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Rights-Based issues soar in the Philippines, while it takes a back seat in Singapore

The absence of grave human rights issues doesn’t mean there's no rights-based violations Singapore

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Jose Martin, Chairman of the Commission on Human Rights in Manila cuts a striking figure. He has a slight limp and walks with a cane and speaks rather emotively about the human rights violations in the Philippines. The pain and anguish of bearing witness to heinous crimes reverberates in his words. His shoulders bear full weight of the Philippine civil societies that protest President Duterte’s extra-judicial killings.

While Duterte’s popularity has somewhat dipped, he is still very much in control. He recently launched fresh attacks on the Catholic church, undermining the church’s credibility and its role in the Philippine polity. The Philippines has deep human rights issues.

Two weeks ago, I attended our very own Universal Periodic Review organised by Asia Centre and Maruah in Singapore. I left the briefing mid-way through the second session as it focused more of the review process rather than the actual human rights violations here. I also left thinking that there aren’t much to fuss about in Singapore.

There are no extra judicial killings in Singapore, our religious institutions are not attacked by the state, and people are generally free to practice their faith and beliefs. There are areas of improvement, of course, but they are par for the course, say those in the corridors of power.

Through my travels and political missions in South East Asia, I have had the opportunity to calibrate my views and sometimes I do think that our problems are not as grave as our counter parts in the region.

But benchmarking against Manila is not a fair assessment especially when our current government has made revisions in the past to make concessions to the mandatory death penalty. It is an improvement but not ideal.

There are two areas that requires a deeper review: one is on the lack of LGBT rights in Singapore and the other is that Muslim women are still not allowed to wear their Tudong to their places of work, although our President wears a Hijab all the time.

For some reasons these two issues are not big-ticket items here and neither are they electoral issues. They do flare up from time to time, but it dies down as quickly as it surfaces to the fore. Just like a bout of influenza, it comes and goes.

Our very own toned-down, adulterated version of the Mardi Gras, the PinkDot brings focus to the issue of LGBT rights here but it does nothing to advance their civil and legal rights in Singapore.

Why is it so?

There is no political will to push this into mainstream politics – with a substantial chunk of conservative Christian and Muslim voters, there is no appetite for fringe politics.

It appears that some of the civil societies here are more concerned about the lack of political and civil rights, and maybe, rightly so. For example, lack freedom of expression is one of our pet peeves.  So, when our reports are submitted to United Nation’s Universal Periodic Review (UN-UPR), and when they are reviewed by member states, the Philippines and Myanmar have graver issues to deal with and rightly so, they get prioritised over the human rights violations in Singapore.

Admittedly, our civil societies here come across as rebels without a cause.

Perhaps, the UN-UPR is not enough and more advocacy work needs to be done here in Singapore to educate the public on state’s infringement of rights.

The real problem is, if the state’s powers are left unchecked and if a Duterte-like figure rises to the top echelons of power in Singapore, he or she will have enormous powers over the population. If that ever happens, it will be too late to act.

And what comes to mind is the popular police slogan, “Low crime doesn’t mean no crime.” The same applies to rights-based issues here – Low violations doesn’t mean no violations. It is good to nip the problem in the bud.

Kumaran Pillai is the publisher of this publication and a Jefferson Fellow of the East-West Centre, USA

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