‘Human rights’ label often abused


4 July 2008

‘Human rights’ label often abused

Barely three months into his appointment as Attorney-General, Professor Walter Woon is in the thick of public debate over human rights and civil liberties. He spells out his thinking on these
ever-controversial issues

By Lydia Lim

NINE years in the diplomatic corps and two in the Legal Service have done little to dilute the pungency of Professor Walter Woon’s speech.

The former law academic-turned-Attorney-General still speaks his mind, including on controversial topics at the heart of ongoing tussles between law enforcers and activists from the ranks of civil society and political opposition.

Last month, just seven weeks into his appointment as Attorney-General, he sparked debate in the letters pages of The Straits Times and Today newspapers with an off-the-cuff speech on human rights, delivered at the launch of the Law Society’s Public and International Law Committee. He had warned against foreigners who are fanatical about human rights and seek to impose their views on Singapore.

But some local civil society activists took umbrage as they thought his use of the term ‘fanatics’ was aimed at them.

Prof Woon, 52, who lived in Europe from 1997 to 2006 while serving as Singapore’s Ambassador to Germany and Belgium, makes it clear his issue is with foreigners who harbour the ‘delusion that they define human rights for the rest of humanity’.

That is why he welcomes efforts such as the Law Society’s to encourage Singaporeans to discuss where they believe the line between human rights and obligations should be drawn.

‘If we don’t discuss ourselves where our society is going, then we abdicate the debate to all these fellows and the types in Singapore who follow that line,’ he says.

One local development that disturbs him is how the term ‘human rights’ is abused by many people with grievances against the Government.

‘Often enough, if someone runs foul of the law, one of the things they yell is, ‘It’s a breach of my human rights, you shouldn’t arrest me for doing this, you shouldn’t charge me for doing this.’ I get loads of rubbish letters along those lines,’ he says.

That has also been the claim of former Singapore lawyer Gopalan Nair, who faces charges for insulting two judges.

One charge involves a blog posting in which he accused Justice Belinda Ang of having ‘prostituted herself’.

Prof Woon makes it clear such language goes beyond the pale.

He challenges those who dispute the need for any limits on an individual’s freedom of speech to engage in an experiment.

‘Go and tell your friends and family exactly what you think of them and criticise their faults and when they object, say ‘No, it’s my right.’

‘Do it for six months. If you’re not divorced by then, I’d like to know,’ he says.

In his view, those who claim to fight for greater political and civil liberties by deliberately breaking the law are doing others who want more elbow room a disservice.

People who want to push for change need to learn ‘how to work the system’, and accept that others will have different views.

‘I have been overruled on many things and I’ve been criticised on many things. Sometimes it takes a while before others will accept what you say.’

I won’t stand idly by while people insult our judges
# There seems to be a lack of clarity on where Singapore officialdom stands on human rights. What is your view?

There’s a general impression that Singapore officialdom is against human rights, but that’s not the impression I get. Most of our senior officials and ministers have been educated abroad and I don’t think there’s a single one who says human rights are not for us.

But when it comes to implementation, there will be arguments about where the lines are to be drawn. And when there are new so-called rights, then there has to be debate – is it really a right?

For example, take 377A (the Penal Code section dealing with acts of gross indecency between males). I express no view on either side.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s still against the law and we still prosecute if there’s a need.

The Prime Minister said that, if it’s consensual between two adults, we’re not going to go after them if nobody complains.

But if you look at the debates on the issue, they’re often phrased in terms of: ‘You’re breaching my human rights by not letting me get married.’ Now, I think that’s a very controversial statement.

This is something new for all our societies. Just because some Western societies have accepted it, doesn’t make it a human right.

You take the argument about the death penalty. It’s phrased entirely in human rights terms in the West. But you have to remember that in 1947, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was promulgated, the West had just held the Nuremburg war crimes trials, the Tokyo war crimes trials and the war crimes trials in Singapore. The war criminals were hanged.

There was no question at that time that the death penalty was not against human rights.

# What about established rights such as freedom of expression?

You have a right to freedom of expression. It’s in the Constitution.

But can we also accept that freedom of expression doesn’t mean unlimited freedom? There has to be a line drawn somewhere. I think most civilised societies accept that.

In many European countries, you cannot question the Holocaust. And any suggestion of anti-Semitism is immediately whacked, even with jail sentences.

But you can use extremely vulgar terms to describe Muslims, which is what Theo van Gogh, a Dutch film-maker, did. That, apparently, was freedom of expression. You can insult the Prophet Muhammad. That’s freedom of expression.

Now, they may accept that within their society. Can we? Should we?
That’s the question.

Many of these fanatics think: ‘We’ve decided that this is human rights, therefore when Singapore does something, we’re entitled to criticise them.’

I say rubbish. You want to do it in your society, do it in your society. Don’t come and tell us you draw the line for the rest of the world.

On freedom of expression and freedom of religion, we’ve got to be clear ourselves where we want the line to be.

Do we want to allow people like Theo van Gogh to insult Muslims? Theo van Gogh paid with his life. He was assassinated by a Muslim fanatic who basically said: ‘I refuse to accept Dutch law, I’m seceding from Dutch society, and if you let me out, I’ll do it again.’

This is what happens when you don’t draw the line properly. You encourage fanaticism on the other side.

# Are there similar issues in Singapore?

You can take, for example, contempt of court. The court has to decide when your right to freedom of expression clashes with somebody else’s right to reputation, which is a very long-established right in all Common Law jurisdictions.

In the court system, there’s always one disappointed party. Are you going to allow the disappointed party to go round criticising and undermining the courts?

I didn’t become Attorney-General to stand idly by while people undermine the courts and insult the judges.

Now, you have people like Gopalan Nair, for example. He says the judge has prostituted herself. He says: ‘I’m here, what do you propose to do about it?’

We charged him. He will stand trial. He is claiming his human rights have been breached. Reporters without Frontiers claims his human rights have been breached. Did they even check the facts? I doubt it.
They’re talking about rights without talking about responsibilities.

But some Singaporeans wonder why the Government has to come down so hard on people who, to them, are just mouthing off.

If you don’t take action, over time people lose respect for institutions.

I’ve been going back to the United Kingdom for nearly 30 years on and off, and I think the standard of civility has dropped. There’s no more respect for authority, for teachers, for judges, for priests, for parents.

If you don’t draw the line and say, ‘This is unacceptable’ then, over time, you lose respect and you cannot get it back.

The courts are in a very unfortunate position because when somebody is disrespectful to a judge, the judge must impose a sanction and then people say: ‘That’s not fair, he can’t, he shouldn’t.’

But a parent does it all the time. Teachers, too, should do it. They used to do it.

The judge does it when it’s done in the face of the court. When it’s not done in the face of the court, when somebody insults the judge by saying she’s prostituted herself, for example, then the
Attorney-General has to take some action because the Attorney-General’s Chambers is the protector of the public interest here.

And when the fellow says, ‘I’m posting this, I’m here in Singapore, what are you going to do about it?’, it’s a direct challenge to the authorities. If you don’t take action, after a while, every time
somebody loses a case, he’s going to call the judge names, he’s going to call into question the integrity of the court system.

That is the danger we face, which is why we must draw the line and draw it firmly.

It’s a different thing to criticise a judgment, which as an academic I’ve done. Law students and lawyers do it too, but we don’t do it in that way. There’s a certain respect due to the office.

# Some opposition politicians advocate civil disobedience because they believe they have a right to break laws which are unjust. Your response?

If you break the law, I must react. I can’t say you break the law, I avert my eyes. That you disagree with the Government doesn’t give you licence to break the law.

Otherwise, everybody will say: ‘I disagree with this, I’m going to break the law.’ Then we’re going to have real trouble.

They say they have no alternative because they cannot change the laws through legal means. Your view?

I have my own views on that as a citizen but I won’t comment on that because it’s political and I take no sides.

All I can say is that has not been my own experience. You can get policies changed, you can get mindsets changed, you just have to be more subtle than that.

It’s one thing to say, ‘I do not think this policy is just. It affects the poor too much and it’s unfair’, and another to say the officials or the politicians are corrupt and clinging on to power and we must
get rid of them so we can help the poor.

There’s a world of difference between the two. I have not found officials in Singapore to be closed-minded. The higher you go, the less closed-minded they are.

But they are also very concerned about how far we can go without unravelling the whole fabric.

When you look at other countries, the ones who talk loudest about rights very often have very dysfunctional societies when you live in them. So the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality on the ground.

When we’re talking about where lines are to be drawn and whether we can move them, we do need a dialogue.

# What is the difference between breaking the law through acts of civil disobedience and people who do things that are against laws such as 377A, but are not going to be prosecuted?

People break the law all the time. Take jaywalking. I’ve seen people who do it right in front of the old Supreme Court. If we spend our time prosecuting such cases, we will do nothing but that. So there is always a public-interest element when we decide whether or not to prosecute.

In the case of 377A, for example, we are prosecuting some cases, such as where you have older men preying on young, underage boys.

If it’s two consenting adults, technically it’s an offence but, if nobody complains, the police aren’t going to beat the bushes in the parks to spy on you. If somebody does complain, then the question is: Do we want to prosecute or do we just warn? Very often, we warn rather than prosecute.

In cases where there are arguments between neighbours, sometimes it is sufficient to say, ‘Don’t do that again. We’ll let you off this time, but don’t ever do that again,’ because each time we prosecute, it takes resources. We do not want to prosecute in all cases, we only prosecute in clear cases.

# What would you say to people who say: ‘Walter Woon used to be liberal and far more critical of the Government and now he’s gone over to the dark side and become a hardliner’?

Ah, these are the people who never read my speeches, obviously. It’s the same reaction I got to the speech I gave at the Law Society. They didn’t read the speech; they just lay on their own prejudice.

I’ve never agreed with everything the Government has said and I’ve never felt any pressure from above not to say so.

When I’ve said something, I’ve taken the consequences. I’ve been criticised by every member of the Cabinet from Minister Mentor downwards. Some people seem to think I should be free to say anything I want and nobody should criticise me in turn.

It doesn’t work that way.

I haven’t changed my views, but now I’m in this position – as ambassador first, and now Attorney-General – my freedom of speech has been reduced because I can no longer say things I would like to without people misconstruing.

As far as law and order is concerned, my views haven’t changed. I’ve always been a law-and-order person. I was head prefect in my primary school, and a prefect in Raffles Institution, yet people seem to think that, for some reason, I’m not in favour of law and order.


‘There’s no more respect for authority, for teachers, for judges, for
priests, for parents. If you don’t draw the line and say, ‘This is
unacceptable’ then, over time, you lose respect and you cannot get it

ATTORNEY-GENERAL WALTER WOON, on why he will not stand for insulting
attacks on judges and will take action, as in the case of US lawyer
Gopalan Nair

2 Responses to “‘Human rights’ label often abused”

  1. 1 ukposter08 8 July 2008 at 10:13 pm

    If I read and summarise this correctly, your attorney general is asserting that the concept of universal human rights is a delusion of fanatical foreigners, and Singaporeans alone (i.e. the government) will decide for themselves what constitutes human rights without any external reference.

    Wow, each country deciding for itself what constitutes human rights. No need for any international conventions then. The rest of the world is deluded, Singapore knows best. I’m sure Stalin and Hitler would have approved whole-heartedly.

  2. 2 Sham 24 July 2008 at 3:07 pm

    @ukposter08 : you should read this article again. my AG gave the example that human rights that is championed in other countries, do not necessarily apply to Singapore.

    the freedom that applies to other countries do not necessarily apply to Singapore.

    the independent council of counselors in our country, and i typed that without blinking, makes suggestions to the Ministry of Law on how certain rules should be governed. it is up the Ministry of Law and by extension the Parliamentary proceedings to determine if the proposal should be accepted.

    for example; the council have made recommendations for the repeal of Section 377A. yet this was not followed-up. this example was raised to prove to you on the independent nature of the council.

    the part that the AG was saying that the european countries itself are divided over what constitute human rights are telling example. how they can allow works that defame Islam is not how they will tolerate anti-Holocaust media. in both forms, the perpetrators will claim freedom of speech yet not every freedom of speech is really, free.

    please do read the article, and read it with an open mind.

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