Human rights, Singaporean style

January 18, 2010
Singapore Democrats

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Garry Rodan
Far Eastern Economic Review



While there has been a lull in the debate over “Asian values” since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, the concept never disappeared. The development of a regional human-rights commission constitutes a fresh battleground where competing views are playing out. As in the past, the main interlocutors on the side of cultural relativism are Singaporean leaders and officials, but this time, opposing voices within Southeast Asia have grown louder and more self-confident.

Forming the Asian Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) has taken more than a decade of wrangling. Launched by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in October, the commission is the result of a protracted and contentious process of compromise. Now the fledgling organization faces an uphill struggle to show it can make political and bureaucratic elites accountable on human rights.

The foundations were laid in the 1993 Bangkok Declaration and Joint Communiqué committing Asean to a coordinated approach to human rights. Ultimately, it was the sustained international concern about brutal repression in Burma that convinced authoritarian regimes to accept the AICHR.

Though AICHR’s initial “terms of reference” do not quite encompass the mission and powers advocated by more democratic forces within Asean—emphasizing education ahead of enforceable sanctions to protect human rights, and containing a raft of other limitations—the TOR will be reviewed every five years. That means the struggle to define AICHR has likely only just begun.

Governmental and nongovernmental actors seeking a fuller embrace of universal human rights have a new institutional mechanism, and attendant domestic and regional networks, to exploit. Yet AICHR also represents an ideal opportunity for authoritarian leaders in Southeast Asia to translate hitherto vague rhetoric about cultural and historical specificities of human rights in Asia into clear principles and mechanisms for their protection and advancement.

AICHR has especially significant implications for Singapore’s political and bureaucratic elite. Not only is Singapore the only non-Indochinese Asean member without a domestic human-rights commission, its elites have also been the principal champions for a “culturally sensitive” interpretation of human rights. If there is a genuine Asian alternative view on human rights, now is the time for these cultural relativists to concretely spell it out. For instance, as Jua-hwa Chen of Taiwan’s Soochow University argues, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights was always premised on the notion that its effective implementation required “culturally diverse interpretations to render them truly universal.”

The other possibility is that the AICHR will call the Singapore school’s bluff on human rights, exposing its opposition as rooted not in culture but politics. Early signs suggest this outcome. Singapore’s leaders continue to spend more energy challenging or dismissing the universality of human rights than identifying and seeking to protect culturally and historically specific versions of those rights.

Why? The answer lies in the ruling People’s Action Party’s rejection of concepts of citizenship rights that are threatening to an acutely elitist authoritarianism and the restrictive nature and basis of political accountability that define the regime. PAP leaders frequently assert that the fault line between differing notions of human rights rests on balances between rights and responsibilities of individuals and between rights of individuals in the community. Yet the critical point of tension lies more in relationships between the state and citizens and the implied notion that the latter should be able to hold the former accountable for protecting their rights.

The PAP has a narrow, parliamentary conception of political accountability, which might explain why the Singaporean government has not signed up to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and appears to have little serious interest in rendering even a culturally relative notion of human rights operational. In the PAP view, its governance represents rule by meritocracy. Emphasis is thus on trust of the elite instead of checks and balances grounded in notions of citizens’ political rights.

Importantly, Singapore’s particular variant of state capitalism has fostered a high degree of cohesion of interests and ideology between political and bureaucratic elites. This has reduced opportunities for intraelite conflict, exploited elsewhere by forces seeking wider political accountability reforms. For example, the establishment of SUHAKAM, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, was intended to appease domestic and international critics about the treatment of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. No such cracks in the de facto one-party state exist in Singapore.

The irony of Singapore chairing Asean when a regional human-rights commission was being developed prompted Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh to publicly ask Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in February 2008 if he thought the pap might envisage such an institution as part of the evolution of the “Singaporean system of democracy.” But according to Mr. Lee, “The ultimate objective is clean, corruption-free, capable, effective, meritocratic, fair government. As long as we remove malpractices, I don’t see the need for more political policing.”

As an alternative to a rights-based notion of politics, the PAP has developed institutions promoting cultural conceptions of citizenship, including the Group Representation Constituency system mandating guaranteed racial minority representation in Parliament of Malay, Indian and Eurasian Singaporeans. Ethnic and racial “balance” also permeates the thinking behind state-supported ethnic self-help organizations attempting to address issues of social inequality. The ideological point is to promote citizens’ political identities and understanding of social and economic inequalities through racial and cultural, rather than class, lenses.

The PAP also continues to develop mechanisms through which individuals and groups can submit policy-relevant ideas and administrative complaints, premised on technocratic notions of public policy that are consistent with the ideology of meritocracy. This ranges from the various activities of the state-controlled Reaching Everyone for Active Citizenry @ Home, or REACH, to the Nominated Members of Parliament system. The common objective of these culturalist and technocratic institutions is the creation of state-citizen relationships that bypass collective or individual rights-based political accountability.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong contends that his government’s approach is about human-rights substance rather than form, thus “we make sure that people are fed, people are clothed, that they have good schools, they have equal opportunities, that they have access to government services which are clean efficient and not corrupt.” Yet the Singapore Constitution makes no mention of collective or individual socioeconomic rights or sociowelfare principles. Instead, the Singapore High Court ruled that “rights should be subjugated to executive-determined community interests.”

Nevertheless, AICHR has necessitated the domestic institutionalization of civil society consultation on human rights that hitherto didn’t exist in the city state. This is significant since links between international and local human-rights NGOs have long been more effectively blocked in Singapore than most other authoritarian regimes in the region, including contemporary Malaysia and Indonesia during the New Order period.

Singapore governments have ratified few of the nine core international human-rights treaties and their seven protocols in Asia. Unsigned treaties not only include the ICCPR, but also the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment as well as the International Convention for the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. AICHR’s quinquennial TOR reviews may provide an incentive and a set of regional structures for sustained engagement by Singaporean activists on such treaties.

A Manila-based Working Group for an Asean Human Rights Mechanism was established in 1995, comprising regional representatives from government institutions, NGOs, parliamentary human-rights committees, representatives of government institutions and academia within the region. However, it wasn’t until December 2006 that a commitment to the establishment of an Interim Singapore Working Group was endorsed by relevant local NGOs.

Emerging out of this was MARUAH (Malay for “dignity”), which became the Singapore Working Committee for an Asean Human Rights Mechanism. MARUAH has been careful not to alarm the Singapore government. On its Web site, it says it “appreciates that human rights is still relatively new in the Singapore context. As such we intend to approach the issue of human rights at an appropriate pace, with a PPP (public-private-people) model built around partnerships with multiple stakeholders.” It also states that “MARUAH will be mindful of the need for a nonpartisan stance on human rights.”

Despite this innocuous language, MARUAH has cautioned against a toothless regional commission and prescribed measures to deal with noncompliance, replaceing vague consensus-based decision-making processes with rules-based ones and unambiguously embracing human-rights universalism.

Migrant workers constitute one aspect of human-rights advocacy where incorporation of Singaporean activists into regional networks might be significant. A 2005 Human Rights Watch report entitled “Maid to Order: Ending Abuses Against Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore” highlighted that at least 147 maids have died in Singapore from workplace accidents or suicide since 1999—most by jumping or falling from residential buildings.

Separately, in the construction and shipyard industries, there have been complaints from migrant workers of salaries withheld for months, employees forced to work excessive hours (including 24-hour shifts), denial of rest days, threats of repatriation by employers for questioning contract violations, unauthorized salary deductions and a range of other violations of Singaporean law. The changes in September by the Ministry of Manpower to employer security-bond conditions and medical-insurance requirements acknowledge some of these problems.

Significantly, MARUAH’s AICHR recommendations include calls for Asean countries to accede to the Convention on the Protection of All Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families; for the adoption of working environment standards that are no lower than the International Labour Standards; and for the Asean Commission on Migrant Workers to function independently of the AICHR, at least until the tor have been sufficiently strengthened.

AICHR thus generates a glimmer of hope that new channels of engagement could facilitate incremental change in government views on protecting human rights in Singapore. However, official reaction to a 72-page report in July 2008 by the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute indicates how entrenched those views are.

IBAHRI expressed concern that, “despite many positive achievements, the Singapore government is currently failing to meet established international standards in these areas,” pointing out that Singapore is bound by international customary law protections of freedom of expression—regardless of not having ratified the ICCPR. It also asserted that, as a member state of the United Nations, Singapore is bound by the U.N. Charter to respect fundamental human rights which could be interpreted to equate with Article 19 of the UNDHR guaranteeing freedom of expression.

Singapore officials promptly invoked familiar notions of an East-West cultural divide to dismiss the report. The Ministry of Law contended: “Human-rights groups in IBAHRI have closed ranks with other Western human-rights NGOs to prescribe for Singapore and all new countries, especially China, Western norms of liberal democracy as the only way to bring stability and prosperity. They believe that free market policies cannot succeed without Western liberal democracy, and it is their mission to make other societies adopt the Western model.”

Minister Mentor Lee not only echoed this stark choice of models but linked criticisms of the IBAHRI report to a larger political project, claiming, “There is a conspiracy to do us in. Why? … They see us as a threat.” The threat, according to Mr. Lee, stems from the interest shown by Russia and China in studying Singapore’s success.

Reiterating a longstanding refrain, the Ministry of Law subsequently issued an official statement, saying, “Human rights are interpreted and implemented according to specific histories, cultures and circumstances of each country.” Meanwhile, exactly how universal principles of human rights might be translated with cultural, social or historical sensitivity remained unexplored. The substitute for this was assertions about how existing approaches to social, political and economic development brought substantive benefits to Singaporeans.

Ironically, while delivering the keynote address at the 2007 IBA conference in Singapore, then Minister of Law S. Jayakumar claimed there is “a core set of fundamental principles undergirding the rule of law that should exist in every society.” This included an independent judiciary; the right not to be arbitrarily arrested and when arrested; the expectation of a fair trial; free and fair elections so that people can change the government of the day; and the right to personal safety and security. However, it is precisely in response to scrutiny over whether such fundamental principles operate in Singapore that officials denounce human-rights universalism.

Any doubt that the IBAHRI report only emboldened Singapore’s political leaders in their resolve to consolidate rather than re-evaluate the impact of city-state institutions on civil and political rights appears to have been erased with amendments to the Public Order Act in early 2009. POA changes include the power of police officers to order people to move on from a particular place for up to 24 hours, to stop a person filming law-enforcement activities and unlawful public events, and a requirement for property owners to take reasonable action to prevent illegal assemblies and processions from taking place on their property when they are instructed by police.

These powers have implications for the Singapore Democratic Party-led civil disobedience campaign against legal and administrative constraints to political expression and assembly. This campaign has successfully exploited high profile international meetings in Singapore to highlight such constraints, uploading vivid images of police action onto the Internet for global audiences.

Two fundamental obstacles stand in the way of Singapore’s leaders developing a thoughtful set of principles to concretely guide protection of universal human rights. First, such principles might compromise the political utility of essentialist ideas currently harnessed to restrict the nature and arenas of political conflict and competition. Second, they could threaten the regime narrative that Singapore is a meritocracy and must remain so to survive. The idea of universal human rights entails a different concept of citizenship to that preferred by the PAP—one which would potentially subject the elite to more imposing institutions of political accountability.

Differences within Asean over AICHR have already exposed the flawed concept of an East-West divide on human rights. The question now is whether AICHR might provide a catalyst for domestic challenges to cultural relativism within Singapore. Human-rights activism has been more effectively contained in the city-state than even authoritarian China or Vietnam.

Certainly, with human rights now enjoying institutional regional legitimacy through AICHR, persistent PAP recourse to hackneyed slogans about “Western human rights” will contribute nothing to the protection of human rights. That gives its domestic critics another opening to exploit.

Mr. Rodan is director of the Asia Research Centre and professor of politics and international studies at Murdoch University, Perth, Australia

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