ST: A-G cautions against human rights becoming a 'religion' with fanatics (May 31)

Friday, June 6, 2008

May 31, 2008
A-G cautions against human rights becoming a 'religion' with fanatics
By Chong Chee Kin
AMID a new push by the legal community to raise awareness about human
rights, Singapore's Attorney-General has warned against 'fanatics' who
seize on the cause to further their own political agendas.

Human rights has become a 'religion' that breeds devotees who border
on the fanatic, Professor Walter Woon said on Thursday.

It would be 'hypocrisy' for such people to decide what is acceptable
for the rest of society, he said.

Prof Woon made the comments to over 100 lawyers and embassy officials
at a Law Society gathering on Thursday. The event marked the launch of
the professional body's Public and International Law Committee headed
by Dr Thio Su Mien, founding partner of TSMP Law Corporation. The
committee is designed to raise awareness about topics like public law,
a field that deals with human rights and constitutional issues.

'We have to be careful when we are talking about public law and not to
confuse it with politics,' said Prof Woon.

He also warned against a no-holds-barred society. In some places, he
said, religions were targets for insults and advocates for same-sex
marriage were allowed to frame their cause under the banner of human

'But is this what we want?... Is this a question of human rights?' he

He and Professor Thio Li-ann of the National University of Singapore
were speakers at the launch of the Law Society committee on Thursday.

Prof Thio said foreigners have criticised Singapore's civil rights
record, including the state of freedom of expression.

But such rights must be balanced against a responsibility towards the
public at large, she said, citing the example of a racist blogger who
was jailed in 2005 on fears his rants could split society.

Human rights issues are wider than just a right to the freedom of
expression, Prof Thio said. They also include things like the right to
work and the right to clean water.

'(In Singapore) the idea is that economics must come first. No point
having free speech if your rice bowl is empty. But I disagree, because
if my rice bowl is empty, I would like to say that I am hungry,' she said.

The president of the Law Society, Senior Counsel Michael Hwang, said
lawyers have to be 'alive' to the legal avenues they can use to
challenge decisions by the authorities.

Despite the fact that it's one of the first courses lawyers take, the
practice of public law has slipped, said Mr Hwang.

He blamed public ignorance and the reluctance of clients to challenge
authorities like statutory boards, Government agencies and tribunals.

Lawyer Raymond Chan, the former president of the Singapore Institute
of Arbitrators, agreed, adding that Singapore's public law is not as
developed as other legal sectors, like criminal law.

In the latest issue of the Law Gazette, the society's official
magazine, Mr Hwang said there were several areas where citizens could
question decisions made by authorities. The list includes rulings from
licensing centres and statutory boards.

'In an age where commercial activities are increasingly becoming
regulated by statutory authorities, it is important for lawyers to be
able to advise whether (they) are exercising the regulatory powers
(properly),' he said.