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Singapore's human rights under UN scrutiny

By Imelda Saad

Posted: 31 October 2010

SINGAPORE: Civil society groups in Singapore have submitted reports on the country's human rights track record ahead of a United Nations deadline on November 1.

The move is part of the Universal Periodic Review of all UN member states.

This is the first time that Singapore's human rights record is under scrutiny by the UN.

At least eight civil society groups in Singapore have put forward their views on the country's human rights track record.

They represent diverse groups from migrant workers to womens' groups.

Collectively, the groups have also submitted a joint proposal collated by MARUAH, the Singapore Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism.

Their message is that economic growth does not necessarily equate to quality of life.

"Economic growth, well-being do not automatically bring in happiness, justice or social equality. These issues have to be pushed for, fought for and brought into reality," said Alex Au, spokesperson for advocacy group People Like Us.

The groups point to issues like poor housing for migrant workers, the perceived discrimination of homosexuals under Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises sex between mutually consenting adult men, detention without trial under the Internal Security Act, and problems faced by disadvantaged groups like the disabled and elderly.

Braema Mathi, chairperson of MARUAH, said: "We have not talked about stuff from a rights-based perspective for so long. We have always talked about it from a welfare-based approach, from a goodwill-based approach.

"I think the language will change and the mindset will change and people will start thinking that 'actually I deserve it here. Things are not right. I've tried so hard, why isn't it coming? Something is not right with the policy, the implementation, etc.', rather than 'me always trying to do a patch-up job trying to cope with situations that are not working to my benefit'....So it's about re-framing."

The Universal Periodic Review is the only mechanism for reviewing the human rights situation for all UN members.

Since 2008, 128 members have been reviewed.

Singapore will submit its report to the UN by February and present its report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in May 2011.

The report is expected to trace the country's history and set in context the environment in which Singapore operates in.

The May meeting will also involve a dialogue with member states.

At the end of it, there will be a final outcome document, which will list recommendations that member states can take to improve their human rights situation.

That document, though, is not legally binding but it will form the basis of future reviews.

As part of the process, civil society groups can attend the UN meeting in May to observe Singapore presenting its report. In September, they can speak and make representations when the final outcome document is adopted by the United Nations.

Singapore's Foreign Affairs Ministry said it has consulted stakeholders, including some local civil society groups.

It added that they are welcomed to submit their own reports to the UN.

Civil society groups acknowledge that it will be a long-drawn process but they hope that it will get Singaporeans thinking and help to improve the quality of life here.

"It's an opportunity for us to surface the problems migrant workers in Singapore are facing. It's not just a matter of statistics, because (even) if just one person is abused, it is good for us to act," said Bridget Lew, founder-president of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics.

"I hope that more civil society members will engage in the process, the space will open up and more people will talk and embrace that space...the more we engage we understand this concept, that it also comes with responsibilities," said Ms Mathi.

Submissions of the individual civil society groups can be found online.

The next review process will be carried out in four years.

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This article was archived by Roy Tan.