By Tan Wah Piow
Lord Anthony Lester of Herne Hill, who in December 2012 told the British House of Lords that Singapore’s conviction of Alan Shadrake for scandalizing the Singapore court was “the most notorious example” of use of the “outmoded and archaic” law, has published a new book Five Ideas to Fight For. Alan Shadrake, a British journalist, was punished for publishing the book, Once a Jolly Hangman –Singapore Justice in the Dock.
Lord Lester made his remark about Singapore during a House of Lords debate on the Bill to abolish the offence of scandalizing the court. Although the law was “simply never invoked anymore” in the UK, the abolition, he hoped, would “send an important message across the common law world”. It was not a surprise that Singapore’s Attorney General Chambers rejected the message.
Lord Lester’s current concern is the state of liberties in the UK. In the words of his television interviewer Stephen Sackur, he was so “worried and agitated” that he wrote this new book.
In his 30 minutes in-depth interview on BBC Hardtalk Lord Lester said, “I have written a book in order to encourage the young to fight for what we have fought for. That means understanding the past, it also means understanding what we have achieved, and understanding what we still need to fight.”
According to this internationally renowned human rights lawyer, the five ideas worth fighting for are “human rights, equality, freedom of speech, privacy, and rule of law”.
Stephen Sackur commented: “On all those five criteria Britain frankly compared to most countries in the world, scores pretty well”.
Lord Lester replied: “ Well, I think that is probably true. But it doesn’t mean to say that in Britain those ideas are not under threat. Because they are. For example, I took 30 years to get the Human Rights Act… And what is now under threat is that David Cameron’s government, the present government, have threatened to tear up the Human Rights Act…”
The Hardtalk interview with Lord Lester should now be available on BBC iplayer for viewers in the UK, and on the BBC news channels elsewhere in Asia. (see here)
Lord Lester’s high profile launch of his book is timely because the conservative government has launched a relentless attack on those rights under the guise of fighting terrorism, curbing immigration, and austerity drive.
Although Lord Lester is addressing his concerns about today’s Britain, his message is universal.
The octogenarian belongs to the generation of British lawyers who apply their professional skills to aid political prisoners, especially those from the Commonwealth countries, who were persecuted for their political beliefs.
Lord Lester is no stranger to Singapore. He had joined the ‘Singapore Legion of Personae Non-Gratae after representing Teo Soh Lung in her habeas corpus application in 1988.
Soh Lung was one of 22 Operation Spectrum detainees under Internal Security Act. Anthony Lester QC, as he then was, made it clear to the Singapore court that he would take her case to the Privy Council if his application before the Singapore Court to release her was unsuccessful. That resulted in Soh Lung being released on a technical ground, but immediately rearrested. That wicked little ploy bought time for the government which hastily amended the constitution to block future appeal to the Privy Council in ISA cases.
Meanwhile, Anthony Lester was barred from entering Singapore as a lawyer. The official excuse was that this respected veteran human rights lawyer interfered in Singapore politics at a seminar hosted by the London School of Economics. It was a laughable allegation.
Lord Lester wants the young, and lay people, to understand that rights are not a gift of government. “They are not the gift of Parliament, rights are innate, in our common humanity as human beings. Government has responsibility to protect those rights, so do judges and Parliament.”
Britain was not always a democracy, hence Lord Lester talked of his generation’s struggle for human rights. He explained that when he first joined the Bar in 1963, “British rights were very poorly protected. The judges were more executive minded than the executives, we had no fundamental rights guaranteed in law.” He further added, “in those days judges were so reactionary and blinkered.”
Do these words sound familiar to you where you are?
Over the decades, hundreds of thousands of students from Singapore and Malaysia were educated in the United Kingdom. They had first-hand experience of how rights were taken seriously. Yet upon their return, the vast majority remains intellectually in a comatose state and professionally remains muted while their innate rights, and those of their compatriots are trampled over. Some of the brightest amongst them unashamedly join the ranks of the oppressors. If the state of affairs in Britain could drive an Octogenarian Queens Counsel to take his fight to the public, theoretically our dire state of affairs where rights are concerned should lead to a mass revolt. But it did not happen. Why?
One way is to examine the five ideas to fight for.