Letter from Amnesty International

Posted by Graham Bennett under Letters on 8 March 2000

Amnesty International wrote a letter to James Gomez on hearing that Think Centre will be organising the first official Human Rights Forum in Singapore.

Dear Mr Gomez,

Thank you for informing Amnesty International about the Think Centre's forthcoming forum entitled "Human Rights: Every Singaporean Matters" to be held on 10 March 2000. Although it will not be possible for a local Amnesty International representative to participate in the meeting, may we take this opportunity to wish you a fruitful and constructive discussion on the protection and promotion of human rights in Singapore.

Amnesty International has noted with interest the government's "Vision Singapore 21" program, in particular its call for all Singaporeans to take an active, participatory role in debating and building Singapore's future. In this regard the Think Centre's forum appears particularly timely.

Amnesty International, conscious of the increasing worldwide recognition of the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of all rights -- economic, social, civil and political - believes that respect for the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) should lie at the heart of the realization of Singapore's vision.

The Think Centre's background information on the forthcoming forum suggested to us that a number of issues related to Amnesty International's longstanding concerns on Singapore may come up for discussion. These include existing curbs on freedom of expression and association, an apparently politically-motivated use of libel suits, the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the death penalty. To facilitate such discussions we hope you may find of use the following selection of Amnesty International's concerns and recommendations. May I also draw your attention to the attached Introduction to AI's 1998 Annual Report, entitled "All Human Rights for all", which discusses the abiding significance of the UDHR.

1. Ratification of international human rights instruments

Amnesty International considers the ratification of major international human rights instruments by the Government of Singapore, as by all other non-acceding governments, a basic step towards building a society founded on human rights.


- that the government as a first step moves to ratify the major human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and to incorporate their guarantees into domestic law.

2. The Internal Security Act (ISA) and other restrictive legislation

Amnesty International regards the ISA as central to the formidable array of legislation restricting the ability of Singaporeans to enjoy fundamental rights -- including freedom of expression, association and assembly. Such laws continue to deter Singaporeans from expressing dissenting political opinions or from participating in political life without the consent -- overt or tacit -- of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).

The long imprisonment without charge or trial of former prisoner of conscience Chia Thye Poh remains a potent symbol of the oppressive effects of the ISA on Singapore's political and civil life. However, the seven and twelve-day imprisonment in early 1999 of Dr Chee Soon Juan, Secretary-General of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, for speaking in public without a licence under the Public Entertainments Act, served as a pointed reminder of the broad array of other laws which impose unjustified restrictions upon the fundamental rights of Singaporeans.


- that the ISA be amended so that it no longer allows for the arrest and imprisonment of those who peacefully express their conscientiously held beliefs;

- that the ISA be amended to enable those suspected of threatening national security to have the opportunity of defending themselves in a court of law.

- that other non emergency-related restrictive legislation - including the Societies Act, the Newspaper & Printing Presses Act and the Public Entertainments Act - which place unjustified curbs on the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression, assembly and association, be reviewed with a view to repeal or reform.

3. The use of civil defamation suits for political purposes

Amnesty International believes that the civil defamation suits filed against parliamentarian J.B Jeyaretnam and former parliamentary candidate Tang Liang Hong have had the effect of curbing the right to freedom of political expression and the right to participate freely in public life.

Amnesty International believes that the Executive's use of such legislation is politically motivated, serves to engender a climate of self-censorship in Singapore's political and civic life, and places unreasonable and unacceptable restrictions on the right of Singaporeans to hold and peacefully express their opinions.

The organization is further concerned that the overall pattern of such suits appears to show a disparity in cases involving members of the government versus private citizens, and that aspects of court judgments appear to substantiate fears that the Judiciary is failing to check apparent political misuse of the law by the Executive.


- that the filing and the judicial examination of civil defamation suits be informed by respect for the principle of freedom of peaceful expression, and should not be used for political purposes.

4. Jehovah's Witnesses

At least 32 Jehovah's Witnesses were held in detention in 1999 as objectors to military service. Amnesty International regards them as prisoners of conscience, detained for the right to profess their religion, a right guaranteed under the Singapore constitution. Jehovah's Witnesses have been banned since 1972 and there is no recognition of conscientious objection, nor is there an alternative civilian, non-punitive service available, as called for by the UN Commission on Human Rights. Others have been arrested for the practice of their religion through possession or distribution of 'Watch Tower' publications.


- that Jehovah's Witnesses no longer be detained for the peaceful expression of their conscientiously held religious beliefs;

- that a civilian service be made available as an alternative to compulsory military service.

5. Ill-treatment and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment

After the arrests of social activists and others under the ISA during the late 1980s, Amnesty International documented the physical and psychological ill-treatment of the detainees, which amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The organization concluded that interrogations, taking place under conditions of extreme psychological pressure, with instances of direct physical violence, violated international legal standards as laid down in the UDHR and the UN Convention Against Torture.

Amnesty International remains concerned that these events have not yet been fully and openly investigated and that the risk that such practices may continue remains.

The organization is also concerned that caning, which constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment, remains mandatory for some 30 crimes, including attempted murder, rape, illegal immigration and vandalism, and optional for a number of other crimes. Its use has been extended to repeat drug abusers and undocumented migrant workers, including those who smuggle individuals into Singapore.


- that all reports of ill-treatment of detainees be investigated by an independent, impartial body, its report be made public, those alleged responsible be prosecuted and the victims compensated;

- that the penalty of caning for criminal offences be abolished, and that, until completion of the necessary legislative changes, it no longer be imposed as a sentence.

6. Death Penalty

The number of executions carried out in Singapore is believed to have increased in recent years. It is difficult to update information about the number of death sentences passed and executions carried out as the government tends not to publish statistics. However since 1994 more than 190 executions have been recorded in the city-state. With its population of 3.4 million Singapore is now believed to have one of the highest per capita execution rates in the world. Most are believed to have been for drug-trafficking offences. The mandatory imposition of the death penalty for drug trafficking, murder, treason and certain firearms offences remains a cause of deep concern.

Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases as a violation of 'the right to life', and the right not to be subjected to 'cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment' as proclaimed in the UDHR. There is no scientific evidence that the death penalty acts as a more effective deterrent against crimes than other forms of punishment -- or that it has a unique effect in reducing crime rates.


- that the Singapore government ratify the Second Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (dealing with the death penalty);

- that all executions be halted as a the first step towards abolition of the death penalty;

- that the government publish statistics on the use of the death penalty.

We would welcome, at your convenience, information on discussions and any resolutions of the forum. Please be assured that Amnesty International members worldwide will persist in their campaigning for human rights to be protected, in law and in practice, in Singapore and elsewhere.

Yours sincerely,
Graham Bennett
Director, Asia Program

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