S’pore govt should ease restrictions on freedom of expression: HRW

[UPDATE on 27 Jan 2012: Read the Law Ministry's response to this report here.]

Singapore’s government should ease restrictions on freedom of expression instead of making excuses not to do so, a US-based human rights group said on Tuesday.

In its annual report released on Monday which assessed progress on human rights in more than 90 countries over the past year, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) pointed out how the government had either dismissed or contested the recommendations to improve its civil and political liberties made by the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process in May last year.

The UN report, it said, had highlighted areas of concerns such as use of preventive detention, defamation suits and restrictions on public protests among others.

Singapore's claims of exemption from human rights standards are just lame excuses for abuses,” said HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.

“The people of Singapore deserve the same rights as everyone else, not more clever stories justifying government oppression."

The group said that legislations such as the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act grant the government “virtually unlimited powers” to detain suspects without charge or judicial review.

Those laws, it added, have been used to imprison government critics without trial, as well as criminal suspects who should be charged under the penal code. It suggested that the government should also use the criminal code to prosecute terrorism suspects in line with international procedures.

HRW also took issue with policies which ensure the government’s tight reins over the media, which it said enable censorship, and control over films, music and computer games.

It singled out the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, which requires publications to renew registration annually, and gives the government a “free hand” to control circulation of foreign publications.

Freedom of association is also heavily scrutinised in the country, it said, with the Registrar of Societies having the right to deny registration to associations of 10 or more members and that police permits are required for any public event involving five or more people.

"Singapore's leaders may sometimes listen to the electorate's concerns over social and economic rights, but they are apparently deaf to pleas for political space to organise and speak out without fear of prosecution,” Robertson said.

“It’s telling that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his 2012 New Year’s message didn’t say a single word about civil and political rights.”

The group also called for the mandatory death sentence and judicial sentences which include caning to be banned, adding that the latter punishment amounts to torture. It added that British colonial laws on same-sex relations should be repealed due to its discriminatory nature and invasion of privacy.

Meanwhile, HRW commended the country for improving rights protections and working conditions for around 196,000 of foreign domestic workers through vigorous prosecution of employers and recruiters who physically abuse workers, fail to pay wages or subject workers to dangerous conditions.

However, it said that the government should include these workers under the Employment Act to ensure they have access to rights under the legislation.

In the review in May last year, the panel formed by the UN had recognised Singapore’s progress in improving human rights protections for women, children, migrant workers, and promoting racial and religious harmony.

Local media also reported that the panel had recommended that the country abolish the death penalty, but the government contested that its low crime rates reflect the success of capital punishment.

Singapore also dismissed the need to establish the national human rights institution – as suggested by the panel.