Human Rights and Singapore

If you have been following the material strewn all over cyberspace, it would be hard to miss the theme of “breaking the bondages of fear” and to “cast away fear and fight for human rights”.

It makes one wonder if Singapore really was such a fearful and difficult place to live and had me look closely into the matter of human rights, the work of MARUAH and what makes a country a nation and a home to it’s inhabitants.

A good place to do this with is through the grandmaster of all human rights doctrines: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is, by any means, a very important document. It serves to remind us, what being human is about and it is comforting to know that all of humanity will defend you in your pursuit of happiness. The Declaration is a little like understanding Maslow’s hierarchy in greater detail. At any stage of Maslow’s model the basic ingredients of freedom, justice and peace are called into play to preserve happiness.

Problems begin when you start to take this Declaration to be the Holy Word of God. It is not. As a matter of fact, in it’s very own pre-amble, it reminds the reader that it seeks to be a “guideline” for governance. It is a good document and a good tool, but it is a tool nonetheless. But a tool for what? Freedom, Justice and Peace yes, above that, different countries (and thus different cultures) have different goals.

No doubt. For the longest time, Singapore has never had a perfect report card in the school of human rights. We have made no attempt to disguise these facts and Lee Kuan Yew has boldly proclaimed that he is unashamed of this fact. Until the recent decade, it is well known to the common man that Singapore:

a.) Does not have complete press freedom
b.) Does not have complete personal freedom of speech
c.) Practices detention without trial
d.) Has a history of being rough with opposition politicians
e.) Has seen survivors testimonial of torture (most famous being the “cold-room” treatment)
f.) Has banished political enemies and denied them right to citizenship

To be fair, we need to understand why the first Cabinet behaved like so. Ever since Day 1 of independent Singapore, it has been the fear of the founding fathers that we will not have enough jobs to feed our own countrymen and that we will not be able to create an economy to lift the country of poverty. There is also the Chinese phobia of “Luan” (chaos). All of East Asia at that point in time has seen nothing but sadness. Some for hundreds of years. Wars, poverty, coups, fighting, fighting and more fighting for so long a time.

Now, add to this fear: the loss of Malayan support, the loss of British support, militant Communist insurgency, inside battle with opposition politicians, in-fighting between citizens over language, religion and race, growing unhappiness over inequality, union fueled riots… and then having your own hinterland holding your water ransom.

In such an environment, do you think lovey-dovey “every man is your brother” politics would have worked for Singapore? Not a chance. The government finds you jobs, you work. The government builds you houses, you move out of your kampungs and live there. The utilities board now sends you a bill, you work and you pay it off. Before the creation of a new civil service, leadership came directly from the PAP. What you read, what you eat, how you were entertained, even who your neighbors were…everything was dictated.

They rolled out some very big guns to keep the nation under control. Some policies were very personal: you couldn’t keep long hair (in the 70s), you couldn’t chew gum (even today). Some policies are designed to strike maximum fear: you will be executed for – drug possession, gun possession and kidnapping. Some policies are designed to keep opposition out of Parliament: if you don’t watch your words, you’ll find yourself sued for defamation/libel. The thing is, when you roll out the big guns… when is it time to retract them? When the communists are gone, the terrorists have come. Yes, Singaporeans are generally well-behaved and well-educated now, but bear in mind that it is scant 30, 40 years before that this was a country of poorly educated, law-in-my-hands gangsters… is it really time now to roll back these guns?

Perhaps. The world is shrinking, getting flatter and the rate that our society is maturing has become so much faster with a super-steroid called “The Internet”. In the past 10 years, you could see that policies are loosening up and there is a general direction to create a more “feel good” society.

I’ll be taking a closer look at Human Rights and it’s observation in Singapore a little more from now. Already developments have been good (slow, but still good) and we’re seeing policies loosen up for a more educated electorate.

I’ll also be observing our electorate – it is interesting to see the reactions of a nation that has a leash slowly unloosed after so many years of “oppression” – be it real, or perceived.

 

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About the author

Benjamin Chiang

Benjamin Chiang is an enthusiast of good advertising, deep thinking, labour issues and chocolate. He writes also at www.rangosteen.com and occasionally on Yahoo!

The views expressed are his own.

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