Note: The writer is a member of We Believe in Second Chances, an anti-death penalty group that is part of the Alliance of Like-Minded Civil Society Organisations in Singapore (ALMOS).
The human rights struggles we see in films are often epic, emotional and inspirational; triumphant tales of the human spirit prevailing over cruelty, anger and hate. These stories have is leaving the theatre brimming with righteous fervour, determined to join a crusade for justice.
It’s rarely like that in real life.
For members of Singapore’s civil society on Wednesday night (Singapore time) the struggle for human rights was more a struggle to stay awake as over 100 UN member states made commented on Singapore’s human rights record at its second Universal Periodic Review, alternating between pointless congratulations and often vague recommendations about areas of improvement.
The Universal Periodic Review, or UPR, is a mechanism of the United Nations Human Rights Council. It goes in four-year cycles, looking at the human rights record of UN member states.
During the UPR, violations of human rights are addressed and recommendations are made. The state under review is entitled to accept, review or reject the recommendations made.
The whole process is sometimes criticised as political theatre, where recommendations don't really go anywhere and the state under review makes its own excuses, and there is some validity in such criticism. But the UPR is also significant in that it allows civil society groups to do lobbying work and make sure that breaches of human rights are set down for the record. It's also a chance to get a statement out of the state under review over particular controversial issues, information which can be used for future advocacy and engagement efforts.
Countries lined up on Wednesday to commend Singapore on its progress on some fronts, while highlighting concerns. Issues that received attention from multiple member states included the death penalty, the protection of the rights of migrant workers, LGBTI equality, abolishing preventive detention without trial and removing marital immunity for rape, among others.
Singapore will have until June to consider and review the recommendations, but some responses were already made at Wednesday's session. It was nothing that activists in Singapore hadn't heard before: that the death penalty was an effective deterrent to criminals, thus keeping the city-state safe, that no one is persecuted for criticising the government, but that speech must be responsible, that the reputations of politicians must be protected in the courts if they have been defamed.
The justification for the retention of Section 377A of the Penal Code – which criminalises sex between adult men – was also as expected:
Unwilling to let things rest there, a coalition of civil society groups in Singapore swung into action the day after the UPR session, holding a press conference to make their own responses known.
The Alliance of Like-Minded Civil Society Organisations in Singapore, or ALMOS, is made up of a range of civil society and human rights groups: the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), queer women's group Sayoni, anti-death penalty groups We Believe in Second Chances and the Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign, human rights think tank Think Centre, migrant rights group the Humanitarian Organisation of Migration Economics (HOME), sex workers' rights group Project X and Function 8, a group of former political detainees who advocate against detention without trial. The coalition had submitted a shadow report to the UPR.
Speaking to mainstream media journalists on Thursday, five panellists from ALMOS gave their take on the UPR session, putting forth their own recommendations.
Jolene Tan of AWARE further stressed the need to remove marital immunity for rape, thus guaranteeing victims of domestic violence the right to due process and protection from their abusive husbands.
Jean Chong from Sayoni wasted no time in pointing out the flaws in Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee's characterisation of the situation related to LGBTI individuals in Singapore. Although S377A only targets gay men, Chong pointed out that this anti-gay law, coupled with legislative and administrative discrimination against LGBTI individuals, was a breach of international human rights.
Furthermore, media content that portrays LGBTI persons and relationships in a neutral or positive light are often censored from the mainstream media in Singapore, leaving young queer Singaporeans with a dearth of positive role models in the media.
"What we have is a vicious cycle of pretence, that by letting gays meet in Hong Lim Park and have fun in bars things are okay, but at the end of the day it is our fundamental right to be human and to be treated equally as citizens and live without oppression in our lives," Chong said.
Jolovan Wham of HOME emphasised the importance of including migrant domestic workers in the Employment Act, thus giving them protections over working hours and conditions. He pointed out that although the government has mandated a weekly day off for domestic workers, this legislation is in no way enough to make up for their exclusion from the Employment Act.
With so many countries taking issue with the resumption of executions in Singapore, Damien Chng of We Believe in Second Chances took the opportunity to further press the government for establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing capital punishment. He pointed out that Singapore had never provided any criminological evidence that the death penalty is actually an effective deterrence in preventing crime, nor has the government addressed the inevitability of error in the system leading to a wrongful execution.
Additionally, Chng took issue with the use of corporal punishment in the form of caning in prisons. Based on interviews with inmates who had been caned in prison, activists found that the care provided after the whipping – which can go up to as much as 24 strokes in one session – was (literally) sorely inadequate.
Finally, Chng Suan Tze of Function 8 reiterated the call to abolish the Internal Security Act, which allows the government to detain people without trial. Herself detained under this Act in the 1980s, Ms Chng pointed out that this legislation had already been abused many times in Singapore, most notably during sweeps in the 1960s and the 1980s.
"Detention without trial is unconstitutional and cannot protect human rights. It can be abused and it has been abused many times. It has been used against dissenters, people who criticise government policies, and there is insufficient transparency in the processes," she said, adding that it was surely possible to come up with laws to tackle terrorism without subjecting people to an Act that would detain them without giving them a fair trial.
Human rights is not a popular subject in Singapore. It is often seen as "idealistic", as opposed to the sensible and pragmatic practices of trade and industry. The government has long seen the pursuit of economic development as the priority, convinced that economic development would trickle down into better human rights and quality of life for its citizens.
Hidden in this rhetoric are many myths, myths which civil society organisations have long questioned in Singapore. ALMOS is simply the latest effort by advocacy groups to continue highlighting the many issues that the city-state continues to face, and activists made clear that their efforts would not end with this UPR.
This article was first published in Kirsten Han's Byline column. To support her writings, visit the Byline website.