Monday 17 November 2014

Signs of a more compassionate Singapore

Statutes to protect the vulnerable must be rigorously enforced and updated where necessary
By Radha Basu, Senior Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 16 Nov 2014

Singapore is known the world over for its pragmatism and pursuit of economic excellence. Yet, even as many admire the city-state's fabled cleanliness, efficiency and low crime rates, there have been complaints about a compassion deficit.

The Lion City is rich, safe and successful. But, alas, mourn critics, it does not have much of a heart. Its justice system has long been known to be more punitive than protective.

All that is beginning to change quietly.

This year has turned out to be a landmark year for new and upcoming laws that are tempered with compassion.

Earlier this month, Parliament passed the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act to better protect men, women and children who are forced, tricked or lured into sex or servitude. The law increases penalties for sex trafficking and, significantly, outlaws labour trafficking for the first time.

In Singapore, the vast majority, if not all, victims of trafficking are low-wage foreign workers from impoverished Asian nations lured here by the promise of a better life.

During a debate in Parliament two weeks ago, People's Action Party backbencher Janil Puthucheary summed up the feelings of many when he pointed out that the new law was not about pragmatism or economic utility, but about what is morally right. "It speaks to our aspirations about wanting to be a better society," he said.

Indeed, the moral strength of a nation depends not just on how good life is for the majority, but also on how it protects the voiceless, vulnerable minorities. Several laws announced or passed this year aim to do just that.

The week before Parliament passed the law against trafficking, Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing announced that Singapore will have a law next year to better protect vulnerable adults, such as sick or frail older people who may be abused in the privacy of their own homes.

In August, Parliament passed the Family Justice Act which, among other things, aims to ensure that children do not end up being bruised or broken by brutal divorce battles when their parents split up.

In July, Mr Chan announced that the Women's Charter was likely to be reviewed next year to ensure that spousal maintenance is based on need, not gender. Men are currently not allowed to seek maintenance from former wives. In a narrative dominated by deadbeat dads, the move will help the minority of men who are financially worse off than the women they were married to.

And in March, Parliament passed the Protection from Harassment Act, a broad, landmark piece of legislation which covers a variety of anti-social behaviour - often involving perpetrators in positions of power - from stalking to workplace sexual harassment.

In most of these cases, the changes were preceded by consultations with civil society groups that protect the interests of the various vulnerable communities, such as migrant workers and harassed or abused women, children and older folk.

Over the years, I have spoken to many such groups and dozens of victims who bemoaned the lack of adequate legal protections to help them punish perpetrators and get on with their lives.

The new laws are a good first step towards doing just that and must be applauded. What lies ahead, though, is the tough job of implementation, of bridging the gap between principle and practice.

And the question that arises is, will having laws on paper mean better protection for victims on the ground?

Indeed, even before the laws against human trafficking and harassment come into force, critics identified loopholes that may dampen their protective effect.

The human trafficking law, for instance, does not guarantee victims the right to jobs while they pursue cases against their traffickers in Singapore. Since most migrant workers incur hefty debts to get jobs here, the lack of a much-needed income may compel some to drop their cases and go home.

The harassment law, meanwhile, falls short of international best practices which impose legal obligations on companies to address the issue of workplace sexual harassment. This is not surprising, given concerns that holding companies accountable could raise business costs.

The extent to which victims get protection and support under these laws no doubt needs to be monitored carefully, with a view to amendments where necessary.

The authorities have said more than once that blanket guarantees for victims may be open to abuse, and that it is neither helpful nor necessary to hardwire all victim protection measures in law. Instead, each case will be assessed individually and victims will get the assistance they need.

Civil society groups, which have been instrumental in lobbying for greater protections for the vulnerable communities they represent, must continue to highlight the plight of victims who don't get due justice when these laws come into force.

But the authorities, too, must ensure rigorous and prompt enforcement. Relevant ministries in charge of implementing these laws must make public data on successful prosecutions made under each statute.

This is standard practice in many countries with strong laws protecting vulnerable groups. Right now, it is unclear whether this is indeed happening.

Take the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, for instance, which was amended in September 2012 primarily to better protect migrant workers from unscrupulous employers. There appear to be no publicly available figures on how many employers have been prosecuted under the Act since then.

So as Singapore continues its journey towards a justice system that does not just punish the perpetrator, but also protects the victim, enforcement remains key.

For the people it purports to protect, a law that is not enforced is as good as having no law at all.

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