US State Department should not ignore Singapore

May 22, 2004
Singapore Democrats

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Before PAP supporters, aka the state-run media, pop open the bubbly to celebrate the omission of Singapore in the US State Departments report criticizing Southeast Asian states for their human rights abuses, they need to temper their glee.

The State Departments website clearly draws a distinction between its annual human rights report, which documents PAP violations of human rights and the lack of democracy in Singapore, and the more recently published report Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The U.S. Record 2003-2004. It is the latter publication that has left Singapore out.

Supporting Human Rights and Democracy documents the actions and policies that the US Government has pursued in the past year vis-?vis human rights abuses in countries named in the report. The fact that Singapore is not on the list does not mean that there are no human rights violations in the country (as the annual State Department report unambiguously indicates). What it means is that the US Government, for whatever reason, has not taken any action to promote democracy in Singapore.

(Before the PAP spews forth its knee-jerk response that the US Government has no right to interfere in the domestic politics of Singapore, it should be reminded that Professor Tommy Koh a representative of the Singapore Government no less was recently in Washington, DC to encourage the US to do more to support democratic reform in Southeast Asia. Just in case the PAP misses it, Southeast Asia includes Singapore.)

Still, it is troubling why the US chose to speak out and act against a country like Thailand while ignoring Singapore. Yes, there is concern that Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is increasingly practicing strongman-style politics (by the way, he has good role models in the Lion City) and the US rightly enjoins Mr Thaksin on this issue.

While this justifies why the US acts on Thailand, it doesnt explain why Singapore isnt even on its radar screen. Under the Chuan Leek Pai Administration, Thailand amended its constitution to enshrine the concept and respect for human rights. Civil society is robust, the media is healthy, and political contestation is fierce. Singapore doesnt even come close to the Kingdom when one talks about democracy and human rights.

The stated reason (in its website) is that the State Department is more concerned about extra judicial killings, torture and other serious violations of human rights.

If this is the case, then why is Malaysia included? Malaysia’s problems cited in the State Department report are just as prevalent in Singapore, if not more so.

There have been no extrajudicial killings in Singapore. But neither has there been any in Malaysia. What about torture? The 1981 Amnesty International report documented cases of beatings and torture among detainees imprisoned under Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA). (See next article on this website). ISA prisoners held in 1987 under the fatuous allegation of being Marxist conspirators were also beaten and abused. No one knows the fate and treatment of those currently detained.

As for other serious violations of human rights, what does one call the continued financial ruining of opposition leaders through defamation lawsuits taken by PAP members? The Singapore media is still firmly in the hands of the PAP; speaking in public, protests, and marches are prohibited; independent labour unions are non-existent; and elections only allow the voters to determine to what extent the ruling party routs the opposition.

Consider the following:

In Malaysia – 60,000 voters stage a public protest against the elections commission following the recently held elections.
In Singapore – 6 people are arrested even before they can carry out their protest against the Iraq war.

In Malaysia – The national human rights commission, Suhakam, openly criticizes the government for human rights violations.
In Singapore – There is no such body.

In Malaysia – The Malaysian Trades Union Congress assails the Human Resources Minister for ignoring the plight of workers.
In Singapore – The government runs SIA pilot and union member, Captain Ryan Goh, out of the country by revoking his PR status for daring to ask his fellow members to vote against his union’s leaders.

In Malaysia – The internet newspaper, Malaysiakini, openly operates in the country.
In Singapore – Two internet activists, Robert Ho and Zulfikar Mohd, come under police investigation for their postings and hurriedly leave the country.

In Malaysia – The government invites views from the Bar Council in the restructuring of the Industrial Court.
In Singapore – The government chastises the Law Society and imprisons its president (and former solicitor-general) Francis Seow for challenging an amendment to the Newspaper Printing and Presses Act.

Egregious as human rights violations are in Malaysia, there is no denial that the situation in Singapore is worse. Even leaders of the opposition in Malaysia have commented that there is much more political space in their country than Singapore.

The Singapore Democrats will raise this matter with the State Department in the hope that the anomaly will be rectified and, in the interest of consistency and non-discrimination, that the US Government will act on Singapore as it does with other much more democratic countries in Southeast Asia.