ST Insight: 'Human rights' label often abused (July 4)

Friday, July 4, 2008

July 4, 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

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

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

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

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