Photo of Lee Hsien Loong from RSF

“Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining’, ‘the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour.”

This is the only one clause behind why some European Union (EU) members are not willing to agree to a free trade agreement (FTA) with Singapore. Earlier in the week, the European Union Court of Justice ruled that the FTA has to be passed through every member nation’s approval before it can come to effect. 28 EU members are involved and some have their reservations on the lack of freedom and labour rights in Singapore.

First of all, Singapore has no Minimum Wage. While Singapore workers will have access to Minimum Wage rights if they work in Europe, workers from EU countries coming to Singapore will be disadvantaged. The imbalance mean EU will see only an influx of Singapore workers as compared to the number of EU citizens going to work in Singapore.

Second, Singapore ranks highly on the global slavery index at 42nd out of 167 countries. Labour rights do not apply uniformly to all sectors especially on foreign construction workers and domestic helpers.

Third, in a February interview by BBC reporter Stephen Stacker, the reporter highlighted that the UK parliament is concerned about the lack of freedom of speech and human rights in Singapore. A UK MP pointed out that Singapore will have to guarantee the rights including freedom of expression in exchange for the approval of the EU-Singapore trade deal. In the interview, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has explicitly said that he will not comply allowing Singaporeans to have such freedom.

Fourth, the ruling party PAP government will also need to allow Singapore workers to gather among themselves to form their own private unions, and disregard the government-controlled NTUC union. Under the EU demands following the International Labour Organization standards, Singapore workers will have the right to demand Minimum Wage and protest, and that any oppression is in infringement to the EU-Singapore free trade deal.

Interestingly, the Lee Hsien Loong administration has agreed in principle to the clause above, because the dictator has other laws to circumvent these “troublesome” freedom of expression. However, EU member states, especially United Kingdom and the Nordic countries like Denmark, Norway and Sweden, who have heard of numerous complaints on Singapore’s shabby human rights records would not be so easily convinced by the Singapore dictator’s empty promises. The EU-Singapore FTA agreement will likely die with objections from UK and the Nordic countries.

This is yet another blow to Lee Hsien Loong after his high profile slap in the face by China. The US Trump administration has also treated Lee Hsien Loong like a forsaken mistress, allowing China to do whatever they like to Singapore (most notably, US’s silence on the 2-month-long detention of the Terrex vehicles in Hong Kong).

You may read the full EU-Singapore FTA agreement in detail here.