SINGAPORE DELEGATES, DESCRIBING COMPLIANCE WITH WOMEN’S CONVENTION, SAY ACCOUNT MUST BE TAKEN OF CULTURAL TRADITION, NEED FOR STABILITY

13 July 2001
WOM/1293

SINGAPORE DELEGATES, DESCRIBING COMPLIANCE WITH WOMEN’S CONVENTION, SAY ACCOUNT MUST BE TAKEN OF CULTURAL TRADITION, NEED FOR STABILITY

13/07/2001
Press ReleaseWOM/1293

Committee on Elimination of

Discrimination against Women

Twenty-fifth Session

522nd Meeting (AM)

SINGAPORE DELEGATES, DESCRIBING COMPLIANCE WITH WOMEN’S CONVENTION, SAY

ACCOUNT MUST BE TAKEN OF CULTURAL TRADITION, NEED FOR STABILITY

Committee Chairperson Says Concern Remains over ‘Reservations’

Which Contradict Letter and Spirit of International Agreement

Singapore's laws and policies must reflect its economic, social and

geo-political situation, its constraints and realities, as well as the kind of dynamic society Singaporeans wanted for themselves and their children, the head of Singapore's delegation said this morning in response to a series of questions raised by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, following Singapore's first-ever presentation to a United Nations treaty- monitoring body on Monday, 9 July.

The 23 experts of the Committee, who monitor compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, had pressed the delegation on Monday to explain its several reservations to the women's anti-discrimination Convention.

[Singapore maintains reservations to Articles 2, 9, 11, 16 and 29 (2) of the Convention.  Articles 2 and 16 concern the modification or abolition of laws and customs that discriminate against women.  Article 9 concerns equal rights with respect to nationality.  Article 11 refers to the elimination of discrimination against women in the field of employment, and Article 29 (2) requires States parties to submit to arbitration any unsettled dispute concerning the interpretation of the Convention.]

Today, the Senior Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Community Development and Sports of Singapore, Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, noted the expert's serious concerns.  She said her country had kept an open mind and had engaged in candid discussions at home and abroad on international norms and the way forward for Singaporean society.  Indeed, Singapore was serious about advancing the de facto status of its women and their equality with men, and it was in that spirit that it had ratified the Convention. 

At the same time, she said, her Government had to be sensitive to the different cultural and religious beliefs of its people.  That was the foundation of Singaporean social and political stability.  No legislation had specifically set out a definition of discrimination against women.  There could, therefore, be

instances where specific laws or practices might not be fully consistent with the Convention, but those were in place because of society’s limitations, constraints or broader national interests, and those were reason for the reservations to the Convention.  The Government would conduct periodic reviews on such policies.

To a series of prior questions on the system of meritocracy in Singapore, the delegation agreed that meritocracy could be discriminatory if there was no attempt to level the playing field.  One way to do that was to ensure equal and universal access to education.  In Singapore, education was free, and funding was provided to community groups to help children from humble and disadvantaged homes. The question really must be whether meritocracy in Singapore had resulted in better opportunities for women.  Indeed, statistics had shown that the gender gap was closing in many important areas, including with respect to wages.

Despite certain measures, the delegates from Singapore said, persuading more women to serve in politics had so far been unsuccessful.  The reasons for the low level of political representation by women and the possible implications of that trend for society should be analysed.  While quotas for women in Parliament were not practised, measures and programmes must remain under review, as well as lessons learned from other countries in that regard.  Women were part of the social mainstream in Singapore.

Other topics covered today included the application of Muslim law in Singapore society, sex role stereotyping and education, prosecutions and convictions for sexual offenders, the lack of specific provisions on gender discrimination in the country’s Constitution, foreign domestic workers, nationality and immigration issues, abortion practices, and tobacco and alcohol consumption among young women.

Concluding the meeting, the Chairperson of the Committee, Charlotte Abaka (Ghana), thanked the delegation for the detailed information that had been provided.  She said the Committee had taken note of the country’s remaining reservations and remained concerned that those contradicted the spirit and the letter of the Convention. One of the Committee’s recommendations was for Singapore to amend some of its policies to enable all Singaporeans, regardless of their gender or nationality, to enjoy equal status and equal rights.

When the Committee meets again at 3 p.m. today, it is expected to hear replies from Andorra based on the presentation of its initial report on Tuesday, 10 July.

Background

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to hear replies from the delegation of Singapore to questions raised by members last Monday (9 July), following the introduction by representatives of that country of its initial and second periodic reports, and oral presentation. 

The Committee, comprising 23 experts from around the world acting in their personal capacities, monitors compliance with the 168-member Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.  Operational since 1981, the Convention requires States parties to eliminate discrimination against women in the enjoyment of all civil, political, economic and cultural rights.

An Optional Protocol of December 2000 -– ratified by 22 States parties –- entitles the Committee to consider petitions from individual women or groups of women who have exhausted national remedies.  It also entitles the Committee to conduct inquiries into grave or systematic violations of the Convention.

States parties are required to submit reports to the Committee on measures taken to implement the Convention.  At its current three-week session, the Committee is considering the reports of eight States parties on measures taken to implement the Convention – Andorra, Guinea, Singapore, Guyana, Netherlands, Viet Nam, Sweden and Nicaragua.

Singapore maintains reservations to Articles 2, 9, 11, 16 and 29(2) of the Convention.  (Articles 2 and 16 concern the modification or abolition of laws and customs that discriminate against women.  Article 9 concerns equal rights with respect to nationality.  Article 11 refers to the elimination of discrimination against women in the field of employment, and Article 29(2) requires States parties to submit to arbitration any unsettled dispute concerning the interpretation of the Convention.)

On Monday, the Senior Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Community Development and Sports of Singapore, Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, presented the reports.

The delegation from Singapore also included three other representatives -- from the Ministry of Community Development and Sports, Deputy Secretary Yeoh Chee Yan; the Coordinating Director of the Family Development Division, Tan Hwee She; and the Assistant Director of Family Policy, Pauline Mo. 

Also in the delegation were Julia Sng, Head of Policy, Singapore Immigration and Registration; Tan Jing Koon, Deputy Director, Labour Relations Department, Ministry of Manpower; Danielle Yeow, Justices’ Law Clerk, Attorney-General’s Chambers; together with two representatives of Singapore Council of Women’s Organizations -– Shirley Lim, President; and Anamah Tan, First Vice-President.

Tan Yee Woan, Deputy Permanent Representative of Singapore to the United Nations, and Vanessa Chan, First Secretary at the Permanent Mission, also participated.

Response of Singapore

The delegation of Singapore supplied detailed written responses to questions posed by the experts at previous meetings.  The Committee heard supporting comments from the head of the delegation, Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, Senior Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Community Development and Sports, and the other members.

YU-FOO YEE SHOON said they had taken note of the experts’ expressions of serious concerns, particularly with regard to Singapore’s reservations to the Convention.  Their suggestions, she said, had been welcome.  Singapore had progressed, in part, because it understood there was much to be learned from others.  It had kept an open mind and had engaged in candid discussions at home and abroad on international norms and the way forward for Singaporean society. 

Its society, she went on, was dynamic and existed in an international context, as did its laws and policies, mindful that those must reflect Singapore’s economic, social and geo-political situation, its constraints and realities, as well as the kind of society Singaporeans wanted for themselves and their children. 

She said her delegation would do its best to give full and frank replies to questions.  Singapore was serious about advancing the de facto status of its women and their equality with men, and it was in that spirit that it had ratified the Convention.  From that perspective, she had been persuaded that more and better data was needed to track progress, and the representatives would seek to address that in next report. 

On Monday, many experts had asked why there were no specific provisions in the Constitution on gender equality and no specific anti-discrimination laws in Singapore.  While the legal basis for gender equality might not be as specific as the Committee might like, Article 12 of the Constitution provided a sufficient guarantee of equality to all Singaporeans, men and women.

The Government of Singapore, she said, had to be sensitive to the different cultural and religious beliefs of its people, as they were the foundation of the country’s social and political stability.  No legislation had specifically set out a definition of discrimination against women, but she agreed that it should cover both intentional discrimination and discrimination in effect.  There could be instances, however, where specific policies, laws or practices might, in effect, not be fully consistent with the Convention.  The Government would continue to review the relevant policies and laws periodically, but those explained the various reservations it currently had to the Convention.

Meritocracy, she said, in response to a series of questions on the subject, was the very cornerstone of Singaporean society.  It had not been necessary to incorporate it explicitly into its laws.  She agreed that meritocracy could be discriminatory if there was no attempt to level the playing field.  Singapore had sought to ensure that every person in its society had equal and universal access to education.  Education was free, and funding was provided to community groups to help children from humble and disadvantaged homes. In January 2003, the Government would introduce compulsory education to make six-year primary education in the national schools compulsory.  For older Singaporean women who wanted to equip themselves for new opportunities, a huge investment was being made in skills retraining and life-long education.  On the question of better opportunities for women, statistics showed that the gender gap was closing in many important areas.  There were many examples in Singapore about how its educational system had allowed people from humble and disadvantaged backgrounds to rise to the top. 

She said Singapore emphasized family values.  The State and community might be able to provide some financial assistance, the legal system could provide justice and some form of redress, but those institutions could never replace the love and emotional security that a family could provide.

Despite certain measures, she said persuading more women to serve in politics had so far been unsuccessful.  While quotas for women in Parliament were not practised, measures and programmes must remain under review, as well as lessons learned from other countries in that regard.  Women were part of the social mainstream in Singapore.  That meant that those were treated as equal partners with men and were not a marginalized or disadvantaged group.  She wished to see them participate fully in all sectors and at all levels of society.

Another member of the Singapore delegation noted that several of the Committee’s experts had commented on the lack of specific provisions on gender discrimination in the country’s Constitution.  She said Article 12 of the Constitution enshrined the principle of equality of all persons before the law and necessarily involved women in that approach.  Women could make complaints about violations of their rights to the relevant authorities.  There was also a variety of penal provisions, which protected the rights of women.  If there was, in fact, evidence of practice of discrimination, the Government would be very concerned and would take the necessary measures to address the situation.  There was no known ongoing legal study of discrimination in effect.  No evidence had been forthcoming of any discrimination, which would have made it necessary for the Government go undertake such a study. 

She observed that when commenting on the lack of specific non-discrimination clauses in the country’s legislation, the experts had asked if discriminatory legislation could be struck down.  Referring to Article 4 of the Constitution, she said it determined that the Constitution was the supreme law of the country, and all laws inconsistent with it would be void.  Thus, any piece of subsidiary legislation, which was successfully challenged as being unconstitutional, would be struck down.

The Committee then heard from another member of the delegation that Singapore was committed to the implementation of the Women’s Convention and was going to examine it further in the future.  Under domestic law, she said, an international convention could not be invoked as part of the internal law, unless it had been incorporated and implemented by the Government. 

Turning to the country’s reservations to the Convention, she said that Singapore was committed to the advancement of the status of women and to ensuring that the objectives of the Convention were upheld and advanced.  While it may not be possible to fully comply with the obligations under the Convention, it had been Singapore’s choice to accede to the Convention, if it believed its reservations would allow it to do so. 

She said reservations to Articles 2 and 16 were necessary, because the Constitution of Singapore required respect for cultural and national peculiarities of various groups of society.  It was important to maintain the delicate balance in Singapore’s multicultural society.  There were provisions in the Administration of Muslim Law Act, which may not be consistent with the Convention (for instance, the right of a Muslim to marry up to four wives).  In launching the reservations, Singapore had considered the views of Islamic authorities.

On Article 9, she said Singapore was not the only country that adopted laws to govern employment, stay and departure of people to its territory.  Such requirements were dependent upon each country’s unique needs and were gender-neutral.  The reservation to Article 9 was also required in the light of Singapore’s Constitution, which allowed for citizenship by descent on the children born overseas of a Singaporean father.  There were no similar provisions regarding the children born from Singaporean mothers abroad.  The matter would continue to be discussed in the Parliament, in view of the changing social values and realities.

The reservations to Article 11 were necessary, in order to safeguard the welfare of women and their unborn children from certain hazardous occupations and in line with the reference to the obligations of State parties to safeguard the functions of reproduction.  That was necessary in light of the country’s small population and low fertility rate.  For that reason, for example, women were excluded from certain hazardous occupations in the military to avoid deploying them in combat roles in time of hostility.

Regarding Article 29, she said that upon careful consideration and review, Singapore remained of the view that it was still necessary to retain its reservations regarding arbitrations.  Like many other parties to the Convention, the country had entered a reservation to that provision, as was expressly permitted by Article 29 (2).  It would continue to review those reservations.

After careful consideration and review, Singapore believed that it was necessary to maintain reservations, but it would continue to review those reservations.

Another Singapore representative responded to questions on Article 3 of the Women’s Convention, concerning measures to ensure the full advancement of women on an equal basis with men.  The representative said that Singapore, together with its neighbours in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), had signed the ASEAN Declaration of the Advancement of Women on 5 July 1988 in Bangkok.  It was aimed principally to promote the status of women and enable them to achieve their fullest potential. 

Replying to a question about how the Ministry of Community Development and Sports had dealt with women’s issues, the delegate said that the Ministry had a dedicated section which served as the national focal point on policy matters and international cooperation pertaining to women.  Its mandate was to review and formulate policy in relation to the Convention, and coordinate and monitor the status of implementation of obligations. 

On Article 5, concerning sex role stereotyping and education, she supplied statistics for questions concerning the number of boys choosing home economics and girls choosing technical studies.  She had also emphasized the importance of examining the contents of schoolbooks, as those had traditionally depicted men as the breadwinner and women as the homemaker.  In Singapore, males and females were not stereotyped in instructional materials.  Textbooks reflected that girls had the choice to determine their professional careers and take up courses in traditionally male dominated areas, such as electronics, computers and engineering.  To promote family life, married couples were depicted as sharing responsibilities, including household chores and child-rearing.

To one expert’s point that sex education could be a good platform for teaching gender issues, she said that had already been addressed in the Ministry of Education’s Framework on Sexuality Education.  Responding to additional questions on Article 5, another Singapore representative said the decline in the number of prosecutions and convictions for sexual offenders had occurred in the context of an overall decline in Singapore’s crime rate in recent years.  The country had tough penal laws to deter and punish sexual crimes against women. 

To another question, she said her Government had taken a broad-based approach to abolish sex role stereotyping.  Censorship played a role in creating a balance between maintaining a morally wholesome and cohesive nation, which allowed for diversity and freedom of expression.  It also helped to protect the young against undesirable influences and safeguarded central values. 

Continuing on Article 5, a representative highlighted the various criminal procedural and evidential provisions, which afforded protection to witnesses who testified against traffickers.  There was no specific legislative provision for sexual harassment in Singapore, the representative said, but that had not meant that there was no protection against conduct amounting to sexual harassment as commonly understood.  Sexual harassment and stalking were generic terms covering a wide range of criminal conduct. 

(The document supplied by the Singapore delegation detailed the possible range of offences with indicative sentences, where available.)

Regarding Article 6 of the Convention, on the trafficking of women and prostitution, a member of the delegation said that as a small country Singapore could not afford to allow people to disregard its laws and stay in the country illegally.  The country took a tough stance against all immigration offences.  Unlawful entry into Singapore and trafficking in persons were punishable by various jail terms.  The sanctions against both offences also included caning.  The Government had also made provisions in the Women’s Charter, Young Persons Act and Penal Code to combat trafficking of women and children. 

On the rights of illegal immigrants, it was explained that the proportion of women and children among illegal immigrants was rather small -– only 6.6 per cent in 2000.  They were provided with shelter and health care, when necessary, until they returned to the countries of origin. 

A question about protection of foreign witnesses testifying against people charged with trafficking in people received the answer that the courts dealing with cases of prostitution and trafficking in women and girls, rape or molestation could order that all proceedings should be dealt with in camera.  That was mandatory when the victim was below 16 years of age. 

Regarding the statement by an expert that Singapore was a “transit area” for trafficking in women and children, it was said that Singapore authorities conducted document and security checks at the airports and points of entry into the country.  Corruption was not tolerated in the country.  Singapore would continue to participate in the regional and global forums regarding transnational organized crime.

As for the figures on the convictions of prostitutes or those who exploited them, they were not available at this point, the Committee was told.  It was not the country’s general practice to prosecute prostitutes, unless they engaged in public solicitation. 

On Article 8 (international representation), it was said that media and other programmes had been initiated to demonstrate how women were represented in civil society, politics, foreign affairs and trade unions.  The Government had no specific programmes to showcase the involvement of women in public life, but

non-governmental organizations (NGOs) may have such programmes. 

Regarding equal rights with respect to nationality or children (Article 9), a member of the delegation said that the grant of citizenship to a child born of a Singaporean father by descent was not absolute.  For example, if the child, though his or her birth acquired a foreign citizenship and his or her father was a citizen by registration, then the child had no right to Singaporean citizenship.  If the Constitution was changed to allow for citizenship by descent to children born overseas to either a Singaporean mother or father, then there was a chance that the child could end up having several nationalities at birth.  Singapore did not recognize dual citizenship.

Under the family ties scheme, foreign spouses of Singapore citizens or permanent residents were eligible to apply for citizenship or permanent residence under their local spouses’ sponsorship.  Divorce did not affect the status of those foreigners and their children granted citizenship of permanent residency, unless they broke the country’s laws, or the status had been acquired by misrepresentation.  A person, regardless of gender, could lose citizenship if he or she was absent from the country for 10 years without a valid Singapore travel document. Deprivation of citizenship was a serious matter, which was not taken lightly.

To a question on whether any judicial review applications had been brought against that provision, a Singapore representative replied that the law provided for different methods, by which children born overseas could acquire citizenship. 

On the issue of education and training (Article 10 of the Convention), country representatives said equal access to education was one of the country’s cardinal principles.  In 2000, the country had allocated 3.6 per cent to its gross domestic product (GDP) to education.  With respect to medical education, it was said that a consistently higher proportion of female doctors worked part-time or not at all, compared with male doctors.  A high proportion of female doctors also preferred to work in positions which did not involve irregular working hours.

The delegation also explained the exclusions to the compulsory education act, saying that the number of students exempted was very small.  Scholarships were open to all students and were awarded on the basis of individual merit.  The Public Service Commission usually received twice as many applications from male students as from female ones.

Responding to questions on Article 11, on the elimination of discrimination in the area of employment, one of the Singapore delegates said that although the Employment Act had not applied to domestic workers, there were contractual terms between the foreign domestic worker and the employer.  Those contracts provided the core employment terms such as salary, rest day, medical benefits and a description of their duties.  Neither local nor foreign domestic workers were covered by the Employment Act because those worked in a home environment, which made enforcement extremely difficult.  Nevertheless, if a domestic worker encountered an employment problem or was aggrieved by a breach of the employment contract by her employer, she could lodge a complaint or file a claim with the Ministry of Manpower.

She noted that the Penal Code had been amended in 1998 to enhance penalties for offences committed against foreign domestic workers by employers or members of the employers’ households.  A Foreign Worker Unit had been set up in the Labour Relations Department to resolve disputes between foreign workers and their employers over terms and conditions of employment.  Foreign domestic workers were allowed into Singapore on the understanding that they were transient workers.  Singapore was a small and densely populated country with a very real physical constraint.  All foreign workers were fully aware of the conditions under which their work permits would be issued.  To related questions, she said there was no undue or unreasonable delay in the time taken to investigate and prosecute complaints of criminal conduct lodged by a female migrant worker.

As for the expressed concern that the exclusion of managerial and executive personnel from the Employment Act would lead to abuses and discrimination against women holding those jobs, she said employees holding senior level jobs were better educated and informed about the labour market and their options.  They were thus capable of negotiating with prospective employers for employment terms and conditions. 

She said the working terms and conditions for civil service employees was not covered by the Employment Act, but by instruction manuals, which provided better terms and benefits than those in the Employment Act.  To the expressed concern that workers on contract and those working in export promotion zones would be denied employment benefits, she said that those zones had not been designated to exclude workers from the mainstream of the economy.

(The delegation provided a number of tables responding to requests for statistics on employment by gender, age and industry.)

Concerning Article 12, on the elimination of discrimination against women in the field of health, another delegate from Singapore noted that, between 1995 and 1999, there had been an average of about 14,000 abortions per year.  More than

60 per cent had been performed at the request of married women.  Of those, only about 7 per cent had aborted for medical or contraceptive failure.  While the decision to abort was a private one, the Termination of Pregnancy Act required women to attend counselling conducted by trained counsellors.  The aim was to help those who wanted to “keep the pregnancy”, but were unable to do so for economic or other reasons. 

In terms of tobacco consumption, she said the proportion of young women who smoked regularly was rising, but the overall smoking rate among women was still relatively low by international standards.  Drug and substance abuse among females was not a serious problem in Singapore.  Enforcement efforts and preventive drug education programmes were gender neutral. 

Replying to a question about HIV/AIDS, she said that the main mode of transmission was through heterosexual contact with commercial sex workers in Singapore and overseas.  Males accounted for 88 per cent of all HIV-infected Singaporeans, while women accounted for 12 per cent, with 66 per cent of them being married.  Women had equal access to all components of the National AIDS Control Programme, which was drawn up in 1985.  The Programme comprised, among other things, public education, education of high-risk groups, legislation and measures to protect the national blood supply through routine screening.  The main focus of the Programme was on health education. 

Responding to questions concerning Article 13, on eliminating discrimination against women in other areas of economic and social life, she explained that the provision that deemed the wife’s income to be that of her husband was an administrative procedure in cases where the couple elected to have a joint assessment of their combined earned incomes for income tax purposes.  That had not deprived women of their legal capacity, as married women could opt to be assessed and taxed separately. 

On the application of Muslim law in Singapore, it was said that Muslims in the country had the same rights and obligations as other citizens.  The Administration of Muslim Law Act governed matters pertaining to Muslim religious affairs, the Shariah Court, marriage and divorce, property and certain prescribed offences.  As for criminal offences, Muslims were subject to the same penal regime as non-Muslims.

Muslim married women could dispose of their own property by will, with or without the consent of their husbands, a Singapore representative told the Committee.  After marriage to a Muslim husband, all property belonging to a woman on her marriage continued to be her own property, in the absence of a special written contract to the contrary.  With the exception of matters which fell within the jurisdiction of the Shariah Court, Muslim women could be judged in the civil courts.  Some of them had also been appointed as judges in the subordinate courts of Singapore.  There were no restrictions on the right of Muslim women to travel or to hold their own passports.  There was also no restriction on their right to choose and practise any vocation, save for religious appointments.

The Committee was told that while polygamy was prohibited for civil marriages under the Women’s Charter, polygamous marriages were permitted under the Administration of Muslim Law Act.  That was an example of the right of the minorities to practise their personal and religious laws.  Certain provisions were in place, however, to make sure that that right was not abused.

On the minimum age of marriage, the delegation reported that marriages between Muslims were governed not by the civil law, but by the provisions of the Muslim law. 

A representative of Singapore’s Council of Women’s Organizations provided the Committee with information about the role of the Council in the Convention process in the country.  Active since 1980, the Council was, she said, a fast-growing network of 45 affiliates with membership of over more than 100,000 women.  Its main objective was to advance the status of women, working closely with the Government, corporations and other NGOs. 

Concluding the Committee’s consideration of the reports from Singapore, the Chairperson, CHARLOTTE ABAKA of Ghana, thanked the delegation for the detailed information it had provided.  She said the Committee took note of the country’s remaining reservations and remained concerned that they were in contradiction with the spirit and the letter of the Convention.  She hoped that the country would continue reviewing the matter and eventually withdraw or at least limit the reservations. 

One of the Committee’s recommendations was to amend the policies so that all Singaporeans, irrespective of their gender or nationality, could enjoy equal status and equal rights.  She urged the country to take advantage of the committee’s 24 recommendations on the implementation of the Convention, including those regarding education, violence against women and health, and to adopt the Optional Protocol to that instrument.

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For information media. Not an official record.