Friday, 13 June 2008

Human rights in Singapore

I have been busier than usual lately, so this is a little outdated. Thanks to Shu for her work on this post.

On 29 May, the Attorney-General Professor Walter Woon made a speech at the launch of the Law Society's new Public and International Law Committee. This was extensively covered in the press, both in and outside Singapore (I'm told it even made the New York Times).

I thought TODAY's coverage was very good. I was indeed not present at the talk, but I was told by someone who was that the press reports did not misquote or place his comments out of context.

At a MARUAH meeting subsequent to that, the group decided to write to the press in response. I sent in two letters, one to TODAY and the other to The Straits Times (who had also covered the event). They were basically the same letters.

While the letter did not appear in the ST Forum, it did appear in TODAY's Voices section. The AG replied subsequently. Both my letter and his reply are reproduced below.

I know I may not have clearly articulated this in my letter, but human rights are, by definition, universal to all human beings. The United Nations, by making membership conditional upon acceptance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, makes it clear that this recognition is a fundamental requirement for acceptance into the community of civilised nations.

There may be some rights that are contentious and disputed by different groups. But the issue there is whether these rights belong to the family of universal human rights, and not whether human rights are universal. And as I pointed out in my letter, the conception of human rights does change as society evolves. But the universality of human rights does not. The issue therefore should not lie in whether human rights are universal, but in the identification of what constitutes human rights.

I fundamentally agree that what human rights entails should not be defined by any single group -- and that includes officials, which to me is a greater and more realistic possibility in Singapore than the possibility of any non-governmental group imposing their views on the rest of Singapore.

It will not be possible to define human rights by unanimous consensus -- a broad agreement on whether something should be protected as a human rights should suffice. On this basis, it seems to me that there are many aspects of human rights that are non-controversial to most people including Singaporeans.

So instead of dwelling on the controversies at the margins, it seems to me more appropriate to focus on ensuring that Singapore is up to the mark on what is non-controversial to most. I do not think we are there on all such aspects, and so I do not agree with the constant focus on the controversial by officials. We can and should agree to disagree on those, and work on those that we do agree on, instead of constantly pointing to the disagreements and letting that slow or even stop us.

This is my letter.

TODAY, 6 June 2008: "Keep our door open to ideas"

I refer to the article “Politics, law and human rights ‘fanatics’: AG Walter Woon” (Today, 30 May 2008).

The Attorney-General, Prof Walter Woon, reportedly said that human rights has become a “religion among some people” for whom “it’s all hypocrisy and fanaticism”, that we should not confuse public law with politics, and that some people assume that their definition of human rights is the decision of the rest of humanity.

As a group that seeks to work on issues related to the establishment of the ASEAN human rights body from a Singapore perspective, MARUAH finds the A-G’s reported statements regrettable. Such a dismissal of sincerely-held views, even those expressed immoderately, is not helpful to engagement between a government and its citizens.

History tells us that ardent campaigners who were highly controversial in their day must be thanked for much of today’s social progress. While controversial causes are not necessarily right, our progress as a society depends on us keeping the door open to ideas, and not peremptorily dismissing ideas and their proponents with pejorative language.

MARUAH also believes that no single group of persons – including officials – has the right to conclusively define human rights for the rest of society. The definition of human rights evolves as society changes.

This evolution is stunted if dissentients are cast as troublemakers pursuing their own causes under the guise of human rights. Rather than criticizing dissentients, we should see them as making a positive contribution to our understanding and conceptualization of what human rights means to Singaporeans.

Finally, it is not helpful to view public law in complete isolation from politics. After all, politics must be conducted within the framework of the law, and political decisions must be lawful. Similarly, the law does not exist in a vacuum divorced from the politics of the day.

Siew Kum Hong
Member, Pro-Tem Committee

This is Professor Woon's letter.

TODAY, 9 June 2008: "No One Solution"

I REFER to the letter “Keep our door open to ideas” by Siew Kum Hong (June 6).

Mr Siew has misunderstood me. I surmise from his letter that he was not present at my talk.

In my address at the launch of the Law Society’s Public and International Law Committee, I said that for some people human rights has become a religion. This religion, like so many others, has its fanatics who display all the hypocrisy and zealotry of religious bigots.

They believe that there is only one permissible view of human rights — theirs. They assume that when they decide what human rights are, that decision is for the rest of humanity.

I gave the example of those who think that the right to free expression means that one can insult the Prophet of a great religion with impunity. I asked rhetorically, can we accept this in our society?

I pointed out that all our moral codes emphasise obligations rather than rights: The rule is “thou shalt not steal” and not “thou hast a right to property”.

I also said that the balance between rights and obligations is one for each society to decide.

Let me make my position clear lest I be misunderstood again. Human rights are a key component of good governance. But there is no consensus on where the line is to be drawn between the rights of an individual and the good of the society as a whole.

Human rights fanatics think that their opinion is the standard to which the rest of humanity must conform to and that they are entitled to issue reports criticising those who hold a different view. These are people who evidently believe that they and their values represent the apex of human moral development.

There is no one solution that will fit all societies.

I took pains to say that we must decide for ourselves where we draw the line between individual rights and the common good, because if we get it wrong, it will be our children who will pay the price. But that is a debate for us, not for those who know nothing of our history, culture or values and who do not have our interests at heart.

I have never dismissed the sincerely-held views of anyone who is genuinely interested in dialogue. A constructive debate about our obligations to our fellow citizens and the guests who live among us is healthy.

That is why I wholeheartedly supported the Law Society’s initiative in creating a Public and International Law Committee and having a series of lectures on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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