Increased collaboration within civil society highlighted during Singapore’s UPR

03.02.2016

Despite legislative restrictions and judicial harassment of human rights defenders and measures to inhibit the human rights organisations to set up and function freely and independently, years of effort and dedication on the part of defenders in Singapore has led to a civil society that is increasingly vibrant. Unfortunately, as a result they are also increasingly under threat.

Despite legislative restrictions and judicial harassment of human rights defenders and measures to inhibit the human rights organisations to set up and function freely and independently, years of effort and dedication on the part of defenders in Singapore has led to a civil society that is increasingly vibrant. Unfortunately, as a result they are also increasingly under threat.

Many say it was the years of hard work by human rights defenders who have been working to strengthen civil society who made this happen; defenders such as Teo Soh Lung and Sinapan Samydorai – who attended Geneva for Singapore’s universal periodic review (UPR).

While in Geneva, Teo Soh Lung spoke to ISHR about her time in arbitrary detention, the judiciary’s inability to grant her justice and her motivation to tell her story - ‘I knew people would continue to be treated as I was if I didn’t speak out about it. There were people who were arbitrarily arrested before me under the Internal Security Act, but I didn’t know why they were arrested. I wanted to create awareness within, and strengthen, civil society.’

Teo Soh referred to the manner in which the civil society movement in Singapore, which went quiet after her arrest in the 1980’s, regained strength and became more active about the time of the release of her book and her story. Teo Soh Lung and others detained with her have since established Function 8 Limited, a social enterprise which advocates against indefinite imprisonment without trial - currently permitted by the Internal Security Act, the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act and the Misuse of Drugs Act.

While in Geneva, Sinapan Samydorai recalled his experience attending ISHR’s annual Human Rights Defender Advocacy Programme in 2001 – ‘It was at this programme that I learnt about the 14 years of lobbying, advocacy and negotiation that resulted in the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the landmark Declaration on Human Rights Defenders which recognised the important and legitimate role of human rights activity, and the need to protect those involved human rights work.

On Sinapan Samydorai’s return to Singapore in 2001, Think Centre applied to register as an independent civil society organisation with the aim of critically examining issues related to political development, democracy, rule of law, human rights and civil society.

‘The application was successful and in October 2001, the Register of Societies recognised Think Centre as a society. This was historical as never before had the State recognised any group working on the promotion and protection of human rights.

Many civil society organisations in Singapore have more recently been working collaboratively, albeit informally, to raise awareness about various human rights issues. Adrian Heok, President of Think Centre, stated that Singapore’s UPR provided an opportunity to make this informal collaboration more formal. The UPR process led to the formation of the Alliance of Like-Minded Civil Society Organisation (ALMOS) in Singapore.

‘We knew that the Government could not dismiss ten organisations working together as easily as it does a single organisation. And we were right. We have seen first-hand the difference in the response to ALMOS’ collective call - both by our Government and other Governments’, said Heok.

‘The Singaporean Government was forced to listen when issues we have been raising were included in recommendations received from other States. In particular, in respect of those issues where the Government’s position significantly lags behind international standards’, added Hoek.     

While there has been considerable progress, there remains a lot to be done. ISHR’s briefing paper on the situation of human rights defenders, which served as a submission to the UPR and is intended to assist States and other stakeholders to formulate questions and recommendations during the UPR, highlights concerns over restrictions placed on civil society, including official restrictions on the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression.

The paper highlights the Government’s continued silencing of discourse and criminalisation of the legitimate work of human rights defenders – including through charges of defamation, ‘contempt of court’, and media censorship laws such as the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act and the Broadcasting Act.

In its last UPR, Singapore accepted a recommendation on repealing or narrowing the restrictions on public discourse. However, this has not yet been implemented. In its review last week, Singapore confirmed it would examine each of the recommendations received. ISHR urges Singapore to accept and implement recommendations for the protection of civil society. 

Category:

Region
  • Asia
Topic
  • Freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • Human rights defenders
  • Reprisals and intimidation
  • United Nations
Mechanism
  • Universal Periodic Review
Country
  • Singapore