By Darren Boon
An independent human rights advocacy organisation criticised Singapore’s continued restrictions on human rights despite several small signs of progress in the area.
Human Rights Watch in its World Report 2013 released Jan 31 said, “The Singapore government in 2012 continued to sharply restrict basic rights to free expression, peaceful assembly, and association.”
The report also noted “small signs of progress” in areas such as “changes in mandatory death penalty laws, and limited improvements in protecting the rights of migrant workers and combating human trafficking”.
According to a press release on Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch said: ““Singapore’s status as a world-class economy has not kept it from having a remarkably poor record in respecting the rule of law, and civil and political rights. The Singaporean people must be wondering when their government is going to trust them enough to exercise the same basic rights as people elsewhere.”
The report also criticised Singapore for doing little in ensuring that ASEAN “engaged meaningfully with civil society organisations, particularly during development of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration” that came into effect Nov 2012.
The report said that while Singapore’s constitution guarantees the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, restrictions are put in place due to security, public order, morality as well as racial and religious harmony.
Restrictions apply to the media, outdoor gatherings of five or more people require a police permit, associations of more than 10 members need approval from the Registrar of Societies.
Bloggers have been threatened with litigation, the report said.
The report criticised Singapore for keeping the Internal Security Act (ISA) and judicial caning. However, the report signalled positive developments in laws that allow for the dropping of mandatory death penalty in murder and drug trafficking cases to allow for life imprisonment with caning if certain conditions are met.
The report also highlighted that sexual acts between consenting adult men are still criminalised.
Rights of migrant workers has somewhat improved but still lacking, the report noted. A significant power imbalance exists in favour of the employer. Foreign domestic workers are excluded from the Employment Act and other labour protections such as the maximum daily work hours.
Issues such as long work hours, poor living conditions, and enforced living confinement have yet to be addressed. Foreign workers suffer forced labour through debts to recruitment agencies, non-payment of wages, restricted movements, confiscated passports as well as abuse.
The report said that “the government is still not in compliance with minimum standards for trafficking elimination” and whiles protection and prevention has been improved, “prosecutorial efforts have been weak”.
“Singapore is one of only nine countries that did not vote for passage of International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. It has not ratified the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons,” the report said.
The report also said that “human rights defenders in Singapore risk being fined, imprisoned and banned from travelling outside the country without government approval”.
Mr Robertson had a stinging rebuke for Singapore, “The international community should not be taken in by Singapore claims on human rights,. Ask a rights advocate, an opposition activist, or a migrant worker what they think about today’s Singapore, and the repressive back-story of this glistening city-state will come out.”
Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders in its Press Freedom Index 2013 ranked Singapore 149 out of 179, just one spot ahead of Iraq (150) and Malaysia (145).
Singapore’s previous ranking was 135.