Sunday, 27 September 2009

Singapore’s Human Rights Debate: Not Just about Gay Rights

The human rights debate in Singapore tends to focus on the issue of homosexuality and the decriminalization of gay sex between consenting adults.
The 'Rainbow Debate' is important and forms part of the evolution of Singapore's social structure. However, practically speaking the gay sex debate concerns a small minority of Singaporeans.

Gender equality, on the contrary, is a mainstream issue and meaningfully impacts the lives of many Singaporean men and women.
Since 1965 Singapore has made great strides in ensuring equal rights for women. The constitution enshrines equal political, economic and social rights to women.
The combination of a Women's Charter and universal literacy has meant women are well integrated into Singapore's labour force. Women's rights are generally well respected and applicable laws suitably enforced in modern Singapore.
Based on a 2009 survey of 102 non-Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations, Singapore ranked 21 out of 102 nations in the organization's Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI). The SIGI "is a new composite measure of gender equality based on the OECD's [comprehensive] database."
In spite of the rapid progress, there is a need for Singapore to revisit the current situation.
Singapore's social conditions in 2009 are a far cry from those of 1961, the year that the Women's Charter was promulgated. The fact that countries like the Philippines (7) and Kazakhstan (3) score higher than Singapore also indicate that more needs to be done.
Today, Singaporean women are participating in occupations which were traditionally restricted to men. Women are involved in physically demanding work, including serving in the armed forces.

Women are successful in these vocations despite explicit legislation outlawing discrimination in the workplace.
In a letter to the Straits Times, Ms. Jaapar writes that she applied for a building site supervisor job at seven construction companies. She was informed by each company that they do not entertain females for the position of site supervisors. There was not even any pretence to disguise the real reason for not considering her application.
Such behaviour constitutes sexual discrimination and is a violation of a woman's civil rights.
Does Ms. Jaapar's episode suggest the need for lawmakers to pass specific workplace gender equality legislation? Or does she have the right to allege discrimination on the basis of the relevant Constitutional provisions?
I am unaware of either the government or any women's rights organization taking ownership of this particular incident and pursuing it through the legal system. Clearly, something is amiss here and the matter should not conclude with the publication of a letter in the newspaper.
Setting a correct legal precedent for this case will deter other employers from discriminatory practices in the future.

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