Civil Society and Politics: A Response to Ministry of Manpower and Ministry of Home Affairs

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) have dismissed the statements issued by civil society groups and ex-SMRT driver He Junling. We have also been told we are exploiting vulnerable foreign workers for our own political ends.

On the contrary, the statements have raised important issues that affect the welfare and rights of Singaporeans and migrant workers alike. The treatment of accused persons in custody and those under investigation needs to be addressed to safeguard the integrity of our public institutions.

For instance, what mechanisms do investigating authorities have in place to ensure that those who are suspected of criminal offences are not abused? When statements of accused persons are recorded and signed during investigations, do the authorities engage official interpreters to translate for those who cannot read English? What active steps are taken by the authorities to ensure that individuals who are arrested and investigated are aware of their rights?

To better address the issues raised on the treatment of accused persons in custody and those under investigation, we urge the government to provide and improve training programmes on human rights for the judiciary and law enforcement personnel (see point 95.13),[1] as recommended by the United Nations Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The MHA should also consider initiating a review of countries which audio and video record interrogation/investigation procedures, with a view towards establishing the most appropriate system for Singapore.

The assertion that activists are making ‘reckless allegations about our labour laws and unions’ is unsubstantiated. The sustained work of related non-governmental organizations (NGOs), through research, case work and legal aid, have shown deficiencies in existing legislation that disadvantage low-wage migrant workers. Prior to the SMRT strike, our unions have demonstrated limited interest in empowering low-wage migrant workers. We hope that the unions will show greater commitment in upholding the rights of all workers regardless of nationality.

By saying that activists and NGOs have a political agenda, the government has drawn a false dichotomy between politics and human rights. Moreover, our unions, voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) and government-linked companies are not thought of as advancing any political agendas when members of the ruling party hold key appointments in these groups, yet NGOs with limited resources are stigmatised and criticised when they work with or are associated with opposition politics. This suggests a problematic double standard.

Many civil society groups have played a constructive role by recommending policy suggestions to improve the well-being of people based on a human rights framework. Similarly the government has also made efforts to respect and engage in the implementation of international human rights standards at the highest levels, for instance through its active participation in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process at the Human Rights Council held in May 2011.

It is hoped that the government will appreciate the role a diverse civil society plays in advancing the welfare and rights of the people of Singapore. Since it is expected that ministries and officers discharge their duty well, requiring public accountability and transparency thus becomes a vital and necessary aspect of the work of civil society. By taking legal action and threatening NGOs with funding cuts, our society regresses as it reinforces the climate of fear and disempowers its people.

Statement jointly issued by (in alphabetical order)

Project X

Think Centre

Workfair Singapore


[1] Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review of Singapore. Accessible at http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G11/145/27/PDF/G1114527.pdf?OpenElement , refer to page 18.

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Categories: SMRT

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