Privacy in SG's Constitution

Singapore does not have the right to privacy in her constitution. I find her case particularly interesting because Singapore was a British colony up until 1958. The European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), of which the UK is a signatory, came into force in 1953 [1]. It would be interesting to scratch the surface on what transpired between 1953 and 1958 that led to the current state of affairs today.

The first document of interest would be the Rendel Commission Report (1954) [2]. The report was commissioned by the Governor of Singapore and consisted of a series of recommendations for the constitution of an internally self governing Singapore. It is stated in the report that "numerous representations" have asked for the inclusion of provisions to protect the "rights of minorities and of the individual", to protect "freedom of the Press", to protect "freedom of speech" etc [3]. Without access to the letters sent in by the representation, we would not know if the right to privacy was explicitly brought up and summarized under etc, or if it was not brought up at all.

Nonetheless, it would not have mattered, because the Commission's stance was that while it was "deeply concerned" that the rights are protected, they do not consider it appropriate to include these provisions in a constitution of a self-governing country [4]. Furthermore they also reasoned that the Governor, bound by Royal Instructions, can serve as a safeguard [4].

The next document of interest would be the Constitutional Proposals for the Federation of Malaya (1957) [5]. At this point, Singapore or Malaya as it was back then, was ready for full independence from the British. The fundamental liberties covered in Part II of the proposed constitution included inter alia the right to liberty, fair trial, prohibition of slavery, freedom of speech and religion [6]. The right to privacy was not included. It is futile to go further forward in history as the rights in the 1957 proposal almost directly mirror the rights in Singapore's constitution today.

So why was the right to privacy left out? One possible reason was that the right to privacy in the UK was just in its infancy in the 1950s and had not gained traction. The rights that were included had far longer history in the UK, such as the Magna Carta Act in 1215 giving the right to fair trial and the Slave Trade Act 1807 prohibiting slavery. Coupled with the fact that the UK does not have a single constitutional document, it might have been possible that the right to privacy had been overlooked by the British government officials stationed overseas for long periods, who may not have had timely access to recent developments back in the UK.

Another stronger reason, which I overlooked in my initial response until prompted by the lecturer, was the fact that although the ECHR has been "in force" since 1953, it was not incorporated into UK law until 1998. Unlike EU Directives, the European Court of Human Rights does not require States to incorporate the Convention into their laws [7]. The draft recommendations and proposals explored earlier clearly take reference from the British Westminster system and thus it makes sense that the right to privacy, absent from UK law, would also be absent from these documents.

[1] Council of Europe, Convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedom and protocol. accessed 22 January 2024

[2] Sir George Rendel, Report of the Constitutional Commission, Singapore (Government Printing Office, Singapore, 1954) accessed 22 January 2024

[3] ibid, pg 38, para. 165

[4] ibid, pg 38, para. 167

[5] Secretary of State, Constitutional Proposals for the Federation of Malaya (London, Her Majesty's Stationary Office) accessed 22 January 2024

[6] ibid, pg 34, Part II

[7] Secretary of State For the Home Department, Rights Brought Home: The Human Rights Bill accessed 26 January 2024, para 1.12