all to work together to strengthen our collective spirit to sustain our home, as the nation celebrates its 47th year of independence. This is especially crucial in the context of the dramatic pace of change around the world within the last 12 months and to break free from the chains of the crisis. Human security, economic well-being and social-cultural diversity are increasingly under threat from both human and ecological agents in the current milieu. For Singapore, there are threats to our social fabric, to our livelihoods, to our rights and dignity.
Even as the last fireworks fades away on Singapore's 47th birthday, the happiness of our fellow citizens and residents are being eroded even as the government is trying to bring changes in its approach to policies formulation and implementation. There were some seemingly bold changes to the cabinet in bringing in younger Ministers but will they be able to deliver the much desired call for a better, just, democratic and free, sharing and caring society?
Will we be able to see the making of a society that can deliver the people from the stress and unhappiness due to outdated government policies that has served to reap the benefits from a globalized economy at the cost of entrenching economic and social inequalities? Will there be a paradigm shift in the government's thinking to address the currently limited unemployment welfare and inadequate social protection?
To better strengthen our collective ability to cope with the demands of a dynamic changing world, Think Centre urges the Government to rethink its approach in governance. For a start, it should address the following areas of currently prevailing concerns whereby human rights intersect with good governance, particularly in the areas of transparency, civil and political rights, economic and socio-cultural rights:
Transparency and Accountability: Freedom of Information Act
The recent exposes in terms of institutional accountability and transparency are worrying. With the alleged corruption scandals afflicting certain government agencies and maladministration concerning public institutions including religious institutions and universities, it shows not only human frailties as well as inadequacy of checks and balances. Such a deficiency that facilitates human greed and misappropriation could have been prevented by greater freedom of information.
The failings of various public infrastructure systems have also cast further aspersions on the Government's famed efficiency and near zero corruption. The probable negligence of various state agencies led to the unimaginable expose of series of scandals of civil servants, some from high offices, corruption, sex, and even sex with under age girls. The MRT disruptions caused costly interruptions to people's lives and the subsequent acknowledgement of an under-maintained and overcrowded public transportation system reflects a sorry lack of accountability by the state.
All this serious issues reflects the increasing lack of transparency and access to information for the public at large. Without a clear avenue to recourse and the heavy handed approach by the government in the form of the Official Secrets Act (OSA), discourages "whistle-blowers" . The Government provides limited protection for those who informed on acts of corruption and the abuses of their superior.The memory of the State's high-handedness in persecuting political commentators does not set the minds and hearts of Singaporeans at ease to report on any errant superiors.
Its the right time for the parliament to pass a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act and promote a culture of human rights to ensure the people enjoy full dignity as human beings and that the government and civil servants are transparent and accountable to the people. A failure to act is to merely perpetuate a Government that operates without a culture to promote and protect human rights, one that effectively denies the development of a society where fundamental freedoms of assembly and association are respected and the full exercising of freedom of expression and speech are protected.
Civil Political Rights
Think Centre welcomed the government’s pledge to do more on human rights to reduce the gaps towards effective and meaningful implementation of human rights as its response to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the nation-state at the 18th session of the United Nations (U.N) Human Rights Council. It was without a doubt disappointing that the Government of Singapore took the podium to reject key recommendations regarding concerns such as abolition of capital punishment and the Internal Security Act, the establishment of independent election body and national human rights institution. We urge the Government to be more receptive in establishing dialogue with civil society to address these fundamental hindrances in fostering a better society.
Death Penalty in Singapore
The recent announcement by the Deputy Prime Minister to review the mandatory death penalty for drug-related and murder offences is long overdue. Think Centre welcomes the Singapore Government's move to review the mandatory death penalty while consistently appealing for gradual abolition of the death penalty and to seek alternatives punishment that will be effective to ensure a safe environment. Our call for the removal of the mandatory capital punishment has been partly answered through the recently proposed revision to provide judicial discretion for judges.
There is however much more work needed to be done to inform the public and pave the way towards total removal of the mandatory death penalty (MDP) and eventually the abolishment of the death penalty as a judicial punishment. The current stay of executions represents a rare window of opportunity for the public to discuss and re-examine both the purpose and effectiveness of the death penalty. Singapore should similarly embark on the use of multi-pronged approaches to solve problems of drug addiction from a human rights and social health perspective rather then as a criminal justice issue. We, as a society, should adopt a system where justice is meted out in a fair and humane manner.
Economic, Cultural and Social Rights
Better social safety nets
Even while the national day celebrations goes on in various forms we should not forget that Singapore's 5.2 million people including the 37 percent of foreign residences and workers deserves a better, stronger and more institutionalized social safety net that can mitigate the costs of a small economy plugged into the global economy. Since the last general elections, there have been calls by established figures from or affiliated respected institutions to recalibrate Singapore’s approach toward greater sharing of the economic fruits through better redistributive measures. It was a disheartening moment when the Government responded with less than warm reception for such mildly progressive reformist calls.
It is thus sad that the current status quo remains for many of our families who are suffering in need of better social safety nets to help cope with basic needs, young couples delaying starting their families because of the lack of affordable public housing. Previously unheard of half-century home loans are now on offer for aspiring young citizens to ‘purchase’ illusory assets. The lack of child-care facilities and pre-school institutions impacts severely the ability of all families, including single parents and their children, to prepare our young children for an education system very different from their parent’s generation. The fate of low-income earners and the elderly poor who do not have the benefit of decent wage or minimum wages deserve much more care and access to decent living conditions, and especially good low cost health-care. It remains to be seen if the newly formed Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) can formulate forward thinking policies to address these issues.
Migrant workers in Singapore
Migrant workers have been an integral part of Singapore’s development for a very long time. The majority of the migrant workers are deployed in almost all sectors of the economy, particularly in areas where locals are not willing or able to work, such as the construction, cleaning and increasingly the service industries. They are also found in large numbers in the informal sectors, mainly employed as domestic workers. While it is publicly acknowledged that migrant workers contribute much in economic terms to Singapore’s economy, however there is much less knowledge and acknowledgement that they are protected less than adequately under the current employment legal framework. While Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has taken some steps earlier this year to review some of the frameworks such as the Employment of the Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA) and the inclusion of a day off provision for domestic workers (taking with effect from 2013), careful reviews must be made in view of the Government's intention to tighten the inflow of foreign/migrant workers vis-a-vis the prioritization of Singaporean workers as the 'core' of the workforce. The reviews need to take into account the lack of parity in employment rights between local and foreign workers, if not, local workers will always lose out as long as foreign workers are easy to exploit and remain vulnerable. The divide between local workers and foreign workers are artificial. The struggle is for all workers to claim the rights that belong to them.
Question of Development erasing our shared cultural heritage: Bukit Brown Cemetery
Even as the leaders of Singapore are crowing about the first world status of the country in recent years, the current practices in terms of land acquisition, planning and development belies an entrenched developmentalist mindset that bulldozes its way with no regards for the people's wishes. It was sheer luck that some groups of determined civil society actors were able to designated for preservation areas like Chek Jawa and Tanjong Pagar railway line. In contrast, Bukit Brown Cemetery a living green space where the unique combination of nature and heritage thrives is facing a drastically different fate. There is an urgent need to have a common shared heritage and in-depth understanding of the Singapore people's history. Bukit Brown Cemetery is a repository where lesson of past generations' pioneers and ordinary migrants, their struggles and contribution towards the current state of development in Singapore can be passed on to the present and future generations.The area is a unique sanctuary of existing biodiversity and intangible heritage critical to the strengthening of our Singapore identity. It is necessary for the exercise of cultural freedoms and for enabling individuals and groups to address and manage cultural changes in present times, to allow for a participatory way and to safeguard, develop and transmit people's cultural and natural heritage.
Way Forward: Reforms and Sacred Cows
Think Centre welcomes the Prime Minister’s recent proclamation to "review all policies” and there will be no “sacred cows ". However we hope that there will not be a repeat of the Prime Minister’s recantation on his stance regarding the repealing of the Internal Security Act (ISA). Nor should it be into a public relations exercise like the Singapore 21 whereby the “scared cows” from 1997 are still left grazing around the fields in 2012.
This 47th National Day, Think Centre therefore calls upon the Government and fellow Singaporeans to reflect, review and to support the following:
1. Impose permanent moratorium on the mandatory death penalty to all on the death row whilst allowing time for public discourse and debate on the death penalty;
2. Implement a mandatory public consultation channels with the Government and all civil society organisations and interested public on social, education and human rights related issues (e.g., Singapore’s pledges at the United Nations Universal Periodic Review);
3. Introduce a Freedom of Information Act to mandate that government agencies make available all non-security policy and administrative information to citizens;
4. Review the decisions on development decisions earmarked in Masterplan planned years ago – such as the Bukit Brown Cemetery with a view toward safeguarding irreplaceable sites with heritage and environmental value
As we move beyond the celebration of our 47th birthday, much remains to be seen as the government seems to make changes to national policies and ministerial team.
Singaporeans desire for a democratic and free, sharing and caring, society which we call home.
We wish every Singaporean and resident a Happy National Day weekend.
Kong Soon Tan