Misconceptions about what human rights are allow the authorities to, from time to time, reinforce the perception that human rights are unimportant to Singapore.
My first foray into the waters of human rights was as a speaker at a forum on an ASEAN human rights mechanism held on 18 Nov 2007, organized by the advocacy group SG Human Rights.
At that time, ASEAN was holding its annual summit in Singapore. The issue of Burma and the atrocities committed by the junta was of grave concern to all of us, especially for our Burmese friends in Singapore.
Already sensing objections from some quarters as to why there was a need to talk about human rights when down-to-earth issues like jobs, wages, and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) are closer to the hearts of Singaporeans, I felt the need to properly define what human rights are, and explain why they are important to Singapore even though we are fortunate not to be facing the kind of abuses and atrocities that the Burmese are experiencing. This is what I will do here as well.
According to the Human Rights Education Associates website, hrea.org, human rights can be defined as those basic standards without which people cannot live in dignity as human beings. Human rights do not have to be bought or earned — they belong to people simply by virtue of being human. Human rights are universal — they apply to people regardless of gender, race, religion, culture, nationality, ideology or orientation. Human rights are inalienable — they should not be taken away by force. Human rights are also said to be indivisible — they are shared by all human beings concurrently, and in any proper and consistent definition of human rights, the rights of one person cannot be allowed to negate the rights of another.
An understanding of the last statement above, that the rights of one person cannot negate the rights of another, will go a long way toward resolving all the confusion and misinformation surrounding the issue of human rights, at least in the Singapore context.
Broadly, human rights can be put into a few categories, namely, social rights, civil and political rights, economic rights, and perhaps environmental rights. Amongst all these various aspects of human rights, there are certain rights that we may deem as fundamental, that is, rights that are the foundation of all other rights. The preamble to the United States Declaration of Independence gives us an idea of what these rights may be — they include the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Why these rights are important to Singaporeans
In the Singapore context, the civil rights that I deem as important are the rights to freedom of speech, association, and assembly. There is no doubt in my mind that these basic civil rights are routinely denied to Singaporeans, through the selective enforcement of unjust laws, even though they are in fact accorded to Singaporeans under Article 14, Part 4 of the Constitution.
Why do I feel that human rights, and in particular civil rights, are important to us? Over the years, Singapore has prospered economically and we have taken full advantage of globalisation. However, no one can guarantee that this pleasant state of affairs will last forever. Indeed, even now, the cracks in our society are beginning to show. The poor and aged have not benefitted from the rapid economic progress of the past decade since the end of the Asian Financial Crisis. In particular, wages at the lower end of the spectrum have not kept up with inflation, and some wages have even declined in absolute terms. Singaporeans are also not protected by any minimum wage law. Without fundamental civil rights and liberties, citizens will be less effective in campaigning for bread-and-butter issues such as fairer wages and a greater share of the economic pie. This is particularly true in Singapore as our Parliament is dominated by a single party.
I feel very strongly that Singaporeans must take ownership of their fundamental rights. There is a need for civil society organisations and Opposition political parties to work closely together in advancing human rights in Singapore, and giving Singaporeans a greater voice in both the civil and political arena.
Misunderstandings and misconceptions
The challenge that confronts us is not only the neglect of the issue of human rights by the ruling party and by the population as a whole, but also a deep misunderstanding and persistence of misconceptions of the issue. The latest remarks made by our new Attorney-General Walter Woon illustrate this perfectly.
Mr Woon said that human rights is "now a religion among some people". Calling them "fanatics", he reiterated that civil liberties must be seen in "the context of our society". He cited, for instance, Singapore's laws against religious hate speech as well as the issue of same-sex marriages, and asked whether these were really human rights issues.
These remarks were taken up by Alex Au on his blog as well as the President of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), Constance Singam, in a Straits Times Forum letter.
On Walter Woon's rhetorical question on whether the issues of same sex marriages or laws against religious hate speech are really human rights issues, Mr Au wrote:
Woon has been very selective in choosing two particularly emotive issues to frame his rhetorical question about what should constitute human rights, but a dispassionate glance at his own examples will tell you he is wrong. These are questions of human rights … … When religions go about denigrating the dignity of women and circumscribing their social freedoms, or go about demonising gay people and demanding that they be criminalised, then indeed the human rights of the target populations are being violated.
On the suggestion that human rights are becoming a "religion" amongst "fanatics", and Walter Woon's suggestion that it would be "hypocrisy" for such people to decide what is acceptable for the rest of society, Mr Au wrote:
Who defines human rights? Woon appears to be suggesting that it should be the government and the government alone, and that anyone else using the legal route to press his case would be usurping the prerogative of the executive branch … … Our understanding of human rights must evolve with time as a society's consciousness of various issues is raised. Evolution necessitates a constant engagement with civic forces, very often with those who are most knowledgeable and passionate about a particular issue. In other words, social progress is an outcome of engagement among the jurists, government, civic groups and individuals. It cannot be productive for the government to reserve everything to itself and dismiss all other interests.
These views are also espoused by Constance Singam. In her ST letter, she went on to elaborate that over the years, the passionately-held views of human rights advocates have been undermined by the authorities who dismiss them as "corrupt Western values".
Singam's letter attracted a rebuttal from Walter Woon, which left much to be desired. Walter Woon asked rhetorically if we could accept in our society people who felt that it was within their freedom of expression to insult religion.
But no one has suggested that the freedom of expression does not come with responsibility. This boils down to the fact that the rights of one person cannot be allowed to negate the rights of another. Woon's rhetorical question, unfortunately, was out of point with respect to answering Singam's letter, which clearly argued the case that human rights activists like members of AWARE were seeking to do good in society by promoting and protecting the lives and dignity of a marginalised segment of the population.
Human rights, govt policies and the law
It is true that our moral codes such as "thou shalt not steal" are framed to emphasise personal obligations. But these personal obligations are counter-party to the rights of others. For instance, the obligation for me not to steal is merely my having to respect the rights of others to property, and likewise for others to respect my right to property. Thus, while Walter Woon is correct to say that society must seek a balance between rights and obligations, he fails to understand that rights and obligations are but two sides of the same coin.
It is these misconceptions about what human rights are about that allow the authorities from time to time to reinforce the perception that human rights are unimportant to Singapore. But they are. A lack of understanding of human rights leads to a lack of understanding of society's moral norms and the extent to which we should allow the government to dictate what society should and should not accept. It is only with a proper understanding of human rights that we can begin to debate and question the wisdom of government policies and the law.
Singaporeans need to better their understanding of human rights, not because we are a nation of slaves, but because we are often a nation of sheep.
Singapore, as a nation, needs human rights. We really do. This is because human rights are concerned with the level of dignity that all humans should be accorded, and as humans, we cannot live a life without dignity.
Singaporeans should demand that the government of the day respect their basic rights, including freedom of speech and expression, and their right to live a life of dignity.
The author describes himself :
I am socio-political blogger, always trying my best to call a spade a spade and tell it as it is. Mostly libertarian but tinged with left wing socialist idealism. I believe in Modern Social Democracy with Proportionate Representation. Democracy, civil rights, social justice, and reform of the CPF system in Singapore are some issues close to my heart.
E Jay is also a member of SG Human Rights.
TOC thanks E Jay for contributing this article as part of our Human Rights Focus Week.