Keep our door open to ideas

6 June 2008

Siew Kum Hong\'s letter in Today

MARUAH has responded to the speech made by the Attorney-General at the recent launch of the Law Society Public and International Law Committee, through a letter published in Today newspaper, 5 June 2008:

I refer to the article “Politics, law and human rights ‘fanatics’: AG Walter Woon” (Today, 30 May 2008).

The Attorney-General, Prof Walter Woon, reportedly said that human rights has become a “religion among some people” for whom “it’s all hypocrisy and fanaticism”, that we should not confuse public law with politics, and that some people assume that their definition of human rights is the decision of the rest of humanity.

As a group that seeks to work on issues related to the establishment of the ASEAN human rights body from a Singapore perspective, MARUAH finds the A-G’s reported statements regrettable. Such a dismissal of sincerely-held views, even those expressed immoderately, is not helpful to engagement between a government and its citizens.

History tells us that ardent campaigners who were highly controversial in their day must be thanked for much of today’s social progress. While controversial causes are not necessarily right, our progress as a society depends on us keeping the door open to ideas, and not peremptorily dismissing ideas and their proponents with pejorative language.

MARUAH also believes that no single group of persons – including officials – has the right to conclusively define human rights for the rest of society. The definition of human rights evolves as society changes.

This evolution is stunted if dissentients are cast as troublemakers pursuing their own causes under the guise of human rights. Rather than criticizing dissentients, we should see them as making a positive contribution to our understanding and conceptualization of what human rights means to Singaporeans.

Finally, it is not helpful to view public law in complete isolation from politics. After all, politics must be conducted within the framework of the law, and political decisions must be lawful. Similarly, the law does not exist in a vacuum divorced from the politics of the day.

Siew Kum Hong
Member, Pro-Tem Committee

Human-rights ‘fanatics’ is what S’pore needs

6 June 2008

The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) has responded via the Straits Times Forum regarding recent comments by the Attorney-General on the issue of human rights.

June 6, 2008
Human-rights ‘fanatics’ is what S’pore needs
PROFESSOR Walter Woon’s attack on human-rights activists as ‘fanatics’ is very disturbing (A-G cautions against human rights becoming a ‘religion’ with fanatics, May 31). Surprisingly (although perhaps not) it comes at a time when the Singapore Government itself is trying to promote the Asean Regional Mechanism on Human Rights.

Last year, prior to the signing of the Asean Charter in November, Professor Woon and the then Asean Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong declared at the Asean Civil Society Conference that ‘the principles of good governance, rule of law and democracy will be enshrined as ‘aspirational goals’ in the Asean Charter (Asean Charter to turn region into community, Oct 28, 2007)’.

My questions are: What did they mean by ‘aspirational goals’? Who set the views of what is acceptable and what’s not? Who defines the ideals of human rights in a ‘democracy’?

Surely the obvious answer is that in a democracy, views and rights become accepted and enshrined through an on-going process of negotiation between governments and its citizens.

We have seen over many years Singapore officialdom’s strategy of undermining the passionately held views of advocates of human rights, for instance, ‘liberal democratic views’ and ‘feminism’ have been dismissed as ‘corrupt Western views’.

When the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) started in 1985, its members were considered by the Government and conservatives to be disruptive, bra-burning ‘fanatics’ that would destroy the family. More than 20 years later, Aware has proven itself as a positive advocate for women and families in Singapore. ‘Fanatics’ – or in our opinion advocates – are often exactly what our society needs.

I note, not surprisingly, the contradiction between the dismissal of human-rights activists as ‘fanatics’ and Singapore officialdom’s promotion of ‘human rights’.

The strong words of dismissal are inappropriate and unbecoming in the context of the time and circumstances, especially seeing the continued and appalling degradation of our domestic workers (Couple jailed for maid abuse, June 4) and the neglect and suffering in Myanmar.

Considering the limitations imposed on civil society activism in Singapore and the official ambivalence over the term ‘human rights’, I applaud and celebrate the so-called ‘fanatics’ of human rights for the work they do.

Constance Singam
President, Aware