The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) is the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) by its State parties.
The ICERD is a United Nations human rights treaty that requires States Parties to take measures to prohibit and eliminate racial discrimination. This includes producing reports to the Committee which outline progress and legislative, judicial and policy measures taken to tackle racial discrimination.
Singapore signed the Convention on 19 October 2015 and ratified it on 27 November 2017.
Singapore’s first review by the CERD took place on 18 and 19 November 2021, on Singapore’s compliance with its treaty obligations under the ICERD.
In this feature, we highlight the most significant comments raised during this review.
On Migrant Workers
Maliki Osman, Member of Parliament: “It is not true that we single out migrant workers for more restrictive measures. Many migrant workers, in fact most migrant workers, live in private and public housing among Singaporeans and do not experience any differences in measures restricting their movement. They, like me and my family, have to respect group sizes caps when dining out with our family and friends or participating in other social and recreational activities.”
On Freedom of Assembly
Claire Hoe, Ministry of Law: “On the right to freedom of assembly, Singapore aims to balance the right to freedom of assembly and the right to safety and security with the right of our people to go about their business without disamenities that might arise from protest, particularly given that, as highlighted by several members of my delegation, Singapore is in fact one of the smallest and most densely populated countries in the world.
At the Speakers’ Corner however, which is in fact in the heart of the city, in our business district, people can assemble without having to apply for a permit, subject to certain conditions being met.”
“Our approach affords greater protection for minorities by making it safe for them to speak about their experiences and their views. Otherwise, in a situation where racially offensive speech by all is tolerated or allowed, it can be expected that more such speech will be directed toward minority communities, who will bear the brunt of such offensive speech. The likely effect is to reduce the safe space for the discussion of such issues and increase minority community concerns for safety and security.”
Claire Hoe, Ministry of Law: “The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, or POFMA for short, is used precisely to counter falsehoods that exploit prejudices, arouse anger and fear, and undermine constructive debate. The law does not seek to limit one’s ability to raise legitimate concerns about racial discrimination.
In this way [using correction notices], the democratic process is aided, because we believe that the antidote to falsehoods is more speech and more information.”
On Human Rights
Y. K. J. Yeung Sik Yuen, CERD: “I want to say about the approach to human rights in a pragmatic and practical manner which is claimed by Singapore to be its hallmark. I for one, am really looking forward to the discourse of the delegation on this matter. I’ll be all ears to hear what’s coming. All I can say is that Singapore is very much innovative. I know for example that many years ago, when I had the opportunity to meet the then brand new CJ, Yong Pung How, I heard that he wasn’t a practising lawyer before he became CJ. He was head of a bank, the Chinese overseas bank. With the retirement of the then-CJ Mr Wee, the then-PM Mr Lee Kuan Yew thought he wanted to have a brand new CJ with thinking hats to deal with the difficulties the judiciary was facing, namely, the terrible backlog of cases. So Mr Yong Pung How, a banker, was approached. And I do know that he did a wonderful job. So I don’t know whether it’s along that line when we are speaking of pragmatism. But, you know, I’ll be all ears.”
Maliki Osman, Member of Parliament: “Singapore’s approach to human rights is premised on two tenants. First, human rights will not exist in a vacuum, so we must consider the country’s specific circumstances including our cultural, social and economic and historical context. I think that’s important and I think every country would take the position.
Second, the rule of law is an essential precondition for promoting and protecting human rights, and we will share with you our perspective on the rule of law. We are determined to remain a multiracial, fair and just society. This is the foundation of our country 55 years ago.”
Marc Bossuyt, CERD: “I believe that Singapore is quite unique in qualifying its approach to human rights as pragmatic and practical. That is why it deserves particular attention in trying to understand what is meant by this pragmatic or practical approach to human rights.
Up to now, there is no independent national human rights institution. The Committee recommends the establishment of such an institution that would fully comply with the principles relating to the status of national institutions to the promotion and protection of human rights, the so-called Paris Principles, with adequate financial and human resources and a specific mechanism for monitoring and evaluating progress of the implementation of the Convention.”
On the Death Penalty
Kevin Chia, Ministry of Home Affairs: “The death penalty is an important component of Singapore’s criminal justice system. It is applied only after due process of law and with judicial safeguards. We use capital punishment in the most limited of circumstances to deter the most serious crimes, such as murder and trafficking of significant quantities of drugs, and this has proven effective. In doing so, the larger interests of ensuring our people’s fundamental human rights to safety and security is served.
We do not release data on the racial distribution of criminals that receive the death penalty but I would like to reiterate that all persons are treated equally and accorded full due process under the law.”
Mr. Gün Kut, CERD: “Now, capital punishment can only be defended if there is 100% guarantees for non-existence of judicial error. I cannot imagine any public official that can give this guarantee. So the rest of the arguments are moot.”
On Race & the Death Penalty
Marc Bossuyt, CERD: “I am not one of those that minimises the harmful effects of drug abuse. I do believe that this is in many societies, a very serious problem, and I understand that measures [have] to be taken to protect the people that otherwise can be victims of drug abuse. But believing that, really, you need the death penalty to do so is something which I do not accept. We have several problems with the death penalty and I will not enumerate them all, but particularly in the context of Singapore, there is a minority ethnic problem. If my figures are correct, 13% of the population of Singapore is Malay, but I have figures about the executions for drug trafficking in Singapore, which brings up to 84% of those executed are Malay. This is a gross disproportionality, and I do believe that judges do not make a distinction based on the ethnic origin. But there must be reasons that explain this difference, and I do feel that this ethnic group really suffers in a disproportionate manner of the application of the death penalty.
Believing that the death penalty is an effective deterrent is really something that I cannot accept, as I said. If you see all over the world, it is not true that in countries where the death penalty has been abolished, that there is a higher crime rate than in countries that did not abolish the death penalty. It’s quite contrary.”
Stamatia Stavrinaki, CERD: “So there are studies that show that ethnic minorities often are more affected by drug use, so is it this aspect, this positive obligation of the state, also taken into account to have this kind of studies and also take measures to protect these people from drug use if this is the case? Or death penalty is the only finally, you know, way to deter drug traffickers and protect from drugs use?”
On Race & Drugs
Kevin Chia, Ministry of Home Affairs: “While we do not seek to frame the problem of drug abuse along racial lines, we recognise that drugs are a more prevalent challenge for certain communities and thus, the government actively partners with the community to address the challenges head on, with a more tailored approach to these communities.
We are cognizant that the statistics on drug abuse reveal that drugs are a more prevalent challenge for certain communities. This information allows the government to partner with the community to address the challenges head on with more tailored approaches and allow for open dialogue with key stakeholders.”
On Racial Equality
Shaun Goh, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth: “The [Presidential] Council [for Minority Rights] is part of a robust system of checks in place that demonstrates our commitment to racial and religious equality. The Council presents an annual report to parliament and to date, no adverse reports have been made by the Council. The lack of adverse reports is not a reflection of its inefficacy, but a reflection of how we believe our system of checks have been effective.”
Marc Bossuyt, CERD: “The Special Rapporteur on Contemporary forms of Racism, Racial Discrmination, Xenophobia and Racial Intolerance noted a potential conflict of interest between the dual role of the CJ as head of the independent judiciary and as chairperson of the Presidential Council. He also encouraged the authorities to review the mandate of the Presidential Council in order to allow it to consider and report, also on its own initiative, on any legislation and public policy, affecting the rights of members of ethno-religious minority groups.”
Since the review, the Committee has released its concluding observations, which includes recommendations for Singapore to better meet its obligations under the Convention.
Singapore has to submit its next periodic report by November 2025. In particular, the Committee stated that its recommendations surrounding migrant workers and the criminal justice system are of ‘particular importance‘ and requested Singapore to provide detailed information in its next periodic report on the concrete measures taken to implement those recommendations.
The Committee has also asked Singapore to provide, within 1 year, information on its implementation of the recommendations on right to health and access to justice.
Read the full set of recommendations here: bit.ly/3Komy8k