Discrimination: we need real powers against it


Singapore had signed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination on October 19th and is expected to only ratify (committing to) the convention in 2017. This would be a significant move to demonstrate where we stand on the matter of racism.

Ratification defines the act where a state indicates its consent to be bound to a treaty. Any non-compliance with a ratification could attract a wide range of political and legal actions from the international community against us. In an extreme situation, this could lead to diplomatic frictions and even sanctions against Singapore.

But we shouldn’t just stop at racial discrimination, we need real powers to protect us from all forms of discrimination also.

We have only got one piece of law against it and it sits in our Constitution.

Part IV of our Constitution lays out our fundamental liberties and in this context, Equal Protection:

[..] there shall be no discrimination against citizens of Singapore on the ground only of religion, race, descent or place of birth in any law or in the appointment to any office or employment under a public authority or in the administration of any law relating to the acquisition, holding or disposition of property or the establishing or carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation or employment.

The supreme law of our country has made illegal any form of discriminations against religion, race and nationality. They have also taken pains to use the word “only”.

However, lest we celebrate prematurely, here is a caveat:

We have to note at this point though that LKY himself had put it very strongly in Parliament that these clauses are “aspirations”. And by “strongly”, we meant that he reportedly cancelled his physiotherapy and rushed all the way back to Parliament simply to “pull the House back to the ground”.



Here is how one can interpret Mr. Lee’s speech: we can put all the laws we want, but are we able to get the people to actually want to obey them?

His answer was clear: No. At least not yet.

This probably explains the posture that the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices has taken.

On their website, they answered the questions of:

“Why is there no legislation on workplace discrimination in Singapore?

The answer proceeds thus:

The experience of other countries is that anti-discriminatory laws alone might not adequately change mindsets in this area. Employment relations are complex, and at the core is the mindsets of both employers and employees.

Singapore is fortunate to have a strong tripartite partnership built over the years that allows us to use this approach to effectively tackle difficult and sensitive employment issues in a win-win fashion. With the support of the Tripartite partners, TAFEP is adopting a promotional and educational approach to tackle the issue of discrimination at the workplace. We believe that this will be a more effective way to encourage employers to adopt progressive and enlightened employment practices.

This would have made perfect sense in the last decades of the 20th century. In the interests of better employment relations and in a bid to draw more businesses to Singapore, the logic of having a thinly regulated labour environment made sense.

In the 21st century though, I think we are ready to take our aspiration that little bit further. It is time to introduce legislation on discrimination.

Our rights and the enforcement/protection thereof are the reason why laws exist. Laws will send a very strong message about what kind of society we are.

Occasionally, there are a few sporadic cases that manage to bubble their way up into social media. I’ll name a few:

For each one of these that surface up to public attention, there are hundreds of others that go away quietly.

In 2013 alone, ex-Acting Minister Tan Chuan Jin revealed that 70% of its unfair dismissal complaints from women are related to pregnancy. Quick note about this matter: Part 9 of the Employment Act protects against dismissals because of pregnancy, but however this section does not cover discrimination prior to employment.

Without legislation and punishment, the Ministry of Manpower and TAFEP are helpless against errant employers. At the very most, they can use MOM powers to restrict manpower quotas. This move will pose two problems however. The first is obvious: if the company doesn’t use foreign manpower (or is able to game the system), then MOM is rendered further powerless against them. The second, problem is: restricting manpower ratio can be argued to be a discretionary action. Sooner or later, someone is going to accuse the Ministry of acting out of its powers.

There is also the practice of MOM “naming and shaming” firms believed to have discriminated on the grounds of nationality.

So the only thing we can do to errant employers are:

  • Naming and shaming them
  • Restricting foreign worker usage
  • Expensive litigation in civil court at your personal expense

That’s it.

And if this doesn’t work…then the aggrieved would have to resort to vigilante action on social media. What kind of society are we creating if the line of redress is to go to mob action from the internet? This is entirely against the principals of the Rule of Law, something which this country is proud to found itself on.

So if there already exists successful remedies via the common law (I’m really just assuming there are), why doesn’t Singapore put these on a statutory footing?

I’ll close this with a short anecdote:

I’ve got a friend working in Human Resources. When told to start the recruitment process, the CEO came over and gave him a few quick instructions: no Malays, no Indians, no “unpleasant looking people”, no one that looks like she’s about to get pregnant and don’t hire someone that “looks stupid”.

It’s been 50 years since independence and yet we’ve still got attitudes like this in Singapore.

Should we continue trying to “educate” the nation about this very repulsive act?

Or should we vote to punish it out of oblivion from our shores?





About the author

Benjamin Chiang

Benjamin Chiang is an enthusiast of good advertising, deep thinking, labour issues and chocolate. He writes also at www.rangosteen.com and occasionally on Yahoo!

The views expressed are his own.

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