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

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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