Human/political/civil rights and liberties, free press/speech – are such “radical-western” terms even relevant to Singapore?

Asking a Singaporean university student on human rights…

I was eager to talk to a student who was studying law (in a private university). When I asked for her views on human rights in Singapore, she shared that the LGBT movement seems like one of the only significant human rights matter in Singapore, and that Singapore was too small a country to be of significant relevance to human rights, since issues of human rights are usually affected by, and affects bigger countries. In her law studies on human rights in our local landscape, she has learnt about women’s rights. Thus, I assume not much diverse issues are covered in her studies in regards to our local human rights landscape.

When I asked for her thoughts on media censorship, she responded back  – “Is there media censorship in Singapore?”. I did not know how to continue on the conversation, and kept silent. Even my parents know that media censorship exist in any country. In Singapore, PAP = government = regular appearance in mainstream media = alternative insights of history are not factual, and should be therefore banned. We also have the recent MCCY issues guidelines on use of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s name and image.

Civil rights movements in films

I’ve watched 2 historical drama films before – The Butler, which touches on significant events of the African-American civil rights movement, and Suffragette – where women in Britain were fighting for the same right as men to vote.

Both communities were discriminated for a long time, decided to speak up, and tried various ways to fight for their rights (e.g. protest, marches). With the increasing fatalities/injuries/major accidents, came the heightened media exposure. The government felt pressured as such, to make constitutional amendments so as to prevent their public image from going downhill. Thus, you can say the media was a strong perpetuating factor in pushing forth the progress of their respective movements.

This is why the role of the press is f***king important. It provides exposure to alternative opinions.

Examples like Hitler, Stalin, North Korea, Mao Ze Dong, ISIS, religious cults, Najib etc. When you have a sole dictator, political ideology, or high state control over the mainstream media, citizens are brainwash to not question, or even be expose to the concept that – they have the ability to reflect, and provide, or be provided with alternative opinions and suggestions for the country’s governance, or it’s leadership ideology. When a leader or ideology is no longer morally ethical, the citizens also accept such a system either out of blind indoctrination, or fear of legal repercussions if they openly speak up about the matter.

To relate back to Singapore, this could possibly happen in the future, or even in the present if any kind of political party, pluralistic community / movement use their influence for skewed or undemocratic purposes, but still attract mainstream numbers with their ideology, or powerful influences e.g. race, religion.

What is the purpose of  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights? (UDHR)

Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948, the 30 articles under the UDHR acts as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations, and sets out fundamental human rights to be universally protected.

What is the purpose of civil/political right?

A class of rights that protect individualsfreedom from infringement by governments, social organizations and private individuals, and which ensure one’s ability to participate in the civil and political life of the society and state without discrimination or repression.

What is the purpose of civil liberty?

Act as personal guarantees and freedoms that the government cannot abridge, either by law or by judicial interpretation without due process. E.g. freedom from torture, freedom from forced disappearance, freedom of conscience, freedom of press, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, the right to security and liberty, freedom of speech, the right to privacy, the right to equal treatment under the law and due process, the right to a fair trial, and the right to life.

What is the purpose of the press freedom index?

It reflects the degree of freedom that journalists, news organizations, and netizens enjoy in each country, and the efforts made by the authorities to respect and ensure respect for this freedom. Reporters Without Borders is careful to note that the index only deals with press freedom and does not measure the quality of journalism nor does it look at human rights violations in general.

Singapore’s 2015 ranking: 153 out of 180 countries

It always seems like when we talk about human rights, the first and only thing that comes to the minds of Singaporeans is the LGBT movement. Other relevant movements seem to be either forgotten, or not as known. Our media and education do not educate us comprehensively and objectively on such terms too e.g. free speech, human rights, free press.

Human rights / Civil rights / liberty movements in Singapore:

When I was at the museum a few months ago on Singapore’s history, I remember learning about a Malay individual of a certain position asked for a better educational prospects for Malay students in the parliament. That was many many decades back. This is a clear example of civil rights. And I’m 100% sure there are many more in our history timeline e.g. women’s rights.

For our present timeline,

You have SDP’s push for more liberal freedom of assembly, the Wear White movement, Pink Dot movement, Repeal for 377A, call for abolishment of the Internal Security Act (ISA), fight to make marital rape illegal.

MARUAH  – a Singapore human rights NGO. One of it’s aims is to promote and raise awareness, knowledge and understanding of human rights and human rights and related issues at the national, regional and international levels, in Singapore, ASEAN and elsewhere.

Function 8  – an initiative by a group of citizens who believe there is a need to facilitate the sharing of social, political and economic experiences of those who had, or are eager to contribute to society through reflection and civic discussion.

We believe in Second Chances advocates for the abolishment of the death penalty in Singapore.

The CEMS is made up of ex-Muslims atheists, free thinkers, and humanists taking a stand for reason, universal human rights and secularism.

Think Centre aims to critically examine issues related to political development, democracy, rule of law, human rights and civil society. Think Centre’s activities include research, publishing, organising events and networking.

Let Me Decide says NO to media Censorship.

Singapore Rebel hopes to build a democratic society based on justice and equality. Articles on alternative insights and information of Singapore’s political and media landscape, history, media censorship.

EmancipAsia mission is to combat human trafficking by raising awareness, advocating change and empowering communities, businesses and individuals to take action to end this horrific crime against humanity.

Return Our CPF – Ask Han Hui Hui.

I want Hijab – The title can speak for itself.

Project X  is a sex workers’ rights group advocating for a fair & safe sex industry and human rights for all.

HOME is  dedicated to upholding the rights of migrant workers in Singapore, including victims of human trafficking and forced labour.

TWC2 promotes equitable treatment for migrant workers in Singapore.

Advoc8 aims to empower youth leaders to truly understand the pandemic problem of modern slavery and be at the frontier of advocacy against trafficking.

AWARE aims to remove all gender-based barriers so as to allow individuals in Singapore to develop their potential to the fullest and realise their personal visions and hopes.

The Online Citizen hopes to provide an online platform for Singaporeans to champion causes and values that promote justice, openness and inclusiveness.

Are civil rights / human rights / free press / free speech exclusive to Singapore’s pluralistic state?

It is because you have these few people and minorities that decided to take a stand and speak up on such matters, which was what led to change being brought about to their legal/constitutional system. Without all these movements…

there would still be socialized segregation in the USA, with the African-American community continuing to be treated as 2nd class citizens e.g. not getting the right to vote, whites get priority seating’s in buses.

Women in UK wouldn’t be treated equally as men e.g. do not get the right to vote, are not entitled to be legal guardians of their children, and continue to get lower wages for the same amount of work. Other countries would have also continued to discriminate against women.

So yes, Human rights/civil rights movements are as relevant to us now in SINGAPORE, and for any nation, regardless of the history, size, culture, religion, and political ideology of the government in that country.

If there is no form of outlet of free speech/press, a country with a skewed status quo will just rot for decades without the avenue to reflect, and speak up on contentions with regards to the principles and integrity of their state’s governance. It’s society will remain rotten until minorities start to speak up, and stir up a revolution.

However, there is also a possible downfall to freedom of speech/press – diversity of views due to difference in culture, religion and belief system; or lack of credibility of new sites might lead to abuse, tensions and intolerance; breaking the societal and political harmony.

Why? A multi-racial/religious state means everyone has a spectrum of views on various matters. Some of us are more liberal, others are more conservative. Some of us want changes to certain laws, others feel that status quo is ideal. There is always incongruence between the various ideologies, morality, and belief systems of different communities.

Also, outlets of free press/speech might be abused by individuals / groups / movements / communities with skewed intentions e.g. ISISBut then again, alternative communities would also have the very same outlet of free speech to criticize such movements. 

As such, as much as I believe in progressive steps for society to mature, I also see the importance of minimal limitations for it to remain stable e.g. In a pluralistic country, religion/racial supremacy and the legal/political system should be made MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE, regardless of the race, religion, and size of the majority population.

 A secular governance in other words, where religion and politics are mutually exclusive to one another, even if the majority religion makes up 99% of the population. Just say in a pluralistic state, if one religion want their followers to abide to their legal system e.g. Syariah Court for Muslims in Singapore on matters of marriage/divorce, it’s perfectly fine (if it’s laws are logical and ethical) as long as non-Muslims are not expected to abide to the muslims laws, and will not face consequences for not following suit. It’s the same analogy as religious affiliation. We all follow our respective customs and beliefs, but we don’t expect, or force believers from other religion to abide to them, or punish them for not doing so.

You are free to raise up criticism on religion, but not blindly hate on it’s followers, or incite any form of violence to anybody, or their property.

When everyone feels that their accounts are taken into consideration, this will enable the country to find a balance between the differences of all sides, so that pluralistic ties can remain stable and harmonious, while still allowing the socio-political landscape of the country to also progress with times.

The missing dots preventing the progress of a country  (in regards to religion and politics)

Politics and citizen’s opinions are not exclusive. Yes, the government run’s the country. But we as citizens are the ones’ that make up the country’s population, and contribute to it’s economy, security, services, welfare etc.

Being the one’s on-the-ground, we would be more aware of the loopholes in our respective areas, and what policy changes we can suggest to improve the system. The government’s outlook and approach is solely that of a top-down one, whereas we can provide them the bottom-up perspective they might be lacking, for them to better grasp the bigger picture e.g. connect how the major policies impacts the micro-level systems.

I understand the importance, and reasons for the limitations of free speech when it comes to religion, though I feel it should be progressively opened up in terms of asking questions, sharing your views about another religion, and hearing what others have to ask, or share about how they perceive your religion, without either sides feeling offended, or worrying whether the other party would feel offended. And it starts from education first and foremost, before the law can slowly opened up in the decades to come.

The way society has responded to Amos Yee’s video – parents themselves spouting vulgarities and calling “rape” on him, it does show how “opened” and “matured” we are as adult citizens on such matters. This is partly the result of how our political, educational, and social landscape has shaped us to feel that religion is too sensitive to talked about.

If we want our to citizens to be more open-minded and mature up, the state has to play an essential role, by providing that outlet for us to be exposed, and practice how to engage in purposeful discussion from young.

Though both religion and politics are considered sensitive, It’s ironic that we as Singaporeans are more opened to the concept of talking about our religious beliefs, than our political beliefs, when the latter is a common ground for all citizens.

Singaporeans are indoctrinated to not question, or even be aware of the ability we have in regards to – reflecting on our political landscape/leadership

The political apathy by the older generations comes from fear, which might be passed down to the young likewise. Many of the older generation still have the inculcated mindset “The government don’t like people to talk about them. It’s something dangerous. Better not even talk about it in my own house, later they catch me. My view of the government? Nothing bad. Everything very good, country very stable. I’m a civil servant, my rice bowl comes from the government, I rather keep quiet. And my children are also banned from getting involved in politics.”

And for the younger generation, it might be lack of exposure, unawareness, or maybe ignorance, I believe?  Again, it is partly the result of our social, political, and educational landscape. Because of the local system, many of us have not been exposed to the concept, or have been brainwashed to not question, or even reflect on our political landscape. As such, we lack the interest and motivation to ponder on the pros and cons of our political ideology, or find the act of doing so – of little importance/necessity, likewise with dogma, unspoken traditions, inculcated social norms, and points of contention in religion.

Neither are we educated on the basic knowledge, or the purpose of the 20 articles of human rights, free speech, free press, civil liberties etc.

It is not about challenging or revolting the system. It is not even about agreeing or disagreeing with the system, it is just the basic step of reflecting on the strengths and loopholes of the system itself, which I find lacking in our youths. 


Though law amendments may takes decades to bring about, to say that it is not important to start thinking, or speaking up about CHANGE plainly means you’re supporting the delaying of a society’s progress and future.

CHANGE has to always start somewhere. And with the changes made in the present, it will gradually add up, and shape our future e.g. tackling loopholes in our legal system. And who will gain from all these? Our children and grandchildren.

Movements usually start from one minority who speaks up, and people who become aware and feel aligned to the very same cause will also likewise, also start to follow suit. All these will eventually lead to social, or even legal changes in our socio-political landscape in the long-term for the betterment and progress of society.

So, if you still think the terms like civil / political / human rights are extreme, bullshit, or  westernized ideologies, you have taken away all the efforts of our ancestors not only throughout the world, but in Singapore too.

So what is human rights? It simply means basic rights for human. How radical and irrelevant is that?


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Featured image credits:  Paris Chia Photography (website), @Instagram@Facebook


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