Rights: The way forward

Ever since Singapore acceded to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1995, progress has been made in terms of all the 54 articles of the convention; few issues remain nevertheless 

 Courtesy: UNICEF

Courtesy: UNICEF

Singapore criminalised child sexual exploitation in 2007, amended the law in 2004 to allow children to acquire Singapore citizenship through their Singaporean mothers, established children care court and the National Family Council, as well as ratified ILO's convention on minimum age for employment. These are “a number of positive developments,” as noted by the UNCRC's committee at its 56th session in 2011. This was in response to Singapore's presentation to the Committee led by then minister for community development, youth and sports, Vivian Balakrishnan.

Moving further, the Committee enumerated various areas of concern, which remain so even two years down the road. These include issues such as independent monitoring, definition of the child, non-discrimination, respect for the views of child, parental responsibilities, children with disabilities and juvenile justice. The government, on its part, had assured the UNCRC at that time, “The Inter-Ministry Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child will continue to look into these possible areas of development.” 

Child labour

On the issue of child labour, the Committee expressed concern “that the minimum age of employment [13] is lower than the age of compulsory schooling [15]”. This is because according to the Compulsory Education Act, a child of “compulsory school age” is one who is above the age of 6 years and who has not yet attained the age of 15 years. Meanwhile, as per part viii of the Employment Act, which governs the employment of children, a child who is between 13-15 years of age can engage in light work suited to his/her capacity. “He/she cannot work in any industrial undertaking or vessel unless such undertaking or vessel is under the personal charge of his/her parent,” the Act says

Sexual exploitation

The Committee expressed “grave concern” on the “limited action taken by the state to combat sexual exploitation and abuse of children, including child sex tourism”. It urged Singapore to “establish shelters for child victims of sexual abuse and exploitation where children are provided with rehabilitation, recovery and social reintegration services;” as well as “develop a code of conduct for the protection of children from sexual exploitation in tourism and foster more active involvement of the tourism industry and the media”.

Juvenile justice

UNCRC's committee was also “deeply concerned” that the “minimum age of criminal responsibility remains very low at 7 years, corporal punishment and solitary confinement are still used to discipline juvenile offenders, many offences in the Penal Code and other laws are punishable by caning for males between the ages of 7 and 16 years, and persons convicted of an offence committed under the age of 18 may be sentenced to life imprisonment.” 

Children with special needs

In terms of education, the Committee expressed concern that “children with disabilities are still not fully integrated into the education system”, as such children normally study in special education schools run by voluntary welfare organisations. While authorities provide funding for them, these schools don't come under the government's purview, the Committee argued.  

Children beyond parental control

The ministry of social and family development (MSF) has a scheme “Children beyond parental control”. Under this, parents, of children below 16 years of age who display behavioural problems in school or at home, can apply to the Court for assistance in managing them. “The Court can make an order for the child to be placed in safe custody in either a Boys’ or Girls’ Home for up to five weeks,” informs the MSF.

The UNCRC's committee “regretted that this system may stigmatize the child and be perceived as a punitive, not an enabling measure”. Finally, the Committee argued that this scheme “does not comply with the Children, and Young Persons Act (Amendment Bill 2010) which encourages the parents or guardian of a child or young person to have the primary responsibility for the care and welfare of the child or young person.”