UN praises Singapore's social policies

Member states laud its efforts to improve care for vulnerable groups like the elderly, disabled

United Nations member states have praised Singapore's social policies as well as its strategies to foster racial and religious tolerance.

At Singapore's second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) before the UN's Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday, a "significant majority" welcomed its efforts to improve care for the elderly, the disabled and other vulnerable groups, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

They also commended its ratification of UN conventions on disabled rights and human trafficking.

  • Activists ask for details on how ISA is used

  • Activists calling for the abolition of the Internal Security Act (ISA) have asked for details about how the Act is used so Singaporeans can decide whether the law is necessary.

    "Who falls under the ISA, who falls under the jurisdiction to be arrested and to be detained under the ISA?" asked Mr Howard Lee, media liaison for Alliance of Like Minded CSOs in Singapore (Almos). "Without having that clarity we can't really say what is the next step we have to take."

    Almos is a coalition of 10 local non-governmental organisations here, including women's rights advocate Aware, anti-death penalty group Second Chances and LGBT group Sayoni.

    Given that 27 Bangladeshis were recently arrested under the ISA for alleged terrorism, Almos wants to know why the ISA was used in their case.

    "When we ask for the abolishment of the ISA, it's not that we do not want potential terrorists to be caught," said Ms Chng Suan Tze from civil society group Function 8, herself a former ISA detainee. Ms Chng suggested creating a separate law to deal with terrorism.

    The activists were responding yesterday to Singapore's second human rights review before the United Nations. They were happy to hear Singapore will look into repealing immunity for marital rape and said they hope to see more human rights treaties ratified as the state has said that domestic policies here already mirror those treaties in substance.

    "If we are already in compliance with the substance of these treaties, why would we refrain from acceding to development instruments?" said Ms JoleneTan, programmes and communications senior manager at Aware.

    "There is nothing to lose. There's only the international credibility and the boost in our standing that could be gained."

    Kok Xing Hui

The UPR looks at human rights in each of the 193 UN member states every 4-1/2 years. Some 113 states spoke at the 3-1/2-hour session.

However, some called for Singapore to abolish the death penalty, caning, detention without trial and section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises sex between men.

A Singapore delegation, led by Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee, explained the nation's "pragmatic" stance on such issues.

The death penalty, for example, deters the most serious crimes like murder and drug trafficking.

"No civilised society glorifies the taking of life," said the delegation. "The question is whether, in very limited circumstances, it is legitimate to have capital punishment so that the larger interest of society is served."

Meanwhile, the delegation said the Internal Security Act (ISA), which can be used to detain suspects without trial, has been "particularly effective in addressing the threat of terrorism and continues to be relevant in today's heightened security climate".

It is used only under "exceptional circumstances", such as when the disclosure of intelligence will endanger the sources of information or when witnesses are unwilling to testify in open court for fear of reprisal.

The delegation added that detentions under the ISA are governed by the same checks as in normal arrests.

Detainees are informed about the grounds of detention and have a right to legal counsel.

Detentions under the ISA are reviewed annually.

On the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT), Professor Chan said that Singapore "treasures" each Singaporean and acknowledges the contributions of the LGBT community.

"Singapore is basically a conservative society," said Prof Chan.

"We have to manage such issues sensitively and in a pragmatic way without fracturing our society."

She added that LGBT rights are divisive even in liberal societies and reiterated the Government's stance that Section 377A will not be enforced.

Singapore's civil service hires LGBT people, while the country hosts plays about the community, and public gatherings supporting it such as Pink Dot.

"Our approach is to live and let live, and to preserve our common space for all communities in Singapore. We firmly oppose discrimination and harassment and we have laws to protect our citizens from such acts."

The Singapore delegation added that while the Republic does not accede to or ratify all UN human rights treaties, domestic policies are "generally in compliance with their substance".

"Our Government has remained committed to, and invested in, the relentless task of caring for our citizens and protecting their fundamental rights, independent of any UN human rights review process," said Prof Chan.

She said the Government recognises that Singapore's society is changing, with the presence of more diverse interest groups, from animal rights to environment.

"Technology is transforming society and bringing in new ideas, but also exposing us to divisive forces like religious extremism," she said.

"Globalisation has not resulted in one single, happy global village. More than ever, the Government needs to engage different groups more deeply and their competing interests in a pragmatic way."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2016, with the headline 'UN praises Singapore's social policies'. Print Edition | Subscribe