A Legal and Constitutional Perspective of Human Rights Within Singapore's Socio-Political Framework

Posted by Valentine Winslow under Public Forums on 10 March 2000

Speech made by Prof Valentine Winslow, a constitutional lawyer.

1. Introduction

When I was first asked to speak at this forum, which I believe is the first public forum on human rights here, I was asked by one or two friends (and a journalist) why I decided to take part in this forum. I can only say that those who ask such a question ought to read Mr James Gomez's recent book on "Self-Censorship: Singapore's Shame", for such sentiments are symptomatic of the problem highlighted by Mr Gomez there! I see no reason for a citizen to feel apologetic about speaking about this important subject, and this is the last time I am going to be apologetic about something which is every citizen's privilege. To have to ask such a question is itself an absurdity.

2. Are Human Rights a subject for legitimate discourse in Singapore?

The answer must be: Of course! They are now, and always have been. First of all, Human Rights are part of International Law. Second, Human Rights are domestically recognized and enforced through our Constitution (with its "Bill of Rights" in Part IV thereof) and other laws.

3. Why has there been a lack of debate before about Fundamental Human Rights or "Liberties" in Singapore?

May I attempt to fathom the possible reasons:

(a) The emphasis has been usually on Asian Values, particularly Singapore's Core Values. One of these is that community interests take precedence over individual interests.

(b) The emphasis has been on the Rule of Law and the importance of adherence to the Law - whether by citizens or by the Government - as the essential requirement of a well-ordered State. The result ? As most fundamental rights or "liberties" have exceptions or restrictions ( few rights are absolute, such as freedom from slavery and freedom of citizens from exile/banishment ), - namely, laws to protect public security, public order, morality, public health, reputation (by defamation laws), and so on - the focus has tended to fall upon the exceptions rather than the rights themselves. Our legal philosophy may well be: "Everything is prohibited unless permitted by law"; rather than: "Everything is permissible unless prohibited by law". The position is arguably the same in Britain (which has no written constitution), but there is a culture of generally "turning a blind eye" to the strict letter of the law in many situations where there is no apparent breach of the peace, as with a peaceful demonstration or a speech in a public park or open space or the distribution of pamphlets. The police may employ their discretion.

(c) The State's (and Government's) past and arguably continuing, sensitivity towards external perceptions of human rights in Singapore. There has been sensitivity especially in subjects like detention without trial, mandatory caning, the alleged "harassment" of opposition party leaders, contempt of court actions against the media (usually but not exclusively foreign), restrictions on the press under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act , and the outlawing of certain religious groups, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses.

(d) The "depoliticization" of institutions in the 1960s and 1970s , and continuing into the 1980s , inevitably led to a certain political apathy among the young in tertiary institutions and a separation of "bread and butter issues" from "politics" in the business of societies and professional bodies generally. Societies were actively discouraged from turning into "pressure groups". This trend created a climate of fear in citizens that their motives might be questioned, or that those who spoke up might be suspected of having a hidden agenda of their own. It was a great pity that little allowance was given to the possibility that those who spoke up might do so out of a sense of conscience or as a matter of personal principle. Such people were encouraged to desist from "political" issues unless they were prepared to join a political party. That trend of the "bad old days" is happily changing, and more groups are being tolerated as necessary components of civil society.

4. Is there a greater willingness to allow the discussion of human rights now, in the Singapore context? Is there a new interest in human rights?

The answer to both questions is: YES! However, we have always been interested in human rights. However, the subject of Human Rights is more fertile ground for discussion and development in the present day.

Why? These are the possible reasons as I see them:

(a) The decline of the communist threat and of China's perceived interest in expanding its hegemony over South East Asia. China, since Deng Hsiao Peng, has been on the road to modernization and becoming an industrial and trading nation. It was very different until the late 1970's, when the "gang of four" was deposed.

(b) Greater global enforcement of international human rights, since the Gulf War. Iraq, Kosovo and East Timor have shown that the UN and UN members are determined to keep the peace and stop genocide (alas, with an inconsistent record). Human Rights have thus gained respectability and a new ascendancy through their relevance.

(c) Fewer of Singapore's neighbours are now "politically embarassed" by their own past or present human rights record. Examples are Indonesia under Gus Dur, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines (after Marcos). They are not at loggerheads with the US or other Western nations. The "winds of change" in Asia generally, from China, South Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam in the last 20 years, has had a beneficial effect in making Singapore able to discuss these matters more openly at home as well as with our neighbours.

(d) A greater willingness of the second and third generation political leaders to openness and a call for "active citizenship". ie "the spirit of Singapore 21". Singapore 21 is just a concept. It is what we make of it - our attitude of mind - that opens new horizons and possibilities. It is not only the citizens' attitude, but the Government's also, that count. As evidence of the new "openness", I cite two examples: The Senior Minister's openness to a proposal to allow free speech venues; and the Prime Minister's encouragement of university students to establish "political associations". [*Since this forum, the proposal of free speech venues has been officially endorsed by the government and Hong Lim Park has been set aside for this purpose beginning in August 2000].

5. Singapore's Position on Human Rights

Singapore is bound by international conventions to which it is a party, eg:

( i ) Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women ("CEDAW") (1981); and (ii) Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990) Singapore is not legally bound but can be said to be bound to observe "customary international law" because of the general acceptance by nations of their content, even if it did not consent to it, eg:

( i ) The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 ("UDHR") (ii) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 ("CPR") (iii) International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966 ("ESCR")

Why did Singapore not ratify the latter two covenants? For CPR, it was probably because of the prohibition of detention without trial; for International covenants or conventions have the force of law in countries ratifying them.

6. Has Singapore got its own priorities in Human Rights?

My humble contention is that Singapore does have its own practical priorities - irrespective of what the constitution or International law may say. Allow me to categorize these different human rights.

(a) The Constitutional Rights of primary importance: These are selected based on popularity, or the principle of "the greatest happiness for the greatest number".

( i ) Equality before the law and freedom from racial and religious discrimination (Article12). These are essential in a plural, multicultural society. Even the government considers multiculturalism is one of the basic parameters which must be accepted by all in Singapore.

( ii ) The Rights of Women (and children). This is itself an important aspect of equality before the law.

(iii) Freedom of expression (Article 14). This is of growing importance today. The reasons, as I see them, are, as follows: It is the best way of providing feedback to the authorities. It is the best way of showing that every citizen's viewpoint is taken seriously. It is perhaps the best way for the State to demonstrate to every citizen that he has a stake in society, so that he will be loyal to Singapore. Once a citizen gets the impression that his opinion counts for nothing, he is likely to make preparations to emigrate to a place which makes him feel welcome. The world is but a global village, and a citizen does not need a particularly strong incentive to put down roots elsewhere. The State will have to work harder to persuade its citizens that Singapore is the right place to call "home".

(b) Some important non-constitutional Rights.

( i ) The right to vote in free and independent elections held at regular intervals, by secret ballot. (ii) The right to be consulted (witness the National Library Building versus the new Singapore Management University issue ; the future of nature parks like Sungei Buloh; or the protection of the environment generally). (iii) The right to home upgrading? This appears to be a social issue of much concern.

Will the right to education be soon debated?

(c) Rights that have assumed less importance, even if they may be constitutional in nature. Singaporeans see themselves as "pragmatic" and have an attitude of what I may call, "enlightened self-interest". Thus, some rights assume less importance, as only a small section of the population may be concerned directly about them.

These include:

( i ) the rights of accused persons, including the right to counsel, the right to remain silent, and the right not to have one's confessions used in evidence; (ii) detention without trial; (iii) caning as a mode of punishment; (iv) restrictions on the foreign media.

Capital punishment and the right to trial by jury or by two judges in capital cases are virtually non-issues today. Only the late Mr David Marshall and a few others have felt strongly about them.

7. Conclusion.

It is a sad fact of life in Singapore, that most Singaporeans are barely remotely concerned about such issues as capital or corporal punishment or the rights of accused persons as they are not directly affected by them. "It won't happen to me" is the attitude. Why not say, "There but for the grace of God go I"? Most of us are unwilling to stand up and be counted when the rights of others, who belong to a minority, are concerned. This is to be lamented, for one day you may yourself need someone to stand up for you when you are arrested, unfairly dismissed, or evicted from your home, but no one will be there, for no one will care, just as you never cared when you were needed to lend support to a fellow-citizen. It is up to us to show an interest in the rights of our fellow-citizens, just as much as we have an interest in our own. In fact, it may even be true that these are indistinguishable, as we are in a sense, all branches of the same tree. The disease that affects one affects all.

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.


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