SINGAPORE, July 9 (Reuters) - Singapore should free its courts from any government influence and elevate human rights standards to international levels, the world's largest legal association said.
The International Bar Association's (IBA) human rights arm expressed concern over the limitations of freedom of expression and the independence of Singapore courts in a 72-page report released late on Tuesday.
The global legal association noted that while the city-state had a good reputation when adjudicating commercial cases that did not involve members of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), when it came to matters regarding PAP litigants "there are concerns about an actual or apparent lack of impartiality".
The Singapore government said the association did not justify its "grave allegation" of bias with evidence.
"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," said a Ministry of Law spokeswoman in a statement on Wednesday.
The London-based body of more than 30,000 member lawyers said that while Singapore fared well in commercial and economic rankings, it fared poorly in press freedom rankings, which it said was a concern given that a free press can generate important dialogue on issues. ADVERTISEMENT
"Singapore cannot continue to claim that civil and political rights must take a back seat to economic rights, as its economic development is now of the highest order," the report said.
"The International Bar Association Human Rights Institute strongly encourages Singapore to engage with the international community in a more constructive manner, and to take steps to implement international standards of human rights," it said.
The government said human rights groups were prescribing for Singapore the "Western norms of liberal democracy as the only way to bring stability and prosperity".
"No NGO has greater interest and understanding of Singapore's history and internal balance than Singapore's leaders," the spokeswoman said.
Singapore, where the IBA held its annual conference last year, is among the most developed nations in Asia, with the second highest GDP per capita after Japan.
However, media and human rights groups such as Amnesty International have criticised the government for restricting freedom of expression and using defamation lawsuits to financially cripple political opponents.
In a list of 18 recommendations, the IBA urged the Singapore government to ratify the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ease restrictions on the media and ensure that its courts are free from government influence.
IBA executive director said in a statement Singapore should be a leader in human rights, and its advancement would be complementary to the city-state's future prosperity.
The IBA also noted that some publications, including the Economist and the Financial Times, have paid out-of-court settlements to avoid defamation lawsuits. The government says these lawsuits are needed to protect its reputation.
The legal body suggested the government set limits on defamation payouts in cases initiated by government officials. (Editing by Neil Chatterjee and Alex Richardson)