Singapore signs pact against racial discrimination

Pupils at Anchor Green Primary School in Sengkang dressed in their ethnic costumes to mark Racial Harmony Day on July 21.
Pupils at Anchor Green Primary School in Sengkang dressed in their ethnic costumes to mark Racial Harmony Day on July 21. PHOTO: ST FILE

Singapore has signed a global agreement to eliminate discrimination based on race, colour, descent, nationality or ethnic origin.

Its move on Monday will eventually put it alongside 177 countries when it ratifies the United Nations pact, a step it is expected to take in 2017.

Yesterday, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu said signing the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination "further entrenches our commitment to this end, to unequivocally show that racial discrimination has no place in Singapore".

Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob told The Straits Times that the signing is a significant move, and will enhance Singapore's standing in the international community.

It also attests to the strength of race relations in Singapore, as member states must submit regular reports and be subject to UN scrutiny, she said, adding: "We are already practising the principles enunciated under the convention, so signing it is a logical step."

Ms Fu said Singapore's fundamental approach to nation-building has been one where every citizen matters, regardless of race, language or religion - and this will continue.

The treaty, in effect since 1969, was signed in New York by Ambassador Karen Tan, Singapore's Permanent Representative to the UN.

The Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth pledged to work with stakeholders to fulfil its obligations under the pact.

Its statement also said Singapore is committed to preserving a multiracial society in which every person is equal.

The memory of racial riots in the early years of independence continues to guide Singapore in striving towards a society free of racism and racial discrimination, the ministry added. "Social harmony is not taken for granted, and we have strived continually to strengthen inter-racial and inter-faith understanding and mutual respect."

Veteran diplomat Tommy Koh, who said at a recent forum that Singapore tends to be much more cautious and conscientious than other countries in undertaking an international legal obligation, told The Straits Times yesterday that he was overjoyed by the news.

Singapore has thus far ratified human rights treaties that protect women, children and the rights of persons with disabilities.

Law don Eugene Tan, who has done research on race politics, said the move signals Singapore is ready to meet international standards, even if it has its own approach in dealing with racial discrimination.

When asked why Singapore, which prides itself on its racial and religious harmony, has signed the pact only now, Associate Professor Tan said: "It is an anomaly in some respects, given that our handling of matters relating to race is seen by other countries as exemplary.

"We are more confident now of our approach and willing to subject our framework, laws and policies on race issues to external scrutiny."

Several civil society groups, like human rights group Maruah, had called for the Government to sign the agreement.

Maruah president Braema Mathi said the signing is an "important step and brings Singapore closer to a human rights value system".

She said: "Singapore has a good track record when it comes to race and religion compared with what is going on in the world, so in that sense, this is a bit overdue."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2015, with the headline 'S'pore signs pact against racial discrimination'. Print Edition | Subscribe