Thursday, April 29, 2010

UN man highlights areas for review

Apr 29, 2010


THESE laws include the Sedition Act and the Penal Code, which prohibit the promotion of enmity between different groups on the grounds of race and religion.

Mr Githu Muigai is of the view that these laws were relevant 45 years ago, when Singapore faced racial tensions that spilled over into violence.

But he believes the situation is different today.

'It is absolutely necessary in a free society that restrictions on public debate or discourse and the protection of racial harmony are not implemented at the detriment of fundamental human rights, such as the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly.'

He thinks it is time to 'review any legislative restrictions that may exist in the statute books in order to allow Singaporeans to share their views on matters of ethnicity, to identify potential issues of discomfort and above all, work together to find solutions'.


AMONG those he cited were the Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs). Parties that contest GRCs must field at least one member from an ethnic minority.

He also cited identity cards here, which retain the 'race' category - although he noted that the authorities were more flexible to allow those of mixed origins to display several ethnic backgrounds.

But he said schemes like the GRC and having the race stated on identity cards 'may tend to reinforce and perpetuate ethnic categorisation'.

'This in turn may lead to certain prejudices and negative stereotypes against certain minority groups taking root. The benefits of a society which allows for more permeability between delimited ethnic categories and in which social interactions are not predetermined by ethnic identity cannot be overemphasised.'

He recommended, as a start, that the 'race' category be removed from identity cards.


THE 1989 Ethnic Integration Policy stipulated ethnic quotas in HDB estates in order to prevent the creation of ethnic enclaves.

While the rationale and objectives were laudable, he said, the feedback to him was that the implementation created problems: Ethnic minorities faced difficulty finding flats near their families, and it also made it harder for them to resell their flats.

He hoped the policy would be made more flexible and kept under constant review.

'There was very strong feeling that the tendency for communities to regroup within cleavages has not disappeared, and will not disappear in the foreseeable future,' he noted.

'However, I got the impression that the Government is open-minded about tweaking the system a bit in favour of families being not too far from each other, parents not being far from their children, and in allowing disposals that don't financially prejudice especially minority sellers.'


HE SAID the education system allowed all children to learn and play together. Schools also had successful programmes to foster mutual understanding and respect.

But Malay students were not moving in tandem with the rest of the student population, he felt. This was due to 'historical inequalities'.

He was also told that Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools - seen as top schools that nurture the next generation of leaders - favoured Chinese culture and language. It created the impression that there was a 'hierarchy of cultures'.

SAP schools were set up to strengthen the cultural roots of Singaporeans in an English-language environment, then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a 1999 speech. The Government would never let Chinese-educated Singaporeans monopolise top positions in society.

At his press conference, Mr Muigai recommended a state-supported 'stimulus package' for Malay education run within a specified timeline. But he agreed that ethnic quotas would not work in Singapore.

'Meritocracy has its merits. However, where there are acknowledged historical inequalities, as is the case with Malay students, this principle may serve to entrench them.'


IT WAS good that the Manpower Ministry and the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment educate employers about non-discrimination and resolve complaints through mediation.

Yet his attention was drawn to difficulties and negative stereotypes faced by Malays. He noted they were under-represented in senior positions in the military, the police and intelligence services and in the judiciary.

He called for a review of laws and regulations to ensure minority representation in all employment sectors, as well as legally binding provisions against discrimination in employment.


HE WAS aware that the recent wave of immigration caused some resentment among Singaporeans.

He called for a more open and transparent immigration policy to address this. There was a perception that migrants from certain countries were favoured.

More urgently, he asked the Government to look into the condition of the low-skilled migrant worker, on top of existing efforts to educate employers, conduct random checks and sanction employers who mistreat their workers.

On foreign domestic workers, he hoped the Government would include them under the Employment Act. He applauded the Manpower Ministry's move to draw up a standard contract for domestic workers, offering them more protection.

He also recommended a minimum wage for vulnerable migrant workers, such as domestic and construction workers.


SINGAPORE has not signed various UN covenants enshrining the principle of non-discrimination, including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

He hoped Singapore would soon accede to these covenants. The Government informed him that the matter was under review, he said.

He also hoped that the Government would beef up the Presidential Council for Minority Rights, giving it enhanced powers to consider laws on its own initiative.


ETHNIC minorities should be able to see role models in newspapers and films that present positive images of themselves, he said.

The media should therefore not reinforce stereotypes about certain races, for example, by constantly depicting a Chinese doctor and a Malay nurse, or emphasising the ethnicity of criminals.

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