WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE COMMENDS SINGAPORE ON PROGRESS, BUT PRESSES IT TO WITHDRAW RESERVATIONS TO CONVENTION, STRENGTHEN DOMESTIC LEGAL FRAMEWORK

1 August 2007
WOM/1647

WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE COMMENDS SINGAPORE ON PROGRESS, BUT PRESSES IT TO WITHDRAW RESERVATIONS TO CONVENTION, STRENGTHEN DOMESTIC LEGAL FRAMEWORK

1 August 2007
General Assembly
WOM/1647
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Committee on Elimination of

Discrimination against Women

Chamber A, 803rd & 804th Meetings (AM & PM)


WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE COMMENDS SINGAPORE ON PROGRESS, BUT PRESSES


IT TO WITHDRAW RESERVATIONS TO CONVENTION, STRENGTHEN DOMESTIC LEGAL FRAMEWORK


Members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today welcomed the significant progress made by women in Singapore, but expressed concern over the application of sharia law to Muslim marriages, the insufficient legal framework to counter discrimination, the treatment of foreign domestic workers, and the Government’s reservations to articles of the Women’s Convention.


Reviewing Singapore’s third periodic report on compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in Chamber A today, the experts were pleased that the country had created an Inter-ministerial Committee Chairmanship to monitor the Convention’s implementation.


They also welcomed the withdrawal of the reservation to the Convention’s article 9, which meant that now children born overseas would be a citizen by descent if either of the child’s parents were Singaporean, not just the father.


On the other hand, Committee members expressed deep concern that the country still maintained its reservations to the Convention’s articles that called for the eradication of all discriminatory laws and customs and equal rights in marriage, allowing deferral to sharia law for ethnic Malay Singaporeans, most of whom were Muslim.  The country also maintained its reservation to article 11 on full equality in employment rights.


The delegation explained that the reservations were maintained because of the country’s commitment to religious freedom and indigenous rights.  Sharia law was confined to marriage, divorce and inheritance within an enlightened Muslim community that included women’s organizations and women legislators.


Reservations to article 11, the delegation said, were necessary because women were excluded from combat duties in the armed forces and the employment act excluded certain occupational groups, such as foreign domestic workers, who were safeguarded by other measures.


Introducing her country’s report, Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, Minister of State of the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, said that people were Singapore’s only resource, and its public policies were based on developing the full potential of every individual, male or female.  The 2006 Gender Empowerment Measure of the Human Development Index ranked the country 18 out of 175 countries.


As evidence of progress since the country’s last presentation, she highlighted improvements in citizens’ inheritance, the removal of quotas keeping down the number of women medical students, and civil service reforms that allowed women to claim medical benefits for their families.


Though there were no specific anti-gender discrimination laws, women’s rights were protected through the Constitution, the Employment Act, the Penal Code and the Women’s Charter, which pertained to marriage and divorce.  Sexual offences against women were dealt with severely, another member of the delegation pointed out, with pornography outlawed and molestation punishable by caning.


Other gains included declining maternal mortality rates, rising life expectancy and literacy rates, as well as high women’s representation in male-dominated studies and professions, Ms. Yee Shoon said.  Also, the gender wage gap had been narrowing, and the Government encouraged husbands and wives to share all responsibilities.


She said that she was not satisfied with this progress, but Singapore had a dynamic and transparent society, and the laws would continue to evolve in a genuine way.  She hoped, for example, that the next time she reported to the Committee, there would be women ministers in the Cabinet, the wage gap would have narrowed further, and there would be greater sharing of household responsibilities.


The remaining treaty reservations would continue to be examined, with the view to eventually withdrawing them, at least partially, she said, pledging that Singapore would continue to pursue women’s progress in a holistic manner, going beyond legislation to efforts to change social norms and mindsets.


In its discussions today, the Committee also focused on, among other issues, the low numbers of women in decision-making positions, the situation of brides brought in from abroad, the lack of legal protections for homosexuals and the lack of legislation against sexual harassment and other specific offences.


The Committee will meet again tomorrow at 10 a.m. to consider the combined third and fourth periodic reports of Jordan (document CEDAW/C/JOR/3-4).


Background


The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, met this morning to consider the third periodic report of Singapore (document CEDAW/C/SGP/3).


Presentation of Report


The members of the delegation included Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, Minister of State, Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports and head of delegation; Chew Hock Yong, Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports and deputy head of delegation; Halimah Yacob, Assistant Secretary-General, National Trades Union Congress; Tan Hwee She, Coordinating Director of the Family Development Group, Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports; Richard Tan Kok Tong, Director, Communications and International Relations Division, Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports; Tai Wei Shyong, Director, Labour Relations, Labour Relations and Workplaces Division, Ministry of Manpower; Animah Binte Abdul Gani, Registrar, Syariah Court; and Deena Binte Abdul Aziz Bajrai, State Counsel, International Affairs Division, Attorney-General’s Chambers.


Also:  Jeannette Har, Deputy Director, Well-being, Foreign Manpower Management Division, Ministry of Manpower; Keok Tong San, Deputy Director, Policy and Operations Division, Ministry of Home Affairs; Nazirudin bin Mohd Nasir, Head, Office of the Mufti, Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS); Toh Swee Chien, Assistant Director, (International Relations), Workplace Policy and Strategy Division, Ministry of Manpower; Wu Ye-Her, Assistant Director, Family Policy Unit, Family Development Group, Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports; Connie Lee, Manager, Women’s Desk, Family Development Group, Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports; Wee Wan Joo, President, Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations; and Tisa Ng, Immediate Past President, Singapore Council of Women’s Organizations.


Present from the Permanent Mission of Singapore to the United Nations were Vanu Gopala Menon, Permanent Representative; Devin Cheok, Deputy Permanent Representative; and Charles Chew, First Secretary.


Introduction of Report


Ms. YEE SHOON said that, given the size of Singapore, people were its main resource, and its public policies were based on merit and equal opportunity.  Developing the full potential of every individual, male or female, was the priority.


She said that, aided by good governance and rapid economic development, women in Singapore had come a long way.  The 2006 Gender Empowerment Measure of the Human Development Index had ranked the country eighteenth out of 175 countries.


Among progress since the country’s last presentation, she pointed to a constitutional amendment that now allowed a child born overseas to be a citizen by descent if either of the child’s parents were Singaporean.  More women could now study medicine after a discriminatory quota had been lifted, and women civil service officers could now claim medical benefits for their families.


Reservations to articles 2 and 16 of the Convention, however, were necessary to maintain in light of the country’s commitment to religious freedom and its deferral to Muslim religious affairs in matters relating to family and inheritance law in relation to its indigenous Malay citizens.  Reservations to article 11 were also necessary because women were excluded from combat duties in the armed forces, and the employment act excludes certain occupational groups, who were safeguarded by other measures.


The rule of law prevailed in Singapore, she stressed, and though there were no specific anti-gender discrimination laws, women’s rights were protected through the Constitution, the Employment Act, the Penal Code and the Women’s Charter, which pertained to marriage and divorce, except for Muslim women, who were subjected to sharia law. 


Non-compliance with such laws could be enforced in the civil court, she said.  Censorship laws -- including a ban on pornography -- prevented women from being degraded and exploited.  That legislative framework provided the necessary safeguards, so that Singapore had consequently entered the permitted reservation to article 29.


She said that the health-care system ensured that women’s specific needs were catered to in both treatment and education programmes, resulting in declining maternal mortality rates and rising life expectancy.  Programmes ensured that universal primary education was in effect, and the literacy rate of women had risen to 93 per cent.  Women were well represented in traditionally male-dominated studies.


Regarding employment, she said the gender wage gap had been closing following the ratification of the International Labour Organization’s Convention 100 on Equal Remuneration in 2002.  Younger women had caught up with their male counterparts, and women made up 38 per cent of managers, senior officials and managers.  A “Women Back to Work” committee had been set up to help women return to the work force later in life.


A large percentage of housing was owned or co-owned by women, and since her last report the number of women in Parliament had risen from 12 to 23 out of 94 total members, she said.  Women had also made great inroads in the judiciary and diplomatic corps.  A woman would even be appointed, for the first time, to the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore.  The Women’s Register was a government-supported programme that encouraged women to enter into volunteer and leadership positions.


Concerning family, the Government encouraged husbands and wives to share all responsibilities, though only 44 per cent of couples had dual careers, lower than most Western countries.  Women were also marrying later and having fewer children, so the Government was sponsoring programmes to harmonize work and family life, and ensuring quality, affordable child care.


She said that implementation of the Women’s Convention was accomplished in conjunction with women’s non-governmental organizations under such networks as the Singapore Council of Women’s Organizations, which, together with the Government, had organized a series of dialogues on the Convention.  Other discussions had been conducted in Parliament, which covered relevant reports.


In conclusion, she said that differences remained in some areas between women and men, but Singapore had a dynamic society, and the laws would continue to evolve.  She hoped, for example, that next time she reported to the Committee, there would be women ministers in the cabinet, that the wage gap would have narrowed further, and that there would be greater sharing of household responsibilities.


Finally, she said that remaining reservations to the Convention would continue to be reviewed, with the view to withdrawing them, at least partially.  She pledged that Singapore would continue to pursue the progress of women in a holistic manner, going beyond legislation to efforts to change social norms and mindsets.


Experts’ Comments and Questions


FRANÇOISE GASPARD, Vice-Chairperson and expert from France, congratulated Singapore on its achievements since its last report, especially the creation of an Inter-ministerial Committee Chairman to follow through with the Convention, which was an example that could be followed by other countries.  On Singapore’s lifting of its reservation to article 9, she said she had received information of a partial lifting on 24 July.  She wondered if there still remained reservations to that article.


Singapore maintained other reservations that limited the scope of the Convention, she said, citing those to articles 2, 11 and 16.  She understood from the statement this morning that Singapore was not prepared to lift them.  Singapore had held discussions with the Muslim minority, and she asked about the substance of those talks. 


Countries with a Muslim culture had made changes to their family codes, including Algeria and Morocco, following the Committee’s consideration of their reports, she said.


She was disturbed that there was no definition of discrimination in Singapore’s Constitution or law.  Nor was gender included as a guarantee of equality.  Singapore had not ratified the Optional Protocol, and she asked if the country intended to do so.


HEISOO SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, said the Committee placed importance on a country’s reservations, and she hoped to continue constructive dialogue with Singapore on that matter.  She did not understand why, if all persons’ equality was guaranteed under the law, a reservation still existed to articles 2 and 16.  That blocked the rights of Singaporean women.  As there was no reservation to article 1, she believed that Singapore agreed to the definition of discrimination outlined in it.


To the delegation’s point that the Women’s Charter and Employment Act gave women equal rights, she noted that the Women’s Charter only concerned the relationship between husband and wife; it did not protect women from discrimination.  If Singapore believed in the definition of discrimination under article 1, those rights were indeed protected.  A blanket reservation to article 2 blocked equality before the law, so it was important to consider lifting that reservation.


VIOLETA NEUBAUER, expert from Slovenia, realized that much work remained to guarantee women’s human rights by setting legal standards.  However, to comply with its obligations under article 3, a State party must take all appropriate measures to ensure women’s full advancement.  Those obligations included implementing proactive policy measures and strategies that had been recognized by the Committee and other regional organizations as essential to gender equality.


Institutional mechanisms were a precondition for the successful development and monitoring of policies, she said, emphasizing that the Women’s Desk was described in the report as the national focal point for women.  However, the resources and authority of that desk did not provide the basic requirements for the Government to fulfil its gender equality and women’s advancement objectives.  She asked whether the Government had the political will to provide all necessary political support to strengthen the existing machinery.


NAELA MOHAMED GABR, Vice-Chairperson and expert from Egypt, agreeing with the need to strengthen the national machinery to promote women’s rights, noted Singapore’s significant progress in other areas.  It was important to focus on the need for an institutional framework, which was especially vital for Singapore as a strong economy with the resources to do so.  Everyone should be able to take part in training, particularly those in the justice sector.  The institutional framework should strengthen its relationship with all sectors, especially the civil sectors.


PRAMILA PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, asked about violence against women, especially foreign domestic workers.  Acknowledging measures taken to address those issues, including high-profile prosecutions of employers, she asked if Government would address isolation in the workplace, among other issues.  Were there provisions to prosecute employers who confined domestic workers to the workplace?  Further, she asked about the mandate of the Women and Family Violence Committee, and whether the Government was supporting the creation of domestic workers associations.


Also, she asked if the Government was considering legislation to criminalize marital rape, and for more information on the database on violence, as that would help in the formulation of policies.


While noting Singapore’s changes to its criminal code to address violence against women, and praising the system of domestic violence coordinators in various districts, she wondered what the obstacles were to creating a specific law that addressed domestic violence.


Finally, she asked if access to shelters was denied to foreign women who were married to Singaporean nationals.


SILVIA PIMENTEL, expert from Brazil, wondered about the notion of human dignity.  Singapore had proposed to repeal the law that criminalized sodomy between a man and a woman; however, there had been no proposal to repeal a similar law which applied to homosexual men.  Believing that a democratic and secular State should refrain from interfering in the private sexual relations between consenting adults, she wondered how the Government proposed to tackle those issues and protect lesbian women.  She asked how the Government planned to prevent discrimination against lesbian women in the workplace, in health services and general society.


FERDOUS ARA BEGUM, expert from Bangladesh, citing the statement in the report that spousal violence was the most widespread form of violence, asked why that was so and about further plans to address the issue.


Also, foreign women married to Singaporean men often faced violence, she said, noting that the number of mail-order brides was on the rise, and that they were at the mercy of abusive husbands.  They were like “sex slaves”, she said, inquiring about any countrywide statistics in that regard.  She also asked whether those wives had access to shelters and what legal protections they were afforded.  Additionally, did the Government have a way to control the matchmaking process to ensure that those women’s rights were protected?


Regarding marital rape, not recognized as an offence in Singapore, she asked about the Government’s plans to address that issue.  She also asked about the number of trafficking cases, given Singapore’s position as a transit country, and noted that sex tourism was a “black hole” that must be addressed.  What approaches had the Government taken to deal with those issues? 


TIZIANA MAIOLO, expert from Italy, said police in Singapore were not doing enough to deal with trafficking and prostitution.  It was not possible that they had not identified cases of forced prostitution.  She wondered why Singapore had not ratified the Palermo Protocol.  Further, Special Rapporteurs had presented questions to Singapore on the trafficking of pregnant women and newborn children; however, the Government had not provided any responses.  She pressed the delegation to do so.


SAISUREE CHUTIKUL, expert from Thailand, noting that little information on trafficking had been provided in the report, said she was confused about whether or not there was a specific law on trafficking.  She also wondered whether there was a clear definition on trafficking, as it was sometimes confused with smuggling.  Noting increased trafficking in persons throughout the Mekong region for prostitution and exploitative labour purposes, she asked what the Government’s position was on that issue and whether it was disseminating useful information to the public.  She urged Singapore to consider ratifying the Palermo Protocol, as it contained a definition of trafficking, and to review the United Nations human rights approach to trafficking issues.


Finally, she wondered if the Government felt it necessary to train law enforcement officers.  She recommended that the Ministry conduct a study on that.


Ms. GABR, Vice-Chairperson and expert from Egypt, asked whether Singapore envisaged creating a focal point on trafficking.


Delegation’s Response


Ms. YEE SHOON said that her Government was more concerned with outcomes than formalities, and any Convention that was ratified was fully enforced.  The withdrawal from reservations to article 9, on children of immigrants, was, therefore, full and complete.


For the same reason, it maintained its reservations to articles 2 and 16, she said, adding that the application of sharia law in the Muslim community was confined to marriage, divorce and inheritance.  Otherwise, the community was under civil law.  The community was very well organized, with its Council and training programmes for women, and it applied its rules in an enlightened manner.  The issue of ethnic harmony was of great concern to the central Government, and respect for minorities was shown in many ways.


Regarding the Penal Code, it was true that there were no specific laws on gender discrimination, but specific laws had been formulated to address certain issues, as necessary.  The Women’s Charter went beyond marriage and divorce.  Passed in 1962, it had been amended over the years, and it now covered domestic violence and fairness issues.


Rights were upheld very strictly, with equally strict punishment for violations, she said.  Regarding homosexuality, there was no discrimination overall, but the general population was conservative and the laws were consistent with that.  Due attention was paid to issues and groups where it was needed, such as ageing female workers.


Concerning violence against women, she said that punishment for such violations was severe.  Molestation, for example, was punished by caning.  As for foreign domestic workers, foreign talent was valued, and domestic servants expressed contentment with their treatment.  Non-governmental organizations also worked closely with them.


Much attention was also paid to the issue of HIV/AIDS because of the number of people who came through the country, she said.  There was free, voluntary screening for AIDS.  Trafficking in women and children was not acceptable, and although prostitution was not criminalized, forced prostitution was.  There was dialogue with the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) on the topic, and the relevant protocols had been signed.


Another delegate addressed the matter of reservations, reiterating that the withdrawal from reservations to article 9 was complete.  Regarding article 2, Singapore would never agree to an international obligation with which it could not comply.  There was equality before the law in the Constitution, but also the right of indigenous Malays to practise their culture and religion.  The reservation was specific to family law and inheritance.  Families could choose civil law in those areas, and even when governed by sharia law, steps had been taken to assure equal rights.


Turning to the Optional Protocol, she said the rights of women were protected in the Constitution, and equality in specific areas, such as employment, was guaranteed in the codes.  Thus, a gender-discrimination law was not needed.  The discussion on a specific gender-discrimination law would continue, however.


Another delegate explained further the applications of sharia law, which was overseen by a government minister, as well as community self-help groups.  There were women among the Muslim Members of Parliament, and consultations with the Muslim community, including women’s groups, had been taking place regarding a withdrawal of the reservations to certain articles of the Convention, and many other matters in relation to women’s rights.


She said that Muslim women continued to advance.  For example, there were more Muslim women university graduates than Muslim men graduates.  Muslim non-governmental organizations educated women in their rights, and had helped run workshops to protect Muslim women from violence.  The organizations had also helped young women gain employment.  However, the discussions in the Committee would be conveyed to the women’s groups, with the aim of strengthening the involvement.


Another delegate said that an inter-ministry committee had been established for the Convention’s implementation and to leverage the resources of the full Government.  Such an approach had led to such improvements, such as the withdrawal from reservations to article 9.


In regard to the Women’s Desk, another delegate explained the “Many Helping Hands” stakeholder approach that was employed.  The Desk was an integral part of the family development group and the family policy unit, and it worked closely with the non-governmental organization community.  It also involved many personnel from various departments, so it was fairly substantial, and programmes included those aimed at changing male mindsets, as well as various schemes in support of working families and women’s participation in the community.  The Women’s Desk also hosted ASEAN and other regional meetings.


Laws against human trafficking carried out both the spirit and intent of the Convention’s recommendations, with severe punishments for violations, another delegate said.  New provisions were being developed to protect minors involved in prostitution and to punish all Singaporean residents for violations, even for those committed overseas.  Enforcement of the relevant laws was rigorously provided by immigration authorities and the police, who surveyed both land and sea entry.  In addition, all prostitutes arrested were interviewed to detect trafficking.


Turning to foreign domestic workers, a representative from the Ministry of Manpower explained that an effective system was in place to protect them.  Under the Employment of Foreign Workers Act were legally binding obligations for employers to care for their foreign domestic workers.  The Penal Code also prevented employers from wrongfully confining them, with penalties of up to three years in prison.


The important issue, he explained, was whether foreign domestic workers had the avenues for redress, which Singapore indeed had.  All could access a toll-free hotline to raise any complaints to the Ministry.  Pre-paid envelopes were also provided for complaints to be sent by mail.  Moreover, Singapore was one of the only countries that interviewed foreign domestic workers to ensure that they had settled well, and then monitored their progress.  Those were important channels to ensure their safety, he said, adding that wrongful confinement was not a widespread problem in the country.


Regarding the possibility of revoking the security bond, he said the bond was designed to ensure that an employer paid for the costs of repatriation of a worker once the contract ended.  It was a useful instrument to help a worker receive unpaid salaries, and he knew of no plans to revoke it.  Non-governmental organizations were working to further the interests of workers in all sectors.


To a question on trafficking and labour inspections, he said Singapore maintained more than 100 labour inspectors who monitored any cases of trafficking in women and children.  Working conditions were very open, and it would be extremely difficult to have a situation whereby young girls were trafficked for labour purposes.  Singapore had also amended the Employment Act to raise the minimum working age for children.


Another delegate explained that Singapore required prospective adoptive parents to prove that the child they were planning to adopt had not been trafficked.  Falsifying documents was a serious offence.  Parents also had to be financially and emotionally prepared to adopt a child.  The Ministry of Home Affairs had not found any cases of a child trafficked for adoption purposes.


On the issue of domestic violence, another delegate said the vulnerable were protected.  He described an approach that included multidisciplinary partnerships with groups, professional competency of staff, public education campaigns and legislation that was aligned with the Convention.  Multi-agency collaboration was essential to ensure the well-being of families, and a national networking system linked police, hospitals, family courts and various ministries, which all collaborated to combat the offence. 


Moreover, front-line workers dealing with family violence cases were trained on basic, intermediate and specialized levels, he explained, and joint training between the police and other agencies had been introduced.  Finally, victims themselves were counselled on making choices regarding safety, and perpetrators were encouraged to seek counselling.  Ongoing public education campaigns focused on identifying signs of family violence.


Singapore had recorded between 2,500 and 2,600 cases of domestic violence, he said, noting that the number had dropped even as the population had increased.  To protect women from HIV/AIDS, Singapore had developed the Infectious Diseases Act.


Turning to the issue of marital immunity, he said Singapore recognized intimacy as a private matter between two consenting adults.  There were many reasons why one partner might not want to have sex with his or her spouse.  In the case of non-consensual intercourse, it was up to the couple to resolve the issue privately within the context of the marriage.  There was absolute marital immunity for men to have non-consensual sex, which was not ideal, and Singapore was moving to abolish that practice in a calibrated manner. 


Another delegate addressed questions about mail order bride agencies, noting that Singapore had developed an inter-agency group to assess matchmaking businesses.  The group created new advertising guidelines in March, which served to protect the dignity of women.  The group also examined business practices in other countries, including the United Kingdom, and had discovered that Singapore’s services were similar to those of other nations.


Information brochures on marriage would be distributed at national marriage registries and in the home countries of the brides, she said, noting that Singapore took a serious view of the issue.


To the question on whether Singapore was removing its provision on sodomy, another delegate explained that it would be changed to sexual assault by penetration.  On whether Singapore was criminalizing acts of lesbianism, he said Singapore did not want homosexuality to enter into mainstream society.


Experts’ Comments and Questions


GLENDA P. SIMMS, Vice-Chairperson and expert from Jamaica, concluded that Singapore faced a basic ideological challenge in the recognition of human rights, as certain policies and practices remained discriminatory, and those generally “fell on the shoulders of women”.


The delegation had discussed counselling orders for domestic violence cases, however, concrete statistics were needed, rather than anecdotal evidence, she said.  On the issue of prostitution, “women were not prostituting themselves”, rather they were “being prostituted”, and men needed to be imprisoned for that offence.  She noted with interest that the Government went into the bedroom in cases of sodomy, but not in cases of marriage.


Delegation’s Response


On marital rape, a delegate explained that Singaporean society was conservative, and there was debate as to whether marital rape should be included in the Penal Code. If women needed to be protected, they applied for a marriage protection order.


Another delegate said that 63 cases of rape had been recorded in 2006.


Experts’ Comments and Questions


Ms. NEUBAUER, expert from Slovenia, said there was a complicated system for electing people to Parliament in Singapore and that a quota system might not be appropriate.  However, in reading the report, it was clear that there were no women ministers in the Cabinet or in the highest levels of government decision-making.  That was also true for high-ranking positions within the diplomatic service.  As Singapore had an honest and efficient public service, she asked for more information on the selection process and whether gender-sensitive criteria were used.


She added that various measures could be used in place of quotas to promote women in decision-making positions.  She wondered if Singapore had analysed the main obstacles to achieving gender balance in Government and if measures listed in the Committee’s recommendations could be explored.


Ms. SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, focused on implementation of the Convention and the principle of non-discrimination. The definition of discrimination prohibited direct and indirect discrimination within the power structure between men and women.  However, that power structure in Singapore was discriminatory, and special temporary measures were needed so that women could achieve equality in real terms.  Noting the high percentage of women who received an education, she, too, wondered why there were so few women in decision-making positions.


Delegation’s Response


Ms. YEE SHOON listed many women who were in leadership positions in Government and the private sector, saying that education was allowing women to progress rapidly in the past few years, though it was an ongoing process.  Many women preferred professional careers rather than public leadership careers.


Another delegate explained that the word “he” in documents was a neutral pronoun that referred to both sexes.


Experts Comments and Questions


Ms. CHUTIKUL, expert from Thailand, asked for more detail about educational matters, such as programmes to counter stereotypes, early child development and day care for poor mothers, teacher’s training on gender issues, academic research on gender issues, laws covering the educational workplace, and efforts within ASEAN.


Ms. PIMENTEL, expert from Brazil, asked for the reason for high incidences of mental illness among women.


Ms. PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, said she was concerned that 160,000 foreign domestic workers remained excluded from employment rights and asked for an explanation about why such rights could not be extended to them.  She also asked about enforcement mechanisms for equal pay provisions.


Ms. SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, commented that domestic workers tolerated their situations because of financial need, and foreign wives were brought in because there was a lack of wives for uneducated men or men who wanted docile women.  She said that the Convention must apply to all women, including women from ethnic groups.


Delegation’s Response


Ms. YEE SHOON said that boys and girls had the same curriculum, and equal aspirations were encouraged.  There was sensitization work beginning in early childhood education, but much more needed to be done.  As far as foreign employees were concerned, Singapore was an international hub, and there were tough laws against exploitation, but all such workers should be taken care of as well as possible.  The Government was committed to their welfare, and it was a topic of much discussion at ASEAN meetings.


Taking up the issue of sexual harassment in schools and the workplace, one delegate explained there was no “sexual harassment” offence in Singapore; however there was a provision dealing with those who insulted the modesty of women.  In schools, the Government did not condone any sexual harassment, and those convicted of offences against minors were harshly punished.


In the workplace, employees could file complaints with the Ministry of Manpower, and that sexual harassment complaints were referred to the police, he said.


Another delegate said there was a two-year penalty for use of “criminal force”.  Caning was also used for offences against the modesty of women.  Teachers employed under the government service were screened, and those with a criminal history were not allowed to teach.


On employment, another delegate said there was a panoply of laws covering foreign domestic workers, noting that prior to independence in 1962, Singapore used British legislation.  To better protect workers, Singapore had enacted the Foreign Manpower Act.  As to why full benefits under the Employment Act were not extended to foreign domestic workers, he said the priority was to ensure avenues of redress, and protections were afforded those workers under the Foreign Manpower Act.


Concerning the gender wage gap, he explained that women in Singapore earned 86 per cent of what their male counterparts earned, up from 83 per cent a decade ago.  At one point, in 2004, that figure reached 90 per cent.  In the past two years, employment expansion prompted women to re-enter the workforce, which explained the recent increase.  The most important factor for improving the gender wage gap was to improve women’s educational performance.  He was optimistic about the future of employment for women who represented 51 per cent of polytechnic graduates, 70 per cent of accountancy graduates and 72 per cent of business graduates.


On the issue of equal remuneration and International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 100, he said the question was how to monitor implementation of that Convention.  On employment discrimination, Singapore was taking a promotional approach by setting up an alliance for employment practices, which published guidelines preventing employers from requesting irrelevant information from prospective female employees.  The alliance was also setting up a centre, which would take in feedback on discriminatory practices in the workplace.


Turning to occupational segregation and wages, he said Singapore was pursuing a strategy to ensure that wages were flexible and performance-based.  Regarding inhumane working conditions for foreign domestic workers, he said most worked in positive environments, and many bonded with families.


Another delegate said Singapore ratified ILO Convention 100 in 2002.  Prior to ratification, the country held consultations with the organization, which determined that a law was not needed to implement the convention.  It would be implemented through collective bargaining on agreements.  For example, she recently had signed a collective agreement, which included equal salary provisions for men and women.


To the question on human rights promotion, another delegate described Singapore’s work with ASEAN and the creation of the ASEAN Charter, which contained a provision for a human rights commission.  Talks were ongoing and a high-level task force comprised of elder leaders had been created to hammer out details.  The Charter would be ready for adoption later this year, possibly in November.


Gender issues had been incorporated into education curricula, and efforts were under way to balance images of men and women in all textbooks, another delegate explained.  For example, female members of Parliament were shown debating bills with their male counterparts.  Guidelines for the media prohibited reference to any community or individual as inherently inferior.


In the area of child care, only operators able to meet the highest educational curricula were employed, he continued.  Fees for child care and pre-school were affordable, and assistance was available for low-income families.


Moving on to mental health promotion for women, he said the Ministry of Health had a Health Promotion Board which looked after that issue through various programmes.  Since January, the Board had collaborated with partners to address stress management and social well-being.  As Singapore was concerned about its ageing population, the country encouraged “active ageing” through activities, including volunteering and educational courses, among other things.


Another delegate, addressing education, match-making agencies and foreign brides, said the tendency was for poorly educated men to marry wives from neighbouring countries.  Most women understood their rights and integrated well.  All foreign women, foreign brides included, enjoyed the same rights as Singaporean women, as outlined in the Women’s Charter.  Services included access to counselling, shelters, a toll-free hotline and other support aids.


Experts’ Comments and Questions


Ms. ARA BEGUM, expert from Bangladesh, asked if the withdrawal of reservations to article 9 meant that foreign brides could now obtain citizenship more easily.  She also asked about housing policies for single and unwed mothers, and the raising of the marital age for Muslim women.


Ms. MAIOLO, expert from Italy, asked how often the sharia court decided in favour of Muslim women.


Ms. GABR, expert from Egypt, said that, in regard to Muslim women, it was important for countries to benefit from the progress in other Muslim countries, and she asked if the training of Muslim clerics included awareness of such developments.


Delegation’s Response


Ms. YEE SHOON said that she agreed with the importance of such interactions with Muslim clerics and other Muslim countries.


Another delegate said that the reservations to article 2 were related to those to article 16, in recognition of the practices of Muslims in Singapore, which could be considered discriminatory according to the Convention, because of different inheritance rights, the legality of polygamy and other features.


The sharia divorce and custody laws did not discriminate against women, another delegate said.  Women also had recourse to civil courts in various situations.  Polygamy was subjected to stringent conditions and was only allowed for compelling reasons; as a consequence, less than 1 per cent of Muslim marriages were polygamous, and the number was declining.


Sharia inheritance laws were unequal because men had greater responsibilities for supporting family members, she said.  Marital partners had a choice between the sharia court and the district court in certain cases, and sharia court decisions were enforced.  The Muslim community, through the Fatwa committee, tried to keep sharia laws updated in light of current norms and Muslim practices in Singapore and elsewhere.


Regarding minimum age of marriage, a delegate said there was a proposal to amend the age from 16 to 18.


Another delegate, explaining the amendment process for legislation, said a draft bill must be prepared in order for an amendment to take place.  The legislation unit of the Attorney General’s Office would then review it and offer advice.  Finally, the draft would go through three readings in Parliament prior to being adopted.


Concerning Muslim women in Singapore, another delegate acknowledged the need to review sharia practices to ensure they were in line with those in other countries.  On Muslim clerics, a “new breed of clerics” was being deliberately created and versed in non-Islamic law.  Also, the Government held frequent exchanges with visiting Muslim delegations that wished to observe a community that adhered to both Islamic practice and mainstream norms.


Responding to the question on immigration and foreign spouses, another delegate said the Government’s policy took into account the need for family unity.  Marriage to a Singaporean did not guarantee that a spouse would have permanent residence status.  That status would be awarded based on specific criteria, including one stipulating that the sponsor demonstrate the financial means to support the foreign spouse.  Applicants had about a 60 per cent chance of being awarded that status.


The Government also granted long-term visiting passes, he said, noting that there was an 85 per cent likelihood of receiving such a pass.  In the last five years, 20,000 permanent residence status documents and visiting passes had been given to foreign spouses.  The Government provided reasons and advice to those who had been rejected for either status.


Turning to housing for unwed mothers, another delegate explained single mothers were entitled to 12 weeks maternity leave, qualified for child-care leave and could rent or buy a flat from the Housing Board.  Children of single mothers were entitled to subsidies and qualified for scholarships.  Highlighting the idea that children faced the best chances for success in two-parent homes, she said incentives were awarded for women in that situation.


Regarding abuse, she explained that a victim of abuse could approach a social worker, who would refer the case to relevant agencies.  Further, counselling was available at any of the 36 social service centres around the island.


Experts’ Comments and Questions


Ms. PIMENTEL, expert from Brazil, said the level of a State’s democracy could be measured by how well it respected both the majority and the minorities, including homosexuals.  She understood that sexual harassment was not addressed by the Penal Code.  She suggested creating a new article in the Penal Code -- or a law on sexual harassment -- to guarantee women’s sexual rights within the workplace.


Ms. SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, challenged the idea that sexual harassment in schools was adequately addressed, adding that unless a survey was conducted among students, the true nature of the issue would not be known.  That applied to all other sectors.  Also, why was it difficult to change sexist language?  She pressed the delegation to integrate changes into law, rather than simply issue guidelines on the matter.


Delegation’s Response


The head of the delegation said that legislation alone could not change the social situation in Singapore.  She advocated for a holistic approach and acknowledged that studies were needed.  As a multiracial society, Singapore was conservative in its approach to language change.


However, channels existed for citizens to communicate their opinions, and the Government had created networks to fully grasp the situation on the ground, she explained.  Resident Committees representing 20 blocks worth of people provided information to the Government, as did a citizen’s consultative committee.  Every week, her Ministry coordinated a “meet the people” session.  Moreover, there was a feedback unit in her Ministry that met with different women’s groups and discussed the most pertinent issues.


Regarding homosexuality, she said her Ministry had received feedback from people arguing against the Government’s assertion that homosexuality was a biological issue.  Today, no one could claim there were no means to channel complaints, and the Government took a very humane approach to all issues.


The Government had identified teenage drop-out rate from school and created targets to lower it, she added.


Closing Remarks


In closing, Ms. GABR, expert from Egypt, said the Committee had noticed Singapore’s progress through the years.  She was delighted that the country had withdrawn its reservation to article 9 and would increase the marriage age from 16 to 18.  She hoped Singapore would withdraw all its reservations gradually over time.


Singapore had scored progress, particularly in the areas of health, mental health and care for the elderly, she said.  The Committee hoped to see more legislation in the area of employment.


As Singapore was a developed country, the economic progress of migrant workers was an important issue, she continued.  The multi-ethnic and multi-religious nature of Singaporean society required respect for the rights of minorities, and she hoped all minorities could realize progress.  She also hoped to see more progress in future reports, and asked that a detailed study be prepared on adherence to the Optional Protocol.


The head of the delegation thanked the Committee for its constructive comments.  She had taken note of the Committee’s concern on issues such as Singapore’s representation of women in politics; withdrawal of remaining reservations; implementation of sharia; and approach to handling domestic violence and prostitution.  Singapore would consider all those issues in realizing the objectives of the Convention, and she hoped that the country could withdraw its remaining reservations, wholly or partially.


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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.