The prepared text of my speech is below.
Speech at media launch of U60 festival
1. Your Excellency, Holger Standerstskjold, Head of the Delegation of the European Commission to Singapore, distinguished guests, good afternoon. Thank you for taking time out from your busy schedules to attend this event.
2. I would like to start by congratulating the U60 Organising Committee, their Organising Partners MARUAH (Singapore Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism) and The Online Citizen, and the various participating organizations, including the European Commission, for successfully putting together this festival of events to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I would also like to thank the U60 Organising Committee, for inviting me, as a Nominated Member of Parliament, to be the guest of honour at this event.
3. The Universal Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948. It resulted from the horrors of World War 2, and was the first international instrument to spell out the rights to which all human beings are entitled, simply by virtue of being human beings.
4. As the name suggests, the rights are universal in nature, cutting across all national, racial and ethnic lines. Countries from both East and West, including Burma, China, India, the Philippines and Thailand, voted to adopt the Universal Declaration. That in itself should have been sufficient to dispose of the smokescreen that was the “Asian Values” argument in the 1990s. Thankfully, this argument has long since been laid to rest.
5. But while human rights are universal, they have relevance in different ways to different contexts. Singapore is often criticized for alleged deficiencies in the protection of civil liberties. I happen to think that some of those criticisms have force. But I also believe that these criticisms are often unfair and one-sided, especially when they fail to note the tremendous progress that has been made in this country in the 43 years since independence. This success is real, and we cannot deny it. We see it, we experience it and we benefit from it every day, and it would be wrong to emphasise the negatives while ignoring the positives.
6. Still, the overall thrust of these criticisms is that we are not yet where we should be in the area of human rights, and that is something that I think many, if not most, Singaporeans would agree with. We may be moving in the right direction, but the pace could definitely be faster.
7. Some Singaporeans ask, why are human rights important to us? After all, we have done well so far, in a system where our human rights are given far less shrift than our responsibilities as citizens. Public discourse in Singapore frequently emphasizes our obligations and responsibilities, but seldom mentions our rights, whether as citizens, residents or just human beings. This does Singaporeans a disservice, and overlooks the roots of our existence.
8. Let us go back to the start of the story of Singapore as a modern, independent nation, in the 1950s when we were struggling for our independence. What was the basis of our claims to independence? Simply put, it was the notion that people have the right to self-determination. This right is embodied in both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Article 1 of both Covenants read:
“All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”
9. So the very birth of our nation is rooted in human rights. If not for human rights, we could still be an English colony. This nation might not even exist. Do we still need to question the need for human rights in Singapore, or the relevance of human rights to Singapore?
10. And in these times of economic trouble, human rights remain just as important. Human rights are not luxuries reserved for times of prosperity; they are equally relevant and necessary in tough times. Workers need to be protected from exploitation by employers, while civil liberties ensure that all stakeholders’ interests are represented. As my Parliamentary colleague Professor Thio Li-Ann said a few months back:
“Where the Singapore model of law development is concerned … the idea is that economics must come first; no point having free speech if your rice bowl is empty. But I would disagree because if my rice bowl is empty, I would like to say that I am hungry. I would also like to say that the economic policy is bad.”
11. Human rights are not a panacea to all problems, and they will not in and of themselves ensure a better tomorrow for us all. But they are an important and necessary ingredient in the evolution of Singapore, in our progress towards becoming, to quote Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech last year, “a City of Possibilities and a home for all of us”, where everyone belongs and is valued, and more importantly feel that they belong and are valued. If we want to be a place where creativity and innovation fluorish, where diversity is valued, then we have to do a better job of understanding, acknowledging and respecting human rights.
12. I know this is a cliché, but there is so much fear in Singapore when it comes to human rights. When many Singaporeans hear about human rights, there is a knee-jerk reaction grounded in fear and apprehension. It is as if human rights are by definition controversial, provocative and subversive. I cannot explain why, but I can say with certainty that this attitude exists, and pervades our society.
13. That is a real pity. This state of affairs retards, perhaps even prevents, the continued development of human rights in Singapore, when it does not have to be so. It is entirely unnecessary. I firmly believe that in Singapore, so long as one acts honestly and sincerely, and there is no transgression of the law, there is nothing to be afraid of.
14. Moreover, institutions in Singapore have a responsibility to be more open and receptive to the cause of human rights. It is a form of corporate social responsibility, if you will. Institutions in positions of power and authority have a moral duty to allow individuals to realize and actualize the full extent of their rights, or at least not stand in their way as they seek to do so. It would not be right to block the exercise of rights, or efforts to advance human rights, simply out of a fear of shadows.
15. And so I come to this group of young people in the U60 Organising Committee. They set an excellent example that we can all learn from. They understand the importance of human rights for Singapore, but more importantly they are sensitive to the existing landscape here and the need to navigate it carefully and creatively. And so, they have embarked on this effort to help Singaporeans understand better the relevance of human rights to them, to “mainstream” human rights if you will.
16. The activities under the U60 umbrella are varied and innovative. We have the exhibition here, which seeks to present a basic introduction to human rights with a particular focus on Singapore. There are forums, talks, and a short film showcase. There is a walk to raise awareness on violence against women, and even story-telling sessions. It is truly a party to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
17. I am proud to be associated with U60. Again, I congratulate the U60 team and the various organizations involved for their fine efforts. They show, very clearly, that the topic of human rights does not have to be controversial, provocative or taboo in Singapore, and that human rights are not only about civil liberties and are not the domain of activists only. Instead, human rights are relevant to everyday life, to you and me, to all of us. Human rights are universal. 60 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration, this is a timely reminder.
18. I wish everyone a fruitful U60 festival. Thank you, Your Excellency, Holger Standerstskjold, esteemed speakers, ladies and gentlemen.