Human rights key to good governance but…

Professor Walter Woon has replied to AWARE’s forum letter in the Straits Times

Human rights key to good governance but…
I REFER to last Friday’s letter, ‘Human-rights fanatics is what Singapore needs’ by Mrs Constance Singam. She misunderstands me completely. I surmise from her letter that she was not at my talk. Otherwise, she would have known that I did not attack human-rights activists.

In my address at the launch of the Law Society’s Public and International Law Committee, I said that for some people, human rights have become a religion. This religion, like so many others, has its fanatics who display all the hypocrisy and zealotry of religious bigots.

They believe that there is only one permissible view of human rights – theirs. They assume that when they decide what human rights are, that decision is a decision for the rest of humanity.

I gave the example of those who think that the right to free expression means that one can insult the Prophet of a great religion with impunity. I asked rhetorically, can we accept this in our society?

I pointed out that all our moral codes emphasise obligations rather than rights: the rule is ‘thou shalt not steal’ and not ‘thou hast a right to property’. I further said that the balance between rights and obligations is one for each society to decide.

Lest I be misunderstood again, let me make my position clear. Human rights are a key component of good governance. But there is no consensus on where the line is to be drawn between the rights of an individual and the good of the society as a whole.

Human-rights fanatics think that their opinion is the standard to which the rest of humanity must conform and that they are entitled to issue reports criticising those who hold a different view. These are people who evidently believe that they and their values represent the apex of human moral development.

There is no one solution that will fit all societies. I took pains to say – and Mrs Singam would have known this had she attended the talk – that we must decide for ourselves what is right for our society because, if we get it wrong, it will be our children who will pay the price.

A constructive dialogue on what our obligations are to our fellow citizens and the guests who live among us is healthy. We must decide where we draw the line between individual rights and the common good.

But that is a debate for us, not for those who know nothing of our history, culture or values and who do not have our interests at heart.

That is why I wholeheartedly supported the Law Society’s initiative in creating a Public and International Law Committee and having a series of lectures on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Professor Walter Woon
Attorney-General

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