“The media and human rights defenders were tightly controlled through revocation of licences and criminal charges. Judicial caning and the death penalty were retained,” it added.
Amnesty International identified four issues of concern: freedom of expression, the death penalty, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment, and counter-terror and security.
On freedom of expression, Amnesty raised three examples.
One, the imprisonment of Amos Yee, a 16-year-old blogger, for wounding religious feelings in a video that also criticised Lee Kuan Yew. It also highlighted Singapore’s failure to adhere to its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. (See also: this, this and this.)
Two, the suspension of The Real Singapore for inciting anti-foreigner sentiments and the prosecution of its editors, Yang Kaiheng and Ai Takagi, for sedition. (See also: this.)
Three, the suspension of human rights lawyer M Ravi, “ostensibly on health grounds.”
“There were concerns this may have been politically motivated,” said Amnesty.
On the death penalty, Amnesty said: “Death sentences continued to be imposed, including as mandatory punishment for murder and drug trafficking.”
On the use of cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment, Amnesty pointed to the continued use of caning, especially as a mandatory punishment “for cases such as drug trafficking and immigration offences.”
“The Supreme Court has also ruled that caning is not unconstitutional,” Amnesty added.
On counter-terror and security, Amnesty highlighted the use of the Internal Security Act to detain without trial two individuals suspected of planning to join the Islamic State.
During Dr Chee Soon Juan’s defamation trial in 2008, Mr Lee Kuan Yew argued that the integrity of his government was beyond doubt. He said he had received an award by Transparency International (a claim Dr Chee countered). He also said that his government was judged favourably by “IMD, World Economic Forum and a whole host of other rating agencies.”
In response, Dr Chee said:
“Good. Are you including International Commission Jurists? Are you including Human Rights Watch? Are you including Amnesty International? Are you including Committee to Project Journalists? Are you including International Federation for Free Exchange? Are you including Southeast Asia Press Alliance? Are you including World Movement for Democracy? Are you including Human Rights Defenders? Are you including World Forum for Democratisation in Asia? Are you including National Endowment for Democracy? Are you including Liberal International? Tell me you cited four, I cited you at least 10, Mr Lee. So do me a favour, let us not pick and choose at what endorsements you get because overall if you’re trying to show me that your standing in the world is that high you wouldn’t be clutching at straws.”
Dr Chee’s point was that Mr Lee Kuan Yew was being selective about the international organisations he relied on to prove his government’s integrity. Dr Chee’s point remains valid. If the PAP wants to rely on international benchmarks to emphasise its success in areas such as education, healthcare and integrity, it cannot pick and choose—or at least if it does, it must provide good reasons why some benchmarks are more reliable and relevant than others.
With human rights organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the PAP has constantly brushed aside accusations of failing to respect universal human rights. It pleads a form of cultural relativism, and says that Singapore has a different culture, different needs, and its people have different priorities. Whether it is Asian values or communitarian values, some contorted ideology is always upheld as proof of Singapore’s exceptionalism—an exceptionalism that cannot be subjected to international standards, except of course, when it suits us.
In education, healthcare and freedom from corruption, then, we are exceptional because we are not an exception (from the international standards in these areas). But in human rights, we are an exception because we are exceptional (by virtue of enjoying some Frankenstein-ideology more imagined than real).
Is this a coherent explanation? Perhaps only to those who insist on their own exceptionalism.