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Singapore’s Rule of Law & Human Rights

Singapore has a common law system. Laws originate in and must be passed by the parliament, before assent by the President. A Presidential Council for Minority Rights examines all draft legislation to ensure it is will not unreasonably disadvantage Singaporean ethnic or religious minorities.

The Supreme Court comprises the Court of Appeal and the High Court and hears both civil and criminal matters. The Court of Appeal hears appeals from the High Court and is Singapore’s highest appeal court. The High Court has jurisdiction to hear certain criminal and civil cases at first instance, and appeals from District and Magistrates Courts. The lower courts are divided into divisions; the Civil, Family and Juvenile, and Criminal Justice Divisions. Members of the judiciary are appointed by the President from candidates recommended by the Prime Minister. Judicial review of government discretionary powers is carried out by the Supreme Court. Judicial independence is guaranteed by the Constitution.

The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) is a government agency under the Prime Minister’s Office, whose job is to investigate and prosecute corruption in the public and private sectors. It is independent from all other government agencies, including the Singapore Police Force.

The ad-hoc Constitutional Tribunal, established by Article 100 of the Constitution, can review the Constitutionality of laws upon the request of the President, acting upon the advice of the Cabinet. The Tribunal consists of no less than three Supreme Court judges and its decisions are binding on all other courts. Only one constitutional question has ever been referred since the Tribunal was established in 1994.

The Singapore Constitution protects certain fundamental liberties such as; liberty of the person, freedom from slavery or forced labour, equality before the law, the right to a fair trial, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, assembly and association, and the right to an education.

Singapore is a State Party to three of the nine core human rights treaties: the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and its Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

During Singapore’s 2011 Universal Periodic Review (UPR), Singapore was criticised for undue limitations on freedom of speech, assembly and association. Although Singapore’s Constitution formally guarantees these rights; it also allows for them to be restricted on the grounds of national security, public order, morality and religious and racial harmony. Under the Public Order Act 2009, outdoor gatherings of five or more persons require prior approval from the police. The Speaker’s Corner, an outdoor space located within a public park that was launched in September 2000 as a “free speech area” remains the only place where public assemblies do not require police permits and where uncensored speech is allowed in the country. Freedom House ranks the Singaporean press as “Not Free” and Singapore itself as “Partly Free”. In addition, defamation lawsuits have been used to silence government critics, including authors, journalists, bloggers and members of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party.

Singapore’s report to the UPR in May 2011 cited that progress had been based on four main principles of balancing of competing rights, prioritization of social cohesion, pragmatism and meritocratic ideals.

Members of the UN Human Rights Council made a number of recommendations during the UPR review that Singapore did not accept:

  • impose a moratorium on the death penalty with a view to abolishing it,
  • abolish criminal defamation,
  • abolish corporal punishment,
  • review existing provisions with regard to detention without trial and adopt new provisions to inform those detained of their right to a lawyer,
  • introduce legislation to make marital rape illegal in all circumstances,
  • repeal legal provisions criminalizing sexual activity between consenting male adults (section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code).

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