Singapore's handling of Covid-19 pandemic key feature in its human rights report to UN

During the crisis, Singapore took steps to protect low-income and vulnerable residents.
During the crisis, Singapore took steps to protect low-income and vulnerable residents.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE - Singapore's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic featured prominently in the country's latest report to the United Nations, submitted as part of a routine review of each member state's human rights record.

During the crisis, Singapore took steps to protect low-income and vulnerable residents, including migrant workers in dormitories, it said, adding that economic and social support measures were also put in place to protect businesses and individuals.

"The pandemic has 'stress-tested' all countries politically, socially, and economically," Singapore said in its national report, which is publicly available on the UN website. "Singapore's response to the pandemic has demonstrated that we have the social capital to emerge stronger and deal with future crises."

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) looks at the human rights records of all 193 UN member states every five years. Its assessment is based on reports submitted by the country under review, as well as civil society organisations and the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

While previous iterations saw the report discussed in-person at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, this year's three-hour review will take place virtually on May 12.

During the process, other member states can pose questions or make recommendations to the country under review, with the total number of recommendations for each country typically mounting into the hundreds.

Following this, an outcome report is prepared and states may choose to accept recommendations made.

After its first review in 2011, Singapore supported - in whole or in part - 84 of the 112 recommendations made, and 125 out of 236 recommendations after the second review in 2016.

This year's 20-page edition covers a wide range of topics, including its efforts to advance migrant worker well-being and protect women from discrimination. The Inter-Ministry Committee on Human Rights conducted three rounds of consultations with civil society organisations on issues touched on in the report.

In the report, which was submitted to the UN in January, Singapore also sets out its approach to human rights.

These are based on two tenets, the first being that human rights do not exist in a vacuum, but must take into account a country's specific circumstances, it said. Second, the rule of law is seen as "an essential pre-condition and bedrock for promoting and protecting human rights" here.

On the topic of freedom of speech and expression, the report highlighted the introduction of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) in 2019. The spread of misinformation "diminishes the genuine exercise of the right to free speech", it said, adding that Pofma helps add facts into online echo chambers and preserves the broad middle of public discourse.

Singapore also set out its stance on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community in the report, stating that it firmly opposes discrimination and harassment.

Laws are in place to protect citizens from such acts, it added, highlighting amendments to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act in 2019 to widen its legislative scope.

Under the changes, it is now an offence to knowingly urge violence against persons and groups on the grounds of religion or religious beliefs. This protection extends to non-religious groups as well, including the LGBTI community.

"All Singapore citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation, are free to pursue their activities in their private space," the report stated.

The delegation to this year's UPR will be led by Ambassador-At-Large Chan Heng Chee.

"We look forward to continuing a positive and constructive conversation with fellow UN Member States and civil society organisations on our achievements and challenges," said the Foreign Affairs Ministry in a statement on Thursday (April 1).

"This includes sharing Singapore's pragmatic and outcomes-based approach to human rights, tailored to improving the lives and interests of all Singaporeans within our unique historical, social and cultural context."