Friday, July 18, 2008

Of Word Games and Human Rights, democracy, rule of law and all that Jazz (Part 2)

In continuation of my earlier blog entry where i was analysing the Ministry of Law's response to the IBA report, I was planning to do an analysis of paragraphs 7 & 8. These are the relevant paragraphs:

7. The human rights allegations in the Report also have no substance. Singapore had responded in detail to them in our 9 April response to the draft report. Singapore, like nearly all countries, subscribes to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights are interpreted and implemented according to the specific histories, cultures and circumstances of each country. Every society must find and decide the appropriate balance between rights and responsibilities for themselves. Human rights groups in IBAHRI have closed ranks with other Western human rights NGOs to prescribe for Singapore and all new countries, especially China, Western norms of liberal democracy as the only way to bring stability and prosperity. They believe that free market policies cannot succeed without Western liberal democracy, and it is their mission to make other societies adopt the Western model.
8. No NGO has greater interest and understanding of Singapore's history and internal balance than Singapore's leaders, to be able to set norms that will work for Singapore. Whatever the shortcomings of the Singapore government, from our record no one has doubted that our overriding objective has been to get Singaporeans better educated, to understand and be exposed to the globalised world we are now in. So we adjust our laws and systems to maximise the benefits from global forces to make Singapore a thriving cosmopolitan city, where Singaporeans and foreigners live and work in a peaceful, safe and open environment. We listen carefully to all advice and then decide the right balance for ourselves. So far we have not done badly.

I find it difficult to digest the idea that IBA is closing ranks with other NGOs or that it doesn't have a right to render a friendly advice. Before I could formulate my thoughts coherently and write about those two paragraphs, I have read the following from Michael Backman in The Age, 17 July 2008:

As you read through the measured paragraphs of the IBA report, you can almost feel the pleading; the advice to a friend: "you're wealthy, you're educated, you're like us now. Take that final step — join us — the community of civil, prosperous societies. Do it, before you embarrass yourself more." But this friend is too proud to listen.

The full article is at

Whilst I don't agree with every aspect of Backman's article, his characterisation of the IBAHRI report as an advice of a friend is very apt. We have reached a level of development where we can safely cross over to the other side. There is no point in our government repeatedly asserting that given our unique cultural, social, historical, etc. background, we have to chisel a system that works best for us. There is surely a system that worked for us in the economic developmental phase of nation-builidng. But, we must remember that we are building a nation and not a company. The next step is the emotional fulfilment of being Singaporean; of having a sense of belonging; of having a sense of civic responsibility; of having a stake in the decision-making process; of having a say in relation to government policies; of being able to critique the political goings-on without the constant fear (imagined or otherwise) of reprisal lurking next to every thought that we wish to express.

We are more educated. We are economically more well off. But, why must freedom languish in the abyss. Let us lift ourselves and march confidently. Criticisms sharpen our perspectives, broaden our understanding and ensure enlightened governance.

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