Singapore’s human rights subject to international peer review

The Singapore government clings to the outdated doctrine of absolute national sovereignty. Under this principle, states have absolute freedom to decide their own internal affairs and foreign parties have no right to interfere. Casting themselves as holders of the electoral mandate to speak and act for Singapore, our government strongly rejects attempts by outside parties to take an interest in Singapore’s domestic affairs, challenging critics to a fight.

You see this principle at work when the government punishes foreign media for commenting critically on them. Punishment takes the form of defamation suits and restrictions on circulation. Under the radar, there’s also control in the form of  licencing for foreign journalists trying to do interviews in Singapore.

More recently, gazetting of non-government organisations (NGOs) as “political associations” has been in the news. Once so gazetted, NGOs cannot receive help and funding from foreign parties.

Every year at the United Nations, when a General Assembly resolution on the abolition of the death penalty is debated, Singapore leads opposition to the resolution (and is regularly defeated by the majority of UN members). If you look at the arguments made by Singapore, you see a familiar refrain: National sovereignty means no foreign party, not even the UN, can tell the Singapore government what is right or wrong. If the Singapore government wants to go as far as to commit genocide, even that is an act of national sovereignty, and no one outside Singapore has any right to criticise.

The fact is, only authoritarian states cling to this definition of national sovereignty. The world as a whole has been moving away from this atavistic notion for close to a hundred years.

There is today a concept of international law that binds states’ behaviour. Just as an individual is a member of a community and to varying degrees is bound by the community’s laws and customs, so a state, as a member of the international community, is bound by international laws and conventions.

In May next year, Singapore’s usually prickly response to international evaluation will be tested, for that is when we will, for the first time, have our human rights record assessed by fellow members of the international community.

Universal Periodic Review

In 2006, the United Nations set up the UN Human Rights Council, based in Geneva. The Council has all 192 members of the UN under its purview. At the same time, the UN also established a process called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by which the Council will evaluate and promote human rights in member countries.

The UPR operates over a four-year cycle, with one quarter of UN members being subject to review every year. Singapore is among the batch that will come up for assessment in May 2011. It will be Singapore’s first time under the spotlight.

The diagram at right gives you an outline of the UPR process. In preparation for 2011, the first stage has been done. Various local NGOs have submitted reports giving their views about the human rights situation in Singapore to the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR).

These NGOs include People Like Us (discussing discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender persons), Singaporeans for Democracy (discussing shortcomings about our democracy and electoral system), Transient Workers Count Too (discussing treatment of migrant workers), Maruah (discussing capital punishment and detention without trial), and several others. I believe most or all of these groups have put their submissions up online for public perusal.

The next phases are now in progress. Various treaty bodies will also be submitting reports to the OHCHR regarding Singapore’s adherence to treaties that we have signed (not many), while the Singapore government is required to produce its own assessment of the human rights situation by 1 February 2011. No prizes there for guessing the tone of that report to come.

Then it gets interesting.

On Friday, 6 May 2011, between 9 a.m. and noon, Swiss time, Singapore will face the working group of the Human Rights Council in Geneva and take questions from other nations. The proceedings will be webcast.

From what I’ve seen of other countries’ experience, other governments will read the reports submitted or compiled and take up various points to interrogate Singapore over. For example, when Malaysia was under review in 2009, Sweden queried Malaysia about its poor record on gay equality. Britain asked about freedom of religion and “the right to leave a faith”. The Czech Republic’s questions included one concerning its treatment of detainees while the Netherlands asked Kuala Lumpur to elaborate on this point: “The existing right to freedom of assembly in Malaysia seems to be mostly applicable to groups supporting government policies, while groups opposing government policies are often denied permission or targeted for arrests and/or harsh crackdowns.”

You can expect Singapore to be dragged over the coals on similar issues.

After the interrogation session, which the UN calls, in diplomatic language an “Interactive Dialogue”, the Human Rights Council prepares and adopts a list of recommendations. Singapore is then given four years to implement them.

In 2015, another round of the UPR begins for us. Local NGOs will be asked to submit reports on whether the Singapore government has implemented the recommendations. The Singapore government will likewise have a chance to explain itself, and so on.


Public forum

As you can see, the UPR process is designed to involve the voice of the people. The process can become, over time, a significant force for change provided citizens get involved, doing their part to point out to the international community where human rights are insufficient. It does not matter if you have missed the first stage, because the UPR process is a continuing, reiterative process.

Singaporeans for Democracy is holding a public forum to discuss action plans for the next stages leading up to May 2011. Do attend if you can. Here are the details:

Date: Saturday, 4 December 2010
Time: 10:30h to 14:00h
Venue: Hotel Grand Pacific (formerly Allson Hotel), Victoria Room, 2nd Level.

RSVP at SfD’s Facebook event page

31 Responses to “Singapore’s human rights subject to international peer review”

  1. 1 Gosh!!! 25 November 2010 at 23:37

    Any group mentioned about the undemocratic self-service world record salary of ministers too?

  2. 3 Mei 26 November 2010 at 00:02

    Love the boxer’s trunks 🙂

  3. 4 Timothy 26 November 2010 at 04:13

    Would love to see Singapore officials being properly grilled over human rights issues for a change. In Parliament, all the MPs do is to sing sycophantic praises and lob softball questions.

  4. 5 Johannes 26 November 2010 at 06:04

    Well, one of the obvious questions at the HRC session in 2011 will be when Singapore is going to sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Rather strange that a modern state like Singapore put itself into the basket of states like Burma, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Laos.

    On the other hand, I have attended some of those HRC session, and, please, don’t hold your breath.

  5. 6 Merlin 26 November 2010 at 09:41

    My point… so what?!

    Okay, Singapore is being questioned publicly in an international forum by other countries… UNHRC prepares a list of recommendations…

    BUT Singapore can simply refuse or reject to follow the recommendations… what can UN do? Kick Singapore out of it? Sanction trade embargoes?

    Or what if Singapore implements the recommendations at the surface level without changing much.. eg the Speakers Corner… yes, anyone can speak there publicly but… must register with relevant authorities and no taboo topics please…

    Nothing will be changed… but I hope I am wrong

  6. 7 Desmond 26 November 2010 at 10:35

    Yea, what happens if after 4 years, nothing has changed? What happens to the state? Is there actually any teeth to this process or is it just a toothless snake?

  7. 8 yawningbread 26 November 2010 at 10:48

    One of the reasons why change happens so slowly in Singapore is that too many citizens adopt the attitude of “so what? nothing will change” and never even try. Opportunities are dismissed, not seized.
    Some comments above demonstrate my point.

    • 9 Desmond 27 November 2010 at 12:21

      I presume you are talking about mine and Merlin’s statements. But you have to realised that we are being practical. The question wasn’t that change will/will not happen, the question is, “what if nothing changes”, is there anything that would make the Singapore gahmen think that they should change because the UN said so (speaking from their track record, I doubt so) but what if nothing changes, what if what is happening now still happens 4 years later? What is the recourse? That is the pertaining question.

      Also, one other reason why changes happen so slowly is the fact that our gahmen doesn’t want to make changes if it doesn’t suit their agenda or their fear of loosing seats. This comes from their “U-Turn” on casinos and their “U-Turn” on our “immigration” policy.

      • 10 thornofplenty 28 November 2010 at 12:19

        It’s unclear to me how the question “what if change doesn’t happen” is relevant unless:

        a. Change is not at all a possibility, in which case, your protestation proves YB’s point.
        b. You believe that there is a cost to those who advocate change and it doesn’t happen, such as being singled out for some kind of persecution. This is a little more interesting, perhaps a little paranoid but also requires clarification, what do you think would happen?

      • 11 Desmond 29 November 2010 at 11:27

        I’m not saying either. What I’m saying if UN says we should e.g. remove ISA, more press freedom, etc. (things that our gahmen hates to even think about) and they do nothing of that type, is there anything the UN can do?

        I’m saying this because looking at a lot of the African countries, their human right records are terrible and yet even if they are reprimanded, nothing changes.

        I do believe that things will change, but by our gahmens’ track record, it will be done when they want to and they would totally resist any “outside” intervention. So even with or without this exercise, things will change when the gahmen thinks it should.

        So just because some of us believe that this is just an “exercise” doesn’t mean that we believe things will never change, being a cynic like that just because we think that this is just a fruitless exercise doesn’t mean we think “so what, nothing will change”.

  8. 12 Madison Chua 26 November 2010 at 10:50

    I would really want to grill the Ministers over the retaining of 377A Penal Code. That is a clear case of human rights violation, even if the police can cherry pick who to arrest and prosecute. It hangs like a dark cloud over homosexuals in Singapore, gay men and women who also contribute to our society. So while straight couples (between a man and a woman) can engage in anal sex, anal sex between same sex is strictly against the law. This is discriminatory and absolutely foul.
    I hope our Government gets grilled over white hot stones and simmer till they blister.

  9. 14 tk 26 November 2010 at 12:25

    alex – you may be right about singaporeans’ apathetic attitude, but when the UN itself “removes sexual orientation from a resolution that protects people from arbitrary executions”, how much weight would you expect the SG government to give to their criticisms?

    As PZ Meyers said, “The United Nations is a wonderful idea in principle, except for the little problem of giving barbarians a vote.”

  10. 15 hahaha 26 November 2010 at 15:35

    I am sure the govt already preparing themselves with great excuses to those questions. They wont go into the session w/o any preparation.
    I am curious about what counter arguments they can come up with.

  11. 16 26 November 2010 at 17:23

    Haven’t a lot of foreigners been bought over with easy access to

    1. well paying jobs
    2. housing and property
    3. cushy lifetsyle including convenient weekend jaunts to neighbouring not so developed countries and long afternoon breaks in the deli near the office, cracking jokes or maybe talking business while their local counterparts break their necks in the office trying to fend off competition and deadlines. (inspired by the going ons in a cafe right now as I write)

    Like any foreigners, foreign countries can also be bought.

    At the end of the day, a group of people must be capable enough to express and shape the social conditions they want by compelling the office holders to enact these aspirations.

    To delegate it to third parties hoping for them to fight for an external non-domestic cause, what are the chances for success?
    At best, whimsical.

    Haven’t Myanmar and North Korea remain as they are.

  12. 17 Johannes 26 November 2010 at 19:48

    In any case, every change starts with the will to change. The mere fact alone that Singapore has to answer questions about its human record and its plans to improve the human rights situation is a big gain.
    As long as Singapore doesnt respect human rights of all, including the rights of the opposition and everyone else who thinks differently, it remains to be ruled like a big family, where the pater familias knows what is good for its children.

    It is a crying shame that gays and lesbians rights are deleted from human rights resolution and documents of the HRC, as i have experienced myself. The powers that might be argue that otherwise resolutions will be blocked by muslim states in particular. Those states that are committed to the rule of law for all should not give in to this type of blackmail.

    • 18 SgWitness 27 November 2010 at 08:04

      It is false to maintain that Singapore does not respect human rights at all.

      Like all countries, Singapore’s human rights record should be objectively measured against documents such as The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

      When measured against such a document, one will realise that we do in fact enjoy many human rights already. There are undoubtedly a few sticking points — detention without trial, mandatory death penalty, silly Section 377A, restricted press freedom, and arguably, a few more others.

      One should further note that these restrictions do not really matter for most law-abiding Singaporeans. Hence, unsurprisingly, few are bothered about the Internal Security Act or the mandatory death penalty. And with the advent of the Internet, press freedoms and even free speech has ceased to be major issues. I am not maintaining that we shouldn’t bother — just stating a fact that few Singaporeans do.

      Life in Singapore is, in fact, like paradise for those with well-paid, stable jobs. For those without such jobs, yes, life can be hell. But is there anywhere else that is so different?

      No respect for human rights? Live in Zimbabwe for instance, and you will straightaway know what that means.

      • 19 marcy 27 November 2010 at 14:55

        That exactly the point on how stupid you treat the commentaters here by using a example of worse-off country just like sin government clowns always do. The question is why should you compare the worst to Singapore to suit your argument? Please stop insulting our intelligence. From your example of Zimbabwe, are you implying that only violence and crime type is the only kind of human right issue ?

      • 20 thornofplenty 28 November 2010 at 12:27

        Of course the majority would not feel impinged. If they did, the state would not be peaceful.
        Human rights violations almost always affect minorities most harshly.
        It’s not wrong to have those infringements put front and center, loudly and often till they are changed.

  13. 21 Paul 26 November 2010 at 20:13

    Alex, the UPR process is good for Singaporeans. The UN is an extremely undemocratic place – the permanent five have a security council veto which means that all other countries are second class citizens. Thanks to the veto threat of a certain superpower, a certain country can continue anillegal military occupation in defiance of UN security council resolutions for more than 40 years!

    Just getting Singaporeans to think and talk openly about human rights with the government participating is a good thing and I think an achievement in itself for the flawed UN HRC

  14. 22 KiWeTO 27 November 2010 at 11:56

    Avalanches still start with a single grain of rock or sand that has decided it wishes to join gravity.

    Here’s to casting the first stone.


  15. 23 marcy 27 November 2010 at 14:47

    One thing is for sure. Tachi speech and insulting-intelligence type answer from our MIW will be used to answer foreigner’s question which is akin to asking them to “shut up and sit down”.

    The same marketing campaign will go on on how they spend countless money helping the poor and giving gst rebate to hookwink the world. The foreigners should ask the clowns whether they are uniquely “Robin Hood” who rob the poor to give it to the rich. Just force the poor and helpless to pay $100 to those clowns, and keep $70 dollars for themselves, and return the poor $30 and then advertise to the the world how generous and kind they are in giving $30 to the poor and how in the world there is no gov like them.

  16. 24 SgWitness 27 November 2010 at 17:19


    Zimbabwe was just an example that occupied the last two lines of my post.

    Yes, it was an extreme example but also a good reminder about what human rights or the real lack of it looks like.

    Seems to me that too many people tend to under appreciate the rights we already do enjoy.

    Yes, we must continually attempt to expand human rights in Singapore but to be blind to the fact that we do not already enjoy considerable rights is to possess a skewed, unbalanced perspective.

    • 25 Brendan 27 November 2010 at 21:41

      Well, you need to be a little more specific of what you mean by “too many people tend to under appreciate the rights we already do enjoy”.

      In your first post, you metioned that Singaporeans do not really bother about the bread and butter issues. Then, knowing that this is the case, don’t you think it’s your duty to inform them on how we can change the system ?

      “Yes, we must continually attempt to expand human rights in Singapore but to be blind to the fact that we do not already enjoy considerable rights is to possess a skewed, unbalanced perspective.”

      That’s precisely what our bloggers are trying to do, that is to counterbalance the alreaady skewed perspective coming from our MSM.

  17. 26 SgWitness 28 November 2010 at 01:58

    Big typo in my last post:

    “Yes, we must continually attempt to expand human rights in Singapore but to be blind to the fact that we do not already enjoy considerable rights is to possess a skewed, unbalanced perspective.”

    The correct version is:

    “Yes, we must continually attempt to expand human rights in Singapore but to be blind to the fact that we do already enjoy considerable rights is to possess a skewed, unbalanced perspective.”

  18. 27 SgWitness 28 November 2010 at 08:19


    I never said that Singaporeans do not care about bread and butter issues. The mandatory death penalty, ISA and, for heterosexuals, Section 377A are NOT bread and butter issues for most of them because the perception is that such laws make no difference to the quality of their lives.

    On the other hand, increased taxes of any kind or the rise in unemployment figures would be a major source of interest. These would be the bread and butter issues.

    What is MSM by the way? (It commonly stands for Males who have Sex with Males, but if I take it that you mean this, I don’t understand the point of what you were trying to convey.)

    • 28 thornofplenty 28 November 2010 at 12:32

      @SgWitness actually, MSM often stands for “Men who have Sex with Men” this is different than males, because it includes transgender men and doesn’t, generally, include transgender women.

      I think Brenda refers to Mainstream Media.

  19. 29 Chua 28 November 2010 at 08:33

    MSM is Mainstream Media.

  20. 30 SgWitness 28 November 2010 at 17:20

    Acronyms…. they can sometimes be a real pain.

    Yes, of cos…. mainstream media (but also males having sex with males).

    The skewed perspective of the conventional media matters less and less as more citizens become more net-savvy.

  21. 31 SgWitness 1 December 2010 at 08:49

    The above [comment] is exactly symptomatic of a skewed perspective.

    Even a cursory reading of The Universal Declaration makes it obvious how skewed the post really is.

    [The comment to which this comment refers to has been deleted because (a) it was off-topic and (b) it descended to anti-PAP infantilism. Calling it “skewed perspective” was being kind, in my opinion – yawningbread]

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