‘No One Solution’

The Attorney-General, Prof Walter Woon, has responded to MARUAH’s forum letter to TODAY.


A balance has to be struck between individual rights and overall good of society

Monday • June 9, 2008

Letter from :PROFESSOR WALTER WOON:Attorney-General

I REFER to the letter “Keep our door open to ideas” by Siew Kum Hong(June 6).

Mr Siew has misunderstood me. I surmise from his letter that he was not present at my talk.

In my address at the launch of the Law Society’s Public and International Law Committee, I said that for some people human rights has 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 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 also said that the balance between rights and obligations is one for each society to decide.

Let me make my position clear lest I be misunderstood again. 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 to 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 that we must decide for ourselves where we draw the line between individual rights and the common good, because if we get it wrong, it will be our children who will pay the price. 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.

I have never dismissed the sincerely-held views of anyone who is genuinely interested in dialogue. A constructive debate about our obligations to our fellow citizens and the guests who live among us is healthy.

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.

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