Thursday, July 17, 2008

On Human Rights

July 12, 2008
Speak up and say what human rights mean to you

By Chua Lee Hoong

HUMAN rights issues have been much in the news recently.

First you had reports of the various human rights groups meeting in Singapore to discuss Asean's plans to set up an Asean-wide human rights mechanism.

Then there was the spirited exchange between women's rights activist Constance Singam and Attorney-General Walter Woon following from the latter describing as fanatics those who seek to impose with religious zeal their own human rights notions on Singapore.

Most recently, there was the report by the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute (Ibahri) slamming Singapore's human rights record.

Discuss human rights, and invariably you get a high- decibel debate. Alas, the sound and fury often mean no one ends up any wiser.

There are various points to be settled in the tangle.

# Are there human rights in Singapore?

# Does the Government respect human rights?

# What are human rights anyway?

To the first two questions, the Government insists the answer is yes. But it says, in response to question three, that the interpretation of those rights is its right, not that of organisations like Ibahri.

Its position, in short, is that on human rights, there is no extraterritorial jurisdiction.

In contrast, human rights advocates both outside and within Singapore are pushing for their own interpretation of those rights. Some are taking the opportunity offered by Asean's move towards a human rights mechanism to do so.

What exactly are human rights?

The notion that there can be universal rights transcending gender, race and national boundaries did not come about until a few decades ago.

Promulgations like the United States Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen existed 200 years earlier. They even proclaimed certain rights as 'universal' - but their definition of universality did not include blacks and women.

Today, there is still little international consensus, even though just about every country has signed on to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration is an aspirational statement written with enough wiggle room to satisfy all governments.

Freedom of expression - Article 19 in the Universal Declaration - is most commonly championed by human rights groups in relation to Singapore.

But Article 19 is just one of 30 Articles. There is also Article 29 which notes that limits may be placed on individual freedoms 'for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society'.

Several Articles deal with socio-economic rights - for example, the right to security of person (Article 13); the right to an adequate standard of living (Article 25), and the right to education (Article 26).

On these counts, Singapore has not done badly - a fact that the Ministry of Law was not shy to trumpet when commenting on the Ibahri report.

'Whatever the shortcomings of the Singapore Government, from our record, no one has doubted that our overriding objective has been to get Singaporeans better educated, to understand and be exposed to the globalised world we are now in. So we adjust our laws and systems to maximise the benefits from global forces to make Singapore a thriving cosmopolitan city, where Singaporeans and foreigners live and work in a peaceful, safe and open environment. We listen carefully to all advice and then decide the right balance for ourselves. So far, we have not done badly,' said the ministry on Thursday.

You may cringe, but you can't dispute it.

A colleague asked the other day: Why is there a tendency for human rights groups to pick on Singapore, compared to certain countries where human rights transgressions are arguably more flagrant?

Why, indeed?

Singapore's failure to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is often cited by human rights groups. Malaysia, which has not signed either, does not come in for the same degree of scrutiny as does Singapore.

One reason, perhaps, is that Singapore simply invites digs. In its more sanctimonious moments, it can come across as a Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Another, more serious, reason is that Singapore represents an alternative model of governance which could pose a hegemonic challenge to Western liberal democracy. When advocates of the latter see leaders from China and Saudi Arabia visiting Singapore to learn how to manage the media and the masses, they probably get worried.

A third, more charitable, reason is that human rights groups are simply like religious evangelists - they believe they are helping to bring a good thing to a country which does not yet have it. A hundred years ago, Americans brought the Gospel of Jesus Christ to East Asia, now they bring the gospel of human rights.

There would be nothing wrong with this, were it not for their sheer insistence that theirs is the only truth. In effect, they deny these countries the same right to self-determination that they would champion for others.

This is not to say that there are none within Singapore interested in human rights. There are groups like Aware, Maruah and the Think Centre.

This is also not to say that Singapore should brush human rights issues aside. It should not.

If you believe in natural law, you have to believe in natural rights, from which the notion of human rights is derived. There can be disagreement over the demarcation of those rights, but not over the fact that there is a core of rights which is indeed universal and inalienable.

The composition of that core is what Singaporeans have to decide. The right to security and economic well-being, to affordable health care and education? Does it include unfettered free expression? Unqualified freedom of assembly?

Attorney-General Walter Woon made a call last week which deserves to be heeded.

Referring to the human rights debate, he said: 'If we don't discuss ourselves where our society is going, then we abdicate the debate to all these fellows and the types in Singapore who follow that line.'

The silent majority had better speak up before that happens.

July 16, 2008
Human rights are universal

IN THE light of Ms Chua Lee Hoong's commentary last Saturday, 'Speak up and say what human rights mean to you', I wish to say that human rights are a universal standard of rights all societies must uphold.

Political freedoms should not overshadow economic and social rights, but the converse also holds true. Cultural relativism espoused by Ms Chua breaches this basic principle.

Countries like Zimbabwe and China use the same principle to defend their atrocities.

Ms Chua's idea of Singapore being a 'hegemonic challenge' to the West is an illusion. Singapore is singled out because our economic success is not accompanied by an increase in political freedoms, which contravenes the basic principle of human rights.

[Comment: I think that was the point Ms Chua was making. According to democratic principles, democracy begets economic success. Thus, lack of democracy would mean poor economic growth. And no, there is no principle of human rights that economic success must be accompanied by increase in political freedom. That would imply that human rights are NOT universal, but conditional - on economic success in this case.

So on the one hand we have undemocratic regime like Myanmar which are poor. And we also have more democratic societies like the Philippines, which while better off than Myanmar, is also poor. It would seem then that democracy has little or no impact on economics.

Economic growth is not because of democracy. Economic growth depends on stability. Singapore grows because the govt provides a stable, reliable, uncorrupt environment for business. Indonesia was growing well under the stable (if undemocratic) leadership of Suharto. After that, there was more democracy, but less growth. Malaysia was doing well, but now because of the political uncertainties, its growth is uncertain.

Ah, but isn't Myanmar politically stable? Yet it does not have economic growth either. So that puts paid to the theory that Economic growth depends on stability. True. Stability is a necessary but insufficient condition for economic growth. The other factors are pro-business policies, clean uncorrupt government, a good workforce, etc. In other words, find a country with strong economic growth and you should see that there is stability in that country. But just because a country is stable doesn't mean it will have strong growth.]

It is Ms Chua who is taking digs at the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute, not the other way round. I doubt the institute is interested in hegemony at all.

Lastly, the idea of Saudi Arabia and China learning from us deserves attention. Saudi Arabia is a fundamentalist monarchy and China is a communist dictatorship. If they are here to learn a new way to mask their horrendous acts in the political arena, and see us as a model in that respect, it is nothing to boast about.

Human rights are for all, and should not be violated by any government on the pretext of cultural realities.

Clement Wee

[In any case, this letter-writer just makes a bald statement (made by all Human Rights lobby groups) that human rights are universal without explaining what these rights are and why they should be universal. And does not address Article 29. In fact his last sentence (statement) contravenes Article 29, in spirit if not in content.]

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