Human rights – long road ahead on the shoulders of giants

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the Alliane of Like-Minded CSOs in Singapore (ALMOS) held a press conference in response to Singapore's statement at the Universal Periodic Review. (image - ALMOS Facebook page)

By Howard Lee

A major event that happened this week at the other side of the world from Singapore would have escaped the attention of most Singaporeans, and although it had everything to do with our little nation state, few would see it bearing any consequence to us here.

But we would be wrong to believe so.

On 27 January, the United Nations hosted more than a hundred states in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss the progress that nations have made in matters pertaining to human rights, and for other nations to give their inputs and recommendations on how each nation can progress. Singapore’s track record was evaluated for up to three hours in this Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which took place at 2.30pm in Geneva – in Singapore, that was from 9.30pm to the wee hours of the next morning, when most of us would have been asleep.

Not for the small groups of human rights advocates here, who stayed up until 1am pouring over every word that was said by the Singapore delegation, led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and those by other member states. For they were as invested in this process as the government, having sent to the UN their reports on various transgressions to human rights mid-last year, and actively lobbied member nations to speak out on their behalf.

Did they succeed? In all manners of speaking, yes. This was the first time that about fifteen local rights groups worked among themselves and submitted a number of joint reports to the UPR process, all of which highlighted how Singapore needs to buck up in terms of securing rights for migrant workers, women and children, minority gender groups, the unlawfully detained, those subjected to corporal punishment, those on death row, those persecuted by the government for daring to speak up against the establishment… A few even travelled to Geneva in December last year to continue the lobby efforts, while even more spoke to embassies based here.

And in spite of the rosy picture that the Singapore government wants you to see – to the extent that you might believe Singapore is a world champion of human rights (except when it comes to public morality, rule of law and national security, which basically covers a lot), we are a long way from the progress made by other developed countries.

More than 100 countries spoke about Singapore in Geneva. A number lauded our progress in public services, but a greater many also called for Singapore to ratify with a number of international human rights treaties, implement a national human rights institution to oversee such issues, repeal Section 377A which criminalises sex between gay men, amend the penal code, remove capital punishment, eradicate detention without trial, suspend and eventually eliminate the death penalty, implement laws to protect the rights of the LGBTQ community and foreign workers, institute freedom of information and – perhaps the most significant and satisfying for me – review and remove laws that curb freedom of expression.

The Singapore government was given the opportunity to respond to these recommendations and the response was to be expected: Singapore as a nation is an exceptional case. We are vulnerable to all sorts of attacks, our society is not progressive enough, and our leaders deserve to defend themselves in court. However, the internal security laws we have and the death penalty will be used sparingly, and look at all our social assistance policies!

Decoded, that basically means that the Singapore government will do what it wants, support human rights where it deems expedient, smooth things over with handouts, wait for Singaporeans to get use to gay sex, and there is nothing the world can do about it because we are a unicorn.

For the advocates, it had been an exhausting journey, but the road ahead is much longer. It will be an endless task to lobby a government that carries around such a piecemeal mindset of human rights without acknowledging the fundament rights of its own citizens. For the many civil society organisations (CSOs) still pushing for change, funding to do their work is limited and public awareness of these issues is also limited.

But a few things need to be said in the wake of the UPR. For one, Singapore’s human rights record is disappointing, as much as our denial of it is pathetic. For another, we need to remember that the UPR and human rights are no longer alien concepts for us – the Singapore government has willingly subscribed itself to this international process, and the international action we saw was in reality fuelled to a great extent by CSOs in Singapore.

And finally, our government has demonstrated that it cannot be a world leader, because it cannot even lead its own citizens to accept that these fundamental principles of human rights apply not just to homosexuals, bloggers and those who cannot keep quiet and stay out of trouble, but to every Singaporean.

But the silver lining is that we have a strong and indomitable spirit within CSOs. A great many of them are young and are taking on causes larger than what most their age can imagine. They have knowledge on their hands, and the passion to drive it home. If our politicians have demonstrated unwillingness to do the right thing for Singaporeans, these advocates have not faltered. To have been a part of their efforts this UPR, to stand with the giants of tomorrow, has been an immense honour for me.

What of tomorrow? The lobbying continues. The public education continues. For human rights is no longer an exclusive club. It belongs to all of us now. The only question is, how many of us will be willing to embrace it?

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The author is the media liaison for the Alliance of Like-Minded CSOs in Singapore (ALMOS), a conglomerate of COSs that took part in the 2015 Universal Period Review process. He also contributed sections on freedom of expression to the UPR reports by both ALMOS and Maruah.