Editorial : Human Rights Spotlight: Singapore

James Gomez

The execution of 25-year-old Australian Nguyen Van Tuong in early December 2005 brings to sharp focus the theme of human rights in Singapore in this edition of AsiaRights. Arrested for smuggling heroin into Singapore in 2002, Nguyen Tuong Van was found guilty in November 2005. He was hanged by the state the following month, on 2 December. This decision and action by the Singaporean authorities occurred in spite of an appeal for clemency by Nguyen, personal pleas from Australian Prime Minister John Howard and campaigns by international human rights organisations, Australian supporters and Singaporean activists. The Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights had also called for the Singapore government not to proceed with the execution, arguing that the Singapore court was obliged to consider the individual circumstances of the offence. In reply, the Singapore government claimed that it exercised its rights as a sovereign nation, accused the Special Rapporteur of attempting to “mislead the public” and pointed to the ongoing debate at the United Nations on whether capital punishment should be abolished, showing that there is no universal agreement on the death penalty.
When one discusses Singapore is discussed , the issue of human rights inevitably enters the debate. For all the economic and material accolades that the country receives, the full expression of freedom s is still seen as very much absent. The issue of “freedoms” was a theme several papers explored at a Singapore Studies Workshop on Oct 26, 2004 held at the University of Wollongong. The workshop, entitled "Handing over the reigns: Civil society under Lee Hsien Loong", was the third in a series of workshop on Singapore. It was part of the Singapore Studies Project initiated by the Monash Asia Institute which held an inaugural workshop on 10 May 2004. This was followed by a second workshop jointly organised with the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology on 9 August 2004. The meeting at the University of Wollongong was the third. Connected to this is the fact that Papers from the three workshops and others received by email as the project developed where then offered for commentary, review and eventually publication. The first set of papers was published in SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia Vol. 20/2 (October 2005) with a Special Focus on "Democracy and Civil Society: NGO Politics in Singapore". The papers featured in this special issue of Asia Rights on Singapore represent work-in-progress efforts. The papers are presented online to generate comments and feedback so that the individual authors can improve their papers and offer them eventually to a referred publication of their choice to generate interest on human rights issues in Singapore even as the events unfold. prospects for democratisation in Singapore are fraught. Citing laws and regulations that place restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and association, many observers describe the island city-state as an illiberal democracy that exercises stringent control over political expression. Such accounts, also take into account that the ruling elite under the People's Action Party does not subscribe to a human rights discourse. Instead government leaders have been known to make statements to the effect that there are no human rights abuses in Singapore. Or to insist that the people of Singapore having periodically elected the government they want testifies to the fact that there are no human rights infringements. In fact, external reports by groups such as Amnesty International and other legal and media advocacy groups are dismissed as “interference” by foreign entities in domestic affairs. Not with standing this governmental anti-human rights rhetoric, there continues to be rights issues that are of concern to Singaporeans. In a series of Singapore Studies Workshops initiated by Singapore studies researchers based in Australia, several human rights concerns came to the surface. The participants at these workshops included both junior and senior academics, researchers and activists and served to facilitate a mixture of views and perspectives as well as to enable networking among Singapore Studies researchers. In 2004, three workshops were held, one each at the Monash University, RMIT and the University of Wollongong. A selection of the papers that emerged from these workshops with a human rights focus were chosen to be part of a working papers series that form Issue Five of ASIARIGHTS: Singapore and Human Rights. We hope that this Special Issue will stimulate discussion and debate and aid the researchers in developing their work. AsiaRights and each of the authors welcome any feedback. You can contact the authors directly or via AsiaRights.
First, Marc
Rerceretnam in The 1987 ISA Arrests and International Civil Society responses to political repression in Singapore writes the how the 1987 crackdown on alleged dissidents in Singapore spurred international NGOs and expatriate Singaporean communities to helped put the spotlight on human rights abuses in Singapore and mobilise international opinion. ( ) Damien Cheong's Enhancing National Security Through the Rule of Law: Singapore's Recasting of the Internal Security Act as an Anti-Terrorism Legislation demonstrates how the Singapore government's use of the rule of law as a instrument of governance made it easier for it to justify the use of the long-standing Internal Security Act on terrorist suspects. ( ) James Gomez in his Free speech and opposition parties in Singapore evaluates the impact of laws that restrict and control the free speech activities of opposition parties and politicians in Singapore. He argues that the struggle for freedom of expression needs to be matched by the capacity to mass-distribute the content generated through free speech activities. ( ) Ulrike Rebele thoughts in Freedom of expression and Asian Values in Singapore argue that the concept of “Asian Values” in Singapore has helped to legitimise limitations on free speech by individuals. But her research shows that the lack of freedom of expression is not inherently due to any cultural traditions such as Asian values in Singapore but something enshrined in law. Ulrike was not at the workshop but was one of the several persons who submitted her paper through email to the Singapore Studies project. ( ) Yasuko Kobayashi's Risk-Management of Foreign Domestic Workers assesses Singaporean employers' treatment and attitudes toward their foreign domestic workers by examining aspects like self-motivation to monitor and control their “maids” within a neo-liberal governing framework imposed by the state. The paper also examines how a network of has been created via a web forum for employers to share their problems and experiences with their maids, illustrating the development of interesting social patterns. ( )
I hope these working papers can stimulate thinking, both for the readers as well as the writers, on human rights issues in general and Singapore in particular. I invite you to contact the authors directly with your comments.


James Gomez


About the Author

James Gomez is a PhD candidate at the Monash Asia Institute (MAI), Monash University where he is the coordinator of the Singapore Studies Project. He recently co-edited SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia Vol. 20/2 (October 2005) with a Special Focus on "Democracy and Civil Society: NGO Politics in Singapore". James is part of the Editorial Board of Asia Rights. He maintains a personal website at


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