A-G cautions against human rights becoming a ‘religion’ with fanatics

Based on news reports, Singapore’s Attorney-General, Walter Woon, appeared to draw a line in the sand for the Singapore government in a speech on 29 May 2008. He apparently described anyone using a human rights argument to advocate changes in policy as possibly “fanatics”. If so, then such a position is not helpful to engagement between the state and civil society.

It also seems that he tried to make a distinction between politics and the law where issues of human rights belong to the realm of politics, and should be negotiated with the state rather than honoured by the justice system.

Here are reports from the Straits Times and Today:

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Source: The Straits Times
31 May 2008

A-G cautions against human rights becoming a ‘religion’ with fanatics

By Chong Chee Kin

Amid a new push by the legal community to raise awareness about human rights, Singapore’s Attorney-General has warned against ‘fanatics’ who seize on the cause to further their own political agendas.

Human rights has become a ‘religion’ that breeds devotees who border on the fanatic, Professor Walter Woon said on Thursday.

It would be ‘hypocrisy’ for such people to decide what is acceptable for the rest of society, he said.

Prof Woon made the comments to over 100 lawyers and embassy officials at a Law Society gathering on Thursday. The event marked the launch of the professional body’s Public and International Law Committee headed by Dr Thio Su Mien, founding partner of TSMP Law Corporation. The committee is designed to raise awareness about topics like public law, a field that deals with human rights and constitutional issues.

‘We have to be careful when we are talking about public law and not to confuse it with politics,’ said Prof Woon.

He also warned against a no-holds-barred society. In some places, he said, religions were targets for insults and advocates for same-sex marriage were allowed to frame their cause under the banner of human rights.

‘But is this what we want?… Is this a question of human rights?’ he asked.

He and Professor Thio Li-ann of the National University of Singapore were speakers at the launch of the Law Society committee on Thursday.

Prof Thio said foreigners have criticised Singapore’s civil rights record, including the state of freedom of expression.

But such rights must be balanced against a responsibility towards the public at large, she said, citing the example of a racist blogger who was jailed in 2005 on fears his rants could split society.

Human rights issues are wider than just a right to the freedom of expression, Prof Thio said. They also include things like the right to work and the right to clean water.

‘(In Singapore) the idea is that economics must come first. No point having free speech if your rice bowl is empty. But I disagree, because if my rice bowl is empty, I would like to say that I am hungry,’ she said.

The president of the Law Society, Senior Counsel Michael Hwang, said lawyers have to be ‘alive’ to the legal avenues they can use to challenge decisions by the authorities.

Despite the fact that it’s one of the first courses lawyers take, the practice of public law has slipped, said Mr Hwang.

He blamed public ignorance and the reluctance of clients to challenge authorities like statutory boards, Government agencies and tribunals.

Lawyer Raymond Chan, the former president of the Singapore Institute of Arbitrators, agreed, adding that Singapore’s public law is not as developed as other legal sectors, like criminal law.

In the latest issue of the Law Gazette, the society’s official magazine, Mr Hwang said there were several areas where citizens could question decisions made by authorities. The list includes rulings from licensing centres and statutory boards.

‘In an age where commercial activities are increasingly becoming regulated by statutory authorities, it is important for lawyers to be able to advise whether (they) are exercising the regulatory powers (properly),’ he said.

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Source: TODAY newspaper
30 May 2008

Politics, law and human rights ‘fanatics’: AG Walter Woon

Loh Chee Kong

DO NOT confuse politics with the law, Singapore’s new Attorney-General cautioned, and “be careful” of those who use human rights “to advance their own political agendas”.

Professor Walter Woon made the point at his first public appearance as Attorney-General yesterday, as the Law Society launched a high-powered committee seeking to “encourage the promotion and discussion of public and international law issues”.

While he described the new committee as a “commendable initiative” — since everyone “has a vested interest in good governance” — Prof Woon cautioned Singaporeans against taking the Government to court simply because they do not agree with its decisions.

“We have to be careful when we talk about public law, and not to confuse law with politics. There are many people who think if a decision is made and they don’t like it, then this is something the law can correct. There is a line between a political decision and a legal decision,” he said.

The new committee’s maiden project is to study the relevance of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Singapore law.

Prof Woon weighed in on the issue with several strong words. Noting that human rights is “now a religion among some people”, he said: “You have, like in some religions, the fanatics. And it’s all hypocrisy and fanaticism (for these people) to set the views, as the leading spokesmen, of what is acceptable and what’s not.”

Prof Woon stressed, it is a “misconception that Singapore officialdom is against human rights”. He said: “What we are against is the assumption of some people that when they define what’s human rights, that decision is the decision of the rest of humanity.”

Reiterating that civil liberties must be seen in “the context of our society”, the Attorney-General observed how some places allow insults to be hurled against religions. “Is this what we want? Even if we don’t pay the price, our children will pay the price.”

Prof Woon also voiced his disapproval of advocates using human rights to pursue their own causes. For instance, while the issue of same-sex marriage has been framed as an issue of human rights, he questioned: “Is this a question of human rights?”

He also cited the example of how a lawyer accused the court of breaching human rights, after it ruled against his client in a suit she had taken out against the Government when her son fell down in school.

“The lawyer wrote in to say it was a breach of human rights — the right to survival — that we should enforce the cost against the client,” said Prof Woon.

:Legal academic and Nominated MP Thio Li-Ann, who gave a talk yesterday on human rights, agreed that politicising the issue undermines civil liberties as certain rights are promoted at the expense of others.

Still, she noted, the Singapore Government does not speak “the language of human rights”. When it abolished the quota for female undergraduates in medical school, no mention of the word “right” was made in Parliament; yet in its report to the UN, the Government cited the move as a step forward for women’s rights.

Several reasons could be behind this, Prof Thio said, including how Singapore’s communitarian society frowns upon “radical individualism”. But she disagreed with the perception that human rights promotes individualism, noting that the wording of the UN declaration places a greater emphasis on “collectivism”.

She also noted that the Government “legitimates itself not so much by consigning rights but by performance”. While she felt it was “good thing” in terms of upkeeping the living standards of the citizens, she said: “The problem is, can we indefinitely sustain the high economic growth rate? What happens when the ball drops?”

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