I was somewhat surprised when I discovered earlier this month that the Singapore government had agreed to let the UN's racism envoy conduct a week-long fact-finding visit to the city-state.
The ultra-sensitive government usually refuses to engage with human rights organisations. But with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy having persuaded former UN secretary general Kofi Annan to take up a professorship in Singapore, perhaps the government felt under some pressure to appear more open to the UN.
In any case, Singapore actually has a decent record on fostering good race relations, particularly compared to neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia. So the government probably hoped that Githu Muigai, the UN's special rapporteur on racism, would come along and give them a pat on the back.
The government-owned TV station Channel News Asia certainly expected so, publishing a story on April 21, the day of Muigai's arrival in Singapore, headlined "UN Special Rapporteur to get better understanding of ethnic harmony". The cloying intro to the story read: "A United Nations representative is in Singapore to get a better understanding of how the various ethnic communities live together and the pillars of nation-building."
But, contrary to official Singaporean expectations, Muigai used his week in Singapore to do some proper research rather than mere glad-handing, meeting civil society acitivists as well as officials.
He concluded that while peaceful co-existence of the different ethnic groups in Singapore - Chinese, Malay and Indian - was a "remarkable achievement", there were a number of "blind spots" in the government's policies, which have "further marginalized certain ethnic groups". (His press statement is online here.)
Specifically he took the government to task for:
- Limiting free speech when it comes to discussing racial issues
- Perpetuating racial stereotypes through the excessive use of racial categorisation (e.g. on state ID cards)
- Failing to do enough to address the persistent underperformance of Malay students at school
- Failing to properly protect migrant workers' human rights and allowing a "dire" situation to develop
He warned: "This is a situation that must be acknowledged and acted upon in order to safeguard the stability, sustainability and prosperity of Singapore."
The government seemed rather taken aback by his forthright comments and the Foreign Ministry rushed out a statement rebutting Mugai's key points.
The ministry said it was "surprised" by Muigai's call for more to be done to help the Malay community given that affirmative action "has been tried by many countries without notable success".
It said it "emphatically" disagreed with Muigai's suggestion that restrictions on free speech be lifted. "This balance is only for the Singapore government to determine because only the Singapore government bears the responsibility should things go wrong," it said. "The UN bears no such responsibility and we see no reason to take risks for the sake of an abstract principle."
The ministry also outlined a number of "factual errors in Mr Muigai's press release that need immediate correction."
All in all, it's the kind of public diplomatic spat that Singapore tries desperately to avoid. I suspect it will be a while before the next UN human rights fact-finding team is invited to town.