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Singapore's Approach to Human Rights
What does Singapore’s “pragmatic and outcomes-based approach to human rights” look like in practice? And what are Singapore’s most notable abstentions from international human rights treaties?
This primer provides an overview of some of the world’s most influential human rights treaties and Singapore’s place in them:
Part One: Singapore's Notable Abstentions
1. Universal Human Rights
Human rights are the fundamental rights to which all are entitled, by virtue of being human. What these rights are exactly is complex and highly contested, with many states disagreeing on what constitutes important and fundamental rights that all humans should have.
Human rights treaties are one way in which human rights are defined. They codify these rights, and set the principles and standards of behaviour by which states should abide. The foundational texts in international human rights are the three which form the International Bill of Human Rights.
The International Bill of Human Rights is composed of three documents:
The non-binding but influential Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
Together, the norms they codify constitute a global value system that protects rights such as:
One's inherent right to life
Right to justice and a fair trial
Freedom of expression
Freedom of religion
Right to health
Right to work and the right to strike
Singapore currently holds the dubious honour of being one of 13 UN states which have not signed or ratified either the ICCPR or the ICESCR, alongside Bhutan, Brunei, Kiribati, Malaysia, Micronesia, Oman, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Tonga, Tuvalu, and the United Arab Emirates.
Treaty Explainer: How does ratification work? States become party to a treaty and agree to its principles and obligations through a process known as ratification. This process involves seeking domestic approval for the treaty, and the introduction or amendment of legislation to meet treaty requirements. Many treaties also involve a review process after ratification, with states sharing their progress towards meeting their treaty obligations, while UN Committees provide recommendations for improvement.
In contrast, Singapore has signed the non-binding ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD), as one of the ten countries that drafted and adopted it in 2012. The AHRD was denounced by Human Rights Watch and other civil society organisations for excluding many fundamental freedoms and for being “a declaration of government powers disguised as a declaration of human rights”.
Indeed, others argue that it even waters down further the inalienable nature of human rights by making it conditional upon one performing their duties to society. This is just one among several ‘claw back’ provisions against the International Bill of Human Rights to emphasise the importance of national law over human rights in Southeast Asia.
2. Refugees and Stateless Persons
Singapore has not ratified any of the four main international treaties on the rights of refugees and stateless persons. These treaties aim to establish minimum standards and obligations towards refugees and stateless persons, such as the right to housing or the right to access courts.
A core principle of the 1951 Refugee Convention is non-refoulement, the idea that refugees should not be returned to a territory where they are at risk of harm. Non-refoulement is an essential protection and is considered a form of international customary law that is binding regardless of a state’s ratification of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Singapore has faced criticism for its unwelcome stance towards refugees and its limited engagement with the global refugee crisis. In response, the following have been cited as reasons for Singapore's current stance: the influx of refugees during the Indochina Refugee Crisis (1975-96) and Singapore’s size and land-scarcity relative to other states.
During the Indochina Refugee Crisis, Singapore hosted 32,457 Vietnamese boat people. Refugees were allowed in on the condition that other countries would guarantee their removal within 3 months, and the majority of these refugees (32,364) were resettled in third countries. Many of these refugees were housed in a Sembawang refugee camp, which did not house any more than 150 refugees at any point in time.
The UNHCR’s data on refugees indicates that Singapore was host to 900 refugees in 1979 at the peak of the Indochina Refugee Crisis.
More recently, Singapore demonstrated its closed-door policy by denying entry to 40 shipwreck survivors from Myanmar in 2012. As of 2020, the UNHCR records 0 refugees in Singapore and 1303 stateless persons.
3. Migrant Workers’ Rights
Singapore shares its non-ratification of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and the Members of their Families (MWC) with many major host countries to migrant workers, with none of the world's High-Income Economies (according to the World Bank) having ratified the MWC.
In Singapore, migrant workers lack many protections compared to citizens. For example, Singapore’s main labour law (the Employment Act) does not apply to migrant domestic workers — excluding them from many protections offered under this law. While domestic workers’ rights in Singapore are protected under the less comprehensive Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, many of its terms remain ambiguous — leaving many workers in positions of precarity.
However, restrictions on migrant domestic workers are less ambiguous. They cannot marry citizens or permanent residents without the Ministry of Manpower’s permission. They must also attend compulsory medical examinations for pregnancy or face deportation.
A recent investigation by Channel News Asia into high-profile cases of abuse, torture and death of foreign domestic workers in Singapore points to a lack of consequences for such abuse and abusers’ “misplaced sense of superiority over their victims that leads them to view their targets as less human”.
Treaty Explainer: Do human rights treaties work? Academic research on the influence of international human rights law paints a complex picture of their effectiveness. The ratification of human rights treaties does open up avenues for change, for civil society to hold governments accountable when they fail to meet their obligations — and for governments to measure their progress towards crucial goals such as children's rights, gender equality and racial equality. However, these benefits can be limited when civil society faces restrictions or when states ratify treaties purely for their symbolic value. An interesting trend to note is that repressive states tend to ratify human rights treaties at similar frequencies as less repressive states, suggesting that ratification can be used as a symbolic commitment or is being done without the intention to comply with these treaties. While signing key human rights treaties can be an important step in advancing our fundamental rights, ratification alone is not the answer.
4. Protection from Torture, Degrading Treatment and Disappearance
Singapore has not ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) or the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED).
The CAT declares that there can be no circumstance which justifies torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment — including public emergencies and orders from an authority — and requires states who ratify it to introduce measures against these acts.
The ICPPED prohibits enforced disappearance, which it defines as the secret abduction and imprisonment of an individual. Enforced disappearance has been used by states to spread terror and target human rights defenders. The fate of victims of enforced disappearance is often unknown, becoming a source of agony and lingering fear for their loved ones.
Singapore’s security laws allow for detention without trial in the name of national security. Historically, these laws have been used in Operations Coldstore and Spectrum. Former Internal Security Act (ISA) detainees have argued that the ISA is draconian and should be abolished.
In 2001, then-Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam famously commented on Operation Spectrum:
“although I had no access to state intelligence, from what I knew of them, most were social activists but were not out to subvert the system”
Criticism has also been raised towards Singapore’s use of corporal punishment, the death penalty and approach to criminal justice. Civil society groups such as the Transformative Justice Collective highlight how Singapore’s harsh approach to criminal justice undermines its rehabilitative effect on prisoners.
Notably, Singapore also denounced (terminated its obligations for) the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) Abolition of Forced Labour Convention. Singapore, along with Malaysia, is one of two countries that are part of the ILO which have denounced this Convention after ratifying it. Singapore's termination stemmed from a disagreement “with the interpretation of the term ‘forced labour’ as applicable to prisoners under certain domestic legislation”.
5. Crimes Against Humanity and International Criminal Law
Singapore did not ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the body which oversees the gravest of international crimes — such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. It is important to note that the Rome Statute is not only a tool by which states can be investigated by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for these crimes. It is also a tool by which others can seek the ICC’s intervention.
Although Myanmar and Israel have not ratified the Rome Statute, Bangladesh and Palestine have successfully sought the ICC to investigate potential crimes linked to the former states. Most recently, the ICC has been the subject of much media attention due to its opening of an investigation into potential war crimes committed by US soldiers in Afghanistan.
Despite not being a party to the Rome Statute, Singapore did contribute to it the “Singapore compromise”: instead of requiring the UN’s Security Council members (of which the US, UK, China, France and Russia are permanent members) to unanimously approve investigations, these members could instead choose to defer investigations for a period of time if they agreed unanimously.
The absence of this compromise is likely to have further politicised the court's decisions, with its ability to initiate investigations so dependent on the UN Security Council. This key contribution underlies the important role which small states can have in international politics.
Supporters of the ICC have argued that the court represents an important avenue for prosecuting the gravest crimes and gets us closer to a world where none can act with impunity. However, criticisms of the ICC include its over-emphasis on the African continent and its potential challenge to state power, the latter of which is frequently criticised by states such as the US, Israel and Myanmar (all of whom have not ratified the Rome Statute).
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Part Two: Singapore's 'Pragmatic' Approach to Human Rights
Singapore’s “pragmatic and outcomes-based approach to human rights” is a recurring feature in the Singapore government’s rhetoric on human rights. But how does this pragmatism take shape?
6. Women’s Rights
While Singapore has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), its ratification contained some reservations.
Treaty Explainer: What is a Reservation? Being party to a treaty does not necessarily mean compliance with its intended principles. Before ratifying a treaty, states can include reservations by indicating obligations in a treaty they wish to modify or exclude.
Although Singapore reduced the number of these reservations in 2011, the UN Committee which oversees the Convention has stated that these reservations are still “impermissible since these articles are fundamental to the implementation of all the other provisions of the Convention”.
The reason for this is that many of Singapore's reservations apply to Article 2 of CEDAW, which commits states to:
… adopt appropriate legislative and other measures, including sanctions where appropriate, prohibiting all discrimination against women.
… refrain from engaging in any act or practice of discrimination against women and to ensure that public authorities and institutions shall act in conformity with this obligation.
Crucially, Article 2 of CEDAW is the section that commits states to take steps to eliminating all discrimination against women through anti-discrimination laws, public institutions and tribunals; and repealing all discriminatory provisions of domestic legislation. Despite having ratified the convention to eliminate discrimination against women, Singapore reserves the right to not apply key parts of it which forbid this discrimination.
7. Children’s Rights
While Singapore has ratified the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) and its first Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict, the second Optional Protocol to the CRC on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography has not been ratified.
Again, Singapore’s ratification of this Convention includes several reservations. One of these argues that Singapore’s national law sufficiently protects children’s rights, and thus means that Singapore will not accept any obligations beyond those prescribed in the Constitution — essentially arguing that Singapore’s participation in the treaty was to indicate that its laws already meet the standards of the CRC. This has been criticised by other states and the UN Committee which oversees the CRC.
Further, civil society organisations such as AWARE have called attention to how discriminatory policies and inequality undermine Singapore’s obligation to children’s rights.
8. Disability Rights
A consistent criticism which emerges from UN Committees overseeing the treaties which Singapore has ratified is that Singapore often meets its treaty obligations with policy instead of legal obligation.
Treaty Explainer: What is the difference between legal obligation and policy? Legal obligations often take the form of new or amended laws, which can only be changed again by another act of parliament. Such laws enshrine specific protections — such as further legal protections against discrimination or the creation of an independent human rights institution. Meanwhile, policy is how governments plan to respond to certain issues, but can be changed or dropped without the approval of parliament. Campaigns like the Enabling Masterplan to improve nationwide accessibility to persons with disabilities count as one example.
As a result, while many groups do see material improvements to their lives in Singapore, these improvements are often discretionary in nature, and can come without comprehensive protections.
The Disabled People’s Association (DPA) paper on Singapore and the CRPD notes that there are many policies and initiatives which aim to improve accessibility for disabled people. However, the DPA notes that it is unclear how the Singapore Constitution's Article 12 (all are equal before the law, and entitled to equal protection) translates to protecting the rights of disabled people in practice. For example, policies aiming to improve accessibility for disabled people (such as policies permitting guide dogs in food establishments) lack punitive measures to ensure compliance.
The DPA also notes that “instead of having legislation to protect employees from discrimination based on disability, Singapore has adopted a promotional and education approach.” Indeed, there remain many ambiguities surrounding the rights of an individual to claim wrongful dismissal against their employer on the basis of their disability.
9. Racial Equality
Singapore has ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) in 2017, and submitted its first report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2018.
One of Singapore’s notable reservations is that:
“Singapore reserves the right to apply its policies concerning the admission and regulation of foreign work pass holders, with a view to promoting integration and maintaining cohesion within its racially diverse society."
In practice, this can be seen in how eligibility for specific forms of immigration to Singapore can depend on one’s nationality. Some scholars have also argued that Singapore “appears to be using ethnically selective immigration policy” to entrench the existing racial balance in Singapore.
Singapore's Caveats to Human Rights
It is important to note that this is not a comprehensive list of human rights or the treaties which codify them. Key rights such as labour rights, health rights, education rights and many more were not included. Further, many groups (such as LGBTQ+ people) are still fighting for recognition, with rights that often remain uncodified in both domestic and international law.
Singapore’s Constitution enshrines personal liberty, equal protection before the law, and freedom of speech and assembly. However, the extent to which these constitutional rights translate to practice is a complicated process that often diverges from international human rights norms.
Overall, Singapore’s approach to the treaties listed above paints a picture of slow progress and limited engagement with international instruments on human rights — with many caveats and exclusions to that which should be fundamental and inalienable.
Treaties and Singapore Ratification Status
International Labour Organisation (2021). Ratification by Conventions. https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12001:0::NO::: (Accessed 5 April 2021).
Refworld (2021). Browse by Publisher. https://www.refworld.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/rwmain?page=publisher&skip=0 (Accessed 5 April 2021).
Refworld was used to access reports on Singapore by the respective UN Committees in charge of overseeing each treaty, such as Concluding Observations.
United Nations Treaty Collection (2021). Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary-General. https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ParticipationStatus.aspx (Accessed 5 April 2021).
This was the primary source of information regarding Singapore’s involvement in a treaty (ratification, accession and reservations), as well as the number of states party to each treaty.
Journalistic and Civil Society Reports on Human Rights in Singapore
AWARE (2017). CEDAW Shadow Reports. https://www.aware.org.sg/reports/cedaw-shadow-reports/
Disabled People’s Association, Singapore (2015). Singapore and the UN CRPD. https://www.dpa.org.sg/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Singapore-and-UN-CRPD.pdf
Function 8 (2015). History of the ISA. https://fn8org.wordpress.com/silenced-history/history-of-isa/
Jones, E. (2018). ‘Refugees not welcome here’: As ASEAN chair, Singapore must take the lead. https://hongkongfp.com/2018/01/07/refugees-not-welcome-asean-chair-singapore-must-take-lead/
Transformative Justice Collective (2021). Resources. https://transformativejusticecollective.org/category/resources/
Academic Literature on Human Rights Treaties
Chesterman, S., Owada, H., & Saul, B. (Eds.). (2019). The Oxford Handbook of International Law in Asia and the Pacific. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/law/9780198793854.001.0001
Doyle, N. (2014). The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration and the Implications of Recent Southeast Asian Initiatives in Human Rights Institution-Building and Standard-Setting. International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 63(1), 67-101. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0020589313000390
Hafner-Burton, E. M., Tsutsui, K., & Meyer, J. W. (2008). International Human Rights Law and the Politics of Legitimation: Repressive States and Human Rights Treaties. International Sociology, 23(1), 115–141. https://doi.org/10.1177/0268580907084388
Loja, M. Recent engagement with international human rights norms by the courts of Singapore, Malaysia, and Philippines. International Journal of Constitutional Law, 2021;, moab006, https://doi.org/10.1093/icon/moab006
Neo, J. L. (2015). Riots and Rights: Law and Exclusion in Singapore’s Migrant Worker Regime. Asian Journal of Law and Society, 2(1), 137–168. https://doi.org/10.1017/als.2015.1
Neumayer, E. (2005). Do International Human Rights Treaties Improve Respect for Human Rights? Journal of Conflict Resolution, 49(6), 925–953. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022002705281667
Yeoh, B. S. A., Goh, C., & Wee, K. (2020). Social Protection for Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore: International Conventions, the Law, and Civil Society Action. American Behavioral Scientist, 64(6), 841–858. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764220910208