Singapore's practical approach to human rights

Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee provided Singapore's perspective during the 24th session of the Universal Periodic Review Working Group Meeting in Geneva last week. Below is an excerpt of her speech.

We recognise that Singapore society is changing.

There are more interest groups advocating issues ranging from environment, heritage, gender to animal rights.

Our citizens are among the most connected in the world. They have access to information globally via the Internet and engage in robust debates about policies and politics.

Our population is rapidly ageing.

Technology is transforming society and bringing in new ideas, but also exposing us to divisive forces like religious extremism. Globalisation has not resulted in one single happy global village. On the contrary, atavistic tribalism has a global reach nowadays.

Race and religion remain very sensitive matters and, in some ways, more complex and difficult to handle today because of rising religiosity, greater exposure to extremist ideologies and social media.

More than ever, the Government needs to engage the different groups more deeply and their competing interests in a pragmatic way.

Our goal today remains the same as at the time of our independence - to build a nation where our citizens lead meaningful and fulfilling lives in a fair and inclusive society.

Since our last Universal Periodic Review, our Government has implemented several new policies to enhance social protection for our citizens - in particular, the most vulnerable groups - and to strengthen social harmony.

These progressive social policies include MediShield Life, the Pioneer Generation Package, an Enabling Masterplan for Persons with Disabilities.

We also signed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and acceded to the UN TIP Protocol (to prevent and suppress trafficking in persons) in 2015, and ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in July 2013.

We have made substantial investments to improve the quality of education, healthcare and housing.

We are now implementing the SkillsFuture initiative to support and promote lifelong learning of our citizens to meet the challenges of globalisation.

We will be starting a new initiative, the SGFuture conversations, this year to have a national-level dialogue with all segments of society to talk about "The Future of Us".

We have also formed a high-level committee to consider the future of Singapore's economy, for without growth, we will not have the resources to overcome our burgeoning social and demographic challenges.

I would like to acknowledge that our principles of governance, the way we care for citizens, protect human rights and preserve our social harmony, may not fully conform to how other societies have organised themselves.

We respect their point of view, given each society's unique circumstances.

However, our view is that we have to take a practical and not an ideological approach to the realisation of human rights.

We believe that rights, and people's approach to and understanding thereof, evolve over time as their societies change.

We have seen in recent times that countries in the West have had to review some of their more liberal policies because they proved inadequate in dealing with contemporary manifestations of terrorism, extremism and immigration.

We therefore believe every country should be given the time and space to deal with its own development and advance human rights in its own way, taking into account its unique social and cultural context.

We look forward to hearing the presentations and recommendations of the delegates, and we will attempt to respond to the issues raised to the full extent possible in the time given to us.

I thank you, Mr President.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 02, 2016, with the headline 'Singapore's practical approach to human rights'. Print Edition | Subscribe