Monday, November 06, 2006

Economic might has allowed Singapore to slip under the world's human rights radar

Spotlight on Singapore: Money talks, silences human rights
by Bernadette Radford with inputs from Shipra Dingare
Human Rights Features, 2-6 Oct’06
Weekly series for the UN Human Rights Council
South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre

The annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in Suntec City, Singapore, revealed the jarring contrasts of the wealthy city-state. On the one hand, Singapore's affluence and modernity was on parade, with lush new landscaping and newly renovated bridges and flyovers, traversed by the world's most powerful financiers and businessmen in over 800 limousines and BMW sedans. Simultaneously, Singapore banned outdoor demonstrations so as not to detract from the pageantry, and Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng asserted in January 2006 that protestors breaking the law would face full penalties including caning for those who engage in violence.

Indeed, Singapore managed to assert its authoritative muscle, denying anti-poverty activists entry to the main venue, leading even the IMF and the World Bank to record their disapproval of such strong arm measures. This state of affairs reflects the attitude of Singaporean authorities: economic progress has first priority, with human rights a distant second.

Democracy is also not a high priority in Singapore; the recent celebrations marking Singapore's 41st year of independence simultaneously marked the 41st year of rule by the authoritarian People's Action Party (PAP). Citizens are not permitted to circulate newspapers, make broadcasts, hold demonstrations or even speak to a public audience without prior government authorisation. The treatment of opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, arrested in March 2006 for questioning the independence of the Singaporean judiciary and summoned to court in May for speaking publicly without a permit, attests to these realities. Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable in Singapore and are frequently subject to physical abuse and exploitation.

So why is the international community so reluctant to speak out in the face of so much oppression? The answer is simple. The economies of the world's most powerful voices are tightly intertwined with commercial interests in Singapore. The European Union (EU) and the United States have substantial business interests in Singapore, which would be compromised if they were to condemn the oppression perpetrated by the Singaporean government.

A vital trade and business link

The IMF-World Bank meeting was a premier opportunity for Singapore to present itself as a world convention and exhibition centre, as well as an international hub for business and banking. As a small city-state with few primary resources, Singapore's development strategy has of necessity focused outward, relying on external investment and trade. In this it has been notably successful. After borrowing from the World Bank in the 1960s and 70s, loans ceased by 1980 and Singapore remained resilient during the East Asian Crisis of the 1990s. Since then it has hosted IMF and World Bank seminars on crisis prevention and management. Currently, over 7,000 multinational corporations from the US, Japan, and Europe are invested in Singapore. Businesses take advantage of low tax rates and tariff barriers as well as liberal investment laws.

Singapore is also a crucial actor in world trade. The port of Singapore is one of the busiest in the world, facilitating total trade of 716 billion Singapore dollars (about US$438 billion) and trade growth of 14 percent in 2005, with future growth expected at seven to nine percent. Singapore is also a member of the ASEAN Free Trade Area and has concluded bilateral free trade agreements with countries including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Jordan, India, and Panama, among others. The US, the EU, Japan, China and Malaysia all have important trade links with Singapore. The US and the EU each receive 10 to 13 per cent of Singapore's exports annually and each provide between 12 to 14 percent of its imports.

Singapore is Europe's largest trading partner among the ASEAN countries and the 11th largest importer from the US. Malaysia is Singapore's primary trade partner and has offered no criticism of human rights abuses in Singapore. This is not unexpected, given Malaysia's own human rights record.

However, the silence of countries that profess great concern for human rights issues is somewhat more conspicuous.

Why the US and the EU need Singapore

In 2004, the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (USSFTA) came into force, marking the first free trade agreement between the US and an Asian nation. Two years later, US and Singaporean government officials applauded the 13 percent growth in trade between the two countries since the agreement came into force. The USSFTA particularly aims to increase the trade in services, of increasing importance to both countries. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the "strong economic ties" are broadening into new sectors, such as information technology, health, and education. But the US has more to gain from Singapore than bilateral trade benefits. Economically, it is hoped that the USSFTA will provide a springboard for further trade agreements which will lead to "a network of FTA's in the region" and better trading relationships with countries like Indonesia. Strategically, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs views US-Singapore relations as increasingly "multi-faceted," encompassing not only economic but also defence interests. It should also be noted that increased cooperation between the US and Singapore has arisen out of the global campaign against terrorism.

In its determination to cement relations with Singapore, the US has essentially ignored Singapore's human rights record. While the US State Department's human rights country reports annually acknowledge violations there, including infringements on freedom of the press and abuse of foreign workers, the deliberations of the US Congress subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection on the USSFTA featured little anxiety regarding Singapore's human rights record.

The statement of Thea M Lee, chief international economist of the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), urged Congress to reject the USSFTA, highlighting its effective failure to commit the parties to international labour standards. However, the legislation passed easily in both the House and the Senate.

The EU appears similarly determined to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in Singapore. In an overview of relations with Singapore, the EU describes the country as "an important trading partner" and emphasises its strategic position for facilitating trade between Europe and Asia. The 2003 launch of "A New Partnership with South East Asia" described Singapore as crucial for the sound implementation of the programme. Growing recognition of mutual economic interests led to the establishment of Singapore-EC Consultations (SECC) in 2000, which led to joint development projects in the region. Recently, Singapore has been urging the EU to forge a bilateral free trade agreement. There are hopes on both sides that relations will embrace common endeavours in transport, intellectual property, and research and development.

Clearly, the governments of the EU and the US have given priority to strong economic relations with Singapore rather than human rights issues. In this, the influence of the business community is readily apparent.

Singapore's response

Singapore's reaction to peaceful protests fits the pattern of past responses to criticisms on human rights issues. The Singaporean government has masked abuses with the flawed ‘Asian values’ discourse. Censorship measures, authoritarian governance and laws governing freedom of speech and freedom of assembly have been excused as the "Asian way." Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew claimed that Asians have "little doubt that a society with communitarian values, where the interests of society take precedence over that of the individual, suits them better than the individualism of America." When Reporters Sans Frontières' Annual Press Freedom Index ranked Singapore 147th, Information Minister Lee Boon Yang insisted that Singapore did not operate according to "Western" values. He said that journalists in Singapore do not have an "adversarial role" and instead contribute to "nation building." After a recent visit to Australia and New Zealand, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed the view that rule by a single party was more efficient and better for Singapore.

Break the silence

The parade of power and wealth in September 2006 demonstrated that human rights abuses in Singapore continue to be tolerated by the international community. It shows that economic might has allowed Singapore to slip under the world’s human rights radar. The new beginning epitomised by the Human Rights Council must be used to ensure that such States receive the attention and censure they deserve.

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Good for corporations, bad for human rights

WHILE the World Bank has taken to professing concern for human rights issues, its concern was clearly not an obstacle to the choice of Singapore as a meeting venue. The World Bank and IMF could not have been unaware that Singapore would place restrictions on the right to protest.

In a case decided late last year, the Singapore High Court refused to uphold this constitutionally
guaranteed right and stated that the police could legitimately disband peaceful protesters, even if they numbered only four.

That human rights are not a prerequisite to being a top business destination appears to be the consensus in the business community. According to the World Bank ranking of 155 countries, Singapore is among the easiest places to do business, second only to New Zealand.

Singapore is also renowned for labour laws that are favourable to employers. The negative impact these laws have on workers is less well known. There are few restrictions on a corporation's ability to hire and fire and no minimum wage. Furthermore, there is a large pool of domestic foreign labourers who are virtually unprotected by Singaporean law and are frequently subject to exploitative work conditions.

Although Singaporean courts are known to support the government’s agenda of silencing critics of the regime through defamation actions, the Hong Kong based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy recently named Singaporean courts the best in Asia. Such assessments highlight efficiency but leave other important issues ignored, such as judicial independence or the role of the courts in perpetuating unfair governmental restrictions.

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