Think Centre, Singapore’s pioneering political association, has called on the Singapore government to remake Singapore into a first-class human rights defender in commemoration of International Human Rights Day last year.
Human rights and democracy are interlinked and interdependent features of any caring and sharing society. A human rights-based democratic culture and movement will cultivate and enable an environment for appreciation, promotion and protection of basic human rights prescribed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Such human development is critical to the fostering of a truly caring and sharing community in Singapore society, but also to the formation of a bedrock for a people-centred Asean.
Locally, free-market capitalism yielded economic benefits and human development for segments, but not in entirety, for Singapore society. The presence of the working poor and jobless poor is alarming for a developed economy-cum-first world nation. Come 2011, the ILO will adopt a convention on domestic workers – an advancement for migrant domestic workers and their advocates for better working and living conditions. Singapore’s rejection of the imposition of a minimum wage is a setback for advancing the cause for a caring and sharing society. Singapore is one of the few developed economies without a minimum wage that could protect many vulnerable groups susceptible to wage discrimination and low wage.
In other areas, the restricted space for freedom of expression continues to mar the first-world standing of Singapore. The disappointing judicial sentence on Alan Shadrake exemplified the challenges to traditional freedoms of speech and expression in this new digital age of social media. The lack of compassion on the part of the judiciary is especially compelling considering that Alan Shadrake is a 76-year-old person who is sick and weak, with limited resources. The Alan Shadrake case should not have gone to the court; he should have been kindly sent home.
The inaugural visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporay forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance yielded productive meetings between civil society activists/concerned persons and the special rapporteur regarding existent discrimination in Singapore. As per its submission to the Special Rapporteur, Think Centre calls for an immediate review and repeal of discriminatory policies such as the ethnic housing quota and tokenistic representation of the GRC system.
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The historic submission of the Universal Periodic Review reports by nine independent stakeholder groups, inclusive of Think Centre, generated further interest and cooperation amongst local civil society activists/human right defenders in Singapore. Reiterating its submissions, Think Centre calls for landmark abolishments of the mandatory death penalty, corporal punishment in the penitiary system, and anti-human rights legislation such as the Internal Security Act. In the case of the death penalty, local activists continue to lobby on its application/moratorium – especially for drug trafficking offenders as the majority of those prosecuted and executed are predominantely from poor socio-economic backgrounds prone to exploitation by syndicates.
Regionally, the institutionalisation of the Asean Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) was a positive development in human rights but failed to show real progress. AICHR has not engaged or consulted civil society and the people even though its mandate is for the promotion and protection of human rights. Think Centre calls for more pro-active awareness-building efforts through more stakeholder interfaces, media coverage and national consultation in human rights.
In conclusion, civil society activists and human rights defenders worldwide stand in solidarity to build networks to work on similar issues in their respective countries. Within Asean, Think Centre calls on fellow civil society activists/human rights defenders to share experiences, promote best practices and make the peoples’ voices heard by Asean governments in a People-Centred Asean. Think Centre calls upon the Singapore government to decisively demonstrate political will and moral courage in remaking Singapore into a first-class human rights defender.
Think Centre wishes all governments, all peoples, fellow civil society activists and human rights defenders, a meaningful International Human Rights Day 2010.
Kong Soon Tan is president of Think Centre