Singapore is failing to meet international standards in respecting and promoting an independent and impartial judiciary, freedoms of expression and assembly, and broader human rights, the world's largest legal association has claimed.
In a new report, the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute hails the island state's "impressive" economic development but accuses it of "isolationist policies and attitudes [that] are no longer tenable" in the 21st century.
It goes on to "strongly encourage" the government "to take steps to implement international standards of human rights throughout Singapore".
The main allegations are that Singapore goes beyond recognised constraints on freedom of expression and too often uses criminal defamation as a tool to silence political and media critics.
It muzzles the domestic and international media, curbs freedom of assembly and restricts the independence of the Singapore Law Society to comment on legislation, says the 72-page report. "There are concerns about the objective and subjective independence and impartiality of Singapore judges," it says.
This is the first time the IBA, which claims 30,000 members from 195 bar associations, has voiced the criticisms of Singapore that are regularly articulated by human rights and press freedom groups
Mark Ellis, IBA executive director, said: "As one of the world's most successful economies, Singapore should be a leader in human rights and the rule of law, and should now have the confidence and maturity to recognise that this would be complementary, not contradictory, to its future prosperity."
The report says Singapore's judiciary adheres to high standards when trying commercial cases not involving the ruling People's Action party, but in cases involving PAP litigants "there are concerns about an actual or apparent lack of impartiality". No PAP member has lost a case of defamation in a Singapore court.
Singapore's ministry of law said in a vehement written response to the report that the IBA did not substantiate its "grave allegation" on judicial independence.
"It is also absurd to suggest that honourable and upright judges in commercial cases become compliant and dishonourable when dealing with defamation cases involving government ministers."
The statement says the government's "overriding objective has been to get Singaporeans better educated, to understand and be exposed to the globalised world we are now in". "We listen carefully to all advice and then decide the right balance for ourselves. So far we have not done badly."
The report's 18 recommendations include rectifying all the shortcomings and ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.