The mythical approach to rights

It’s the favourite fairytale of the powers that be. It’s been rehashed an impossible number of times in countless forms since 1965. And yet, us Singaporeans never grow tired of it.

No clue what I’m talking about? I don’t blame you. This insidious little idea is an essential mantra from which much propaganda springs. That’s precisely why we don’t sniff it’s odour anymore – it has faded into the background and become part of the Singaporean normal.

I’m referring to the idea that ‘human rights’ are entirely incompatible with Singapore’s needs – and the contingent idea that we must embrace ‘pragmatism’ and ‘Asian Values’ instead. Translation: the state needs to have the kind of unfettered power that Western governments can only dream of if Singapore isn’t to descend onto chaotic barbarianism. Translation no. 2: giving naughty Singaporeans too much freedom – to speak, to criticize or to have sex with whomever they like will throw us all back to chaotic barbarianism last seen in the Stone Age.

The most recent and eloquent articulation of this idea was by Bilahari Kausikan, Ambassador-at-large and one of the government’s chief ideologues. I only just saw the week-old article, ‘A practical not ideological approach to human rights.’ I couldn’t resist taking a stab at it.

So what did Bilahari actually say? For the lazy or the busy, here’s the TL;DR version:

1. Rights change and evolve over time, and our ideas of what rights are will be ever fluid. (the ‘practical’ view).

2. We can’t cling to rights as if they were unchangeable absolutes (the ‘ideological’ approach).

3. Western nations have, in their folly and hypocrisy, ruined themselves by taking the ideological approach.

4. Singapore should never fall into the same trap, and we should keep our ideas about rights flexible and fluid.

The implication is clear. If rights are flexible concepts, then ‘human rights’ in Singapore can include such things as censorship, unaccountable governments and arbitrary laws – all while keeping the fancy title.

It’s a seductive argument, largely because it appeals to the leftovers of our anti-colonial hate for the white men. The only problem is that Bilahari is arguing with straw men. He’s fighting against an unrealistic conception of rights that no reasonable member of civil society is fighting for. In short, he’s created a mythical approach to rights.

Why, exactly is the so-called ideological approach in fact mythical? Because only fools think that rights exist naturally in the sky. Only the most delusional would argue that rights are psychic commands we have to obey for their own sake. Arguing against this distorted conception of rights is at best, a philosophical exercise. At worst, it is debating with the mad.

In contrast, most reasonable people who want more rights, freedoms and protections want them because they’re tied to specific outcomes.

Consider the freedom of speech. We want freedom of speech because experience tells us that the more people there are discussing a problem, the more brains there are working to find a solution, as opposed to just the brains employed by the government and civil service. The more brains there are, the better and more adaptable the solution. Even if some people don’t bring useful ideas to the table, it’s better they speak their mind than brood at home. And of course, speaking one’s mind is fulfilling. It’s part of being human and part of many people’s vision of the good life.

Another good example is the right to due process and government accountability – this includes things like access to legal counsel when arrested, or freedom of information laws to pull the curtain on possible government abuse. We want these things to hedge against the possibility of the authorities making a mistake, not because we worship at the Temple of Human Rights.

Can we limit these rights when lives are immediately endangered, or in times of dire economic necessity? Sure! But there needs to be a clear reason why, and an independent body to scrutinize the reasons after the emergency passes, unlike the almost non-existent power our courts have to examine, say, the ISA. Not even the famous American Bill of Rights denies this – so Bilahari’s insinuation that hankering after rights deprives us of the basic necessities of life is just fear-mongering.

Another reason Bilahari gives to critique his mythical conception of rights is that rights change as our vision of the good life changes, so we need to be flexible about them. This is true on a very broad level of generality – over generations and centuries, our vision of the good life will change and so will our Constitutions and Bills of Rights. The 27 amendments to the US constitution attest to that. But that is no reason to make rights and protections a bit more permanent for the time being. Why?  Because as I’ve explained above, rights are essentially distilled from the best, most tried-and-tested ideas on how to order society we have for now. It’s thus necessary to protect them from both encroaching governments and the passing whims of angry mobs, but no one says they’ll never, ever change.

So far, so good, you say. But what of the terrible Western hellholes Bilahari warns against? Haven’t France and Western Europe been forever shamed by their failed one-night-stands with rights?

Wrong. These societies are in trouble for a reason Bilahari himself points out but never bothers to examine – hypocrisy. Consider France, today’s poster-boy for post-Enlightenment (read: post-rights) apocalypse. The trouble with France is not the freedom of speech, but that speech is free for some but not all. Charlie Hebdo can rubbish the Prophet Muhammad all they want, but Muslims aren’t free to express their faith using symbols like the burqa. Would the sizzling groundswell of Muslim anger that birthed the gunmen have existed if not for this discrimination? If Muslims were free to stand up as equal citizens and denounce the mockery of their faith? I think not. Muslims and Charlie Hebdo’s editors would still have hated each other, but it’s far less likely automatic weapons would have gotten involved. France is a bad example of human rights in action. It is a good example of racist bullying, the kind even Singapore indulges in sometimes (just think Thaipusam, the Little India riots and our treatment of foreign workers). Are Western leaders hypocritical when they talk about human rights in international fora? Of course! That is a disgrace. But if anything, it only gives us another reason why rights are important. Rights protect us against those in power, whether in the form of tyrannical governments or oppressive majorities. Whether Western or Eastern, the powerful will always have a motive to take those rights away.

Bilahari Kausikan would have you believe that mythical rights applied in mythical Frances and Western Europes are bad things and I agree. Most legitimate members of civil society agree, even if governments in France, Europe and the USA cynically adapt mythical rights discourse to cover up their misdeeds at home. I believe in human rights instead. I’m not sure if Bilahari really does, though.


After The Elegies

Early yesterday morning, Singaporeans woke to sombre news. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, our first PM and Singapore’s founding father, passed away this morning at 3.18 a.m.

The sense of loss is palpable everywhere. The state machinery too is doing its part to give people the chance to mourn and pay their last respects – flags will fly at half-mast and a state funeral will be held on Sunday.

In truth, the mourning began long before his death. Many well-wishers from all over Singapore left messages of hope and cheer, with the best of motives. Yet, with every announcement of his deteriorating condition by the PMO also came more orations and more tributes which were written more and more like eulogies as the days passed. In a way, watching how Mr. Lee was repeatedly eulogized before his death was strange, and at times just a little grotesque. I wonder how the man himself would have felt about it all.

Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s necessary to think cynically of the events leading up to Mr. Lee’s passing. Perhaps we didn’t know it, but maybe many of us just needed time to come to terms with the idea of a Singapore without Mr. Lee. That was inevitable, because the man was a legend in life as he will remain in death. His legacy is unquestionable – he played the key role in turning Singapore from a backwater swamp into a glistening city state, with a famously low crime rate and ever-growing economy. Heck, without him I might not even be typing this now. There were others we shouldn’t forget too – Goh Keng Swee, Lim Kim San, S. Rajaratnam and many more. But Mr Lee provided the original vision of a state where people could succeed on their own merits instead of being judged by colour or place of birth, and he led those who took up his call to arms.

Like all great men, he didn’t leave history an unblemished record. He often trampled on free speech and political liberties while upholding eugenics and capital punishment, all in the name of progress and growth. Many will remember only how his political opponents were hounded into bankruptcy and destitution. And even when Singapore was well on the road to economic success in the 1980s, the ‘Marxist conspirators’ – really just social workers with a cause – were locked up without trial and made to watch as the legal profession was stripped of its power.

I may disagree strongly with much of what he did, but I can’t help harbouring a certain admiration for his gutsiness. Unlike the cowardly dictators who litter the junkpiles of history, he never flinched from dirty work. He openly spoke of his belief that hatchet-work and realpolitik was critical for progress. As Mr. Lee himself said, no one ever accused him of being failing to speak his mind. If nothing else, he was one of those rare honest men.

Some of his opponents have fallen into petty recrimination, even in the wake of his death. And there are others who will try and whitewash his mistakes, and harness the power of his legacy to their own political manipulations. I for one hope that the vast majority of us succumb to neither temptation. We should be deeply saddened at his death, not simply because he was an illustrious human being but because he was human. Like all of us, he made mistakes. Like any imperfect human being, he deserves to be remembered for the good he did, though we may acknowledge his mistakes. Having been a public figure doesn’t rob him of that singular dignity.

What is even more important is how Singapore will move forward after the eulogies and elegies are over. It will be tempting to hijack the story of his life to justify one political narrative over another, whether that means villifying or glorifying him. Instead of such pettiness, we need to speak softly and civilly to each other (as is appropriate in a time of mourning) and reimagine Mr. Lee’s Singapore dream to fit the times. To truly build on his legacy, we need to be honest with ourselves about what does and does not work in our system and how we can change it for the better. The late Mr. Lee would be proud. In many ways he was a realist and progressive, admitting that there was an economic need for casinos years after he had staunchly opposed them; and telling journalists in his later years that homosexuality was not the state’s business to police. The way to achieve his vision of a democracy based on justice and equality for all will be through reasoned politics and dialogue, not the muck-racking and shadowy manoeuvring that has so often characterised our political scene as of late.

In the end, I hope we will make Mr Lee proud, and do his vision justice. He deserves no less. Thank you Mr Lee, and may you rest in peace.

Free Speech, A Forum and the Far Right

In what is part of the latest skirmish in Singapore’s culture wars, another silly rant about the upcoming NUS Political Association forum on family appeared in the ST today. In essence, the letter by Miss Ho Lay Ping opines that there is no room for ‘alternative’ views of the family unit in the forum, which she describes as disguised ‘pro-homosexuality propaganda.’

As the more perceptive have guessed by now, ‘alternative’ in the letter connotes the opposite of liberal and open-minded. Ms Ho instead refers to the ‘alternative’ conservative and reactionary view of the family, which is also (according to her) the government’s view. The reason for Ms Ho’s objection? There are no pro-family speakers invited.

This letter and the load of hogwash it contains a perfect illustration of the far right’s attempts to co-opt the rhetoric of free expression and openness. In fact, they believe in none of those things – and just make themselves look foolish by pretending that they do.

One point in the letter that appeals to many of our conditioned Singaporean instincts is Miss Ho’s main argument about representation. Because there are no conservative one-man-one-woman types speaking, the whole range of opinions on the subject is not represented and so, it is implied, the matter is somehow unjust, unfair or irresponsible.

This is the same sort of language used by our ministers when they regularly lecture the media on the need to present a ‘balanced’ view of the news. (Probably why Miss Ho’s letter was published – see this earlier opinion piece.) Clearly this idea is something only Singaporeans would be happy to accept as an axiom, whereas in other societies ‘free speech’ does not entail the need to assiduously give voice to voices you disagree with. After all, your opponents can speak for themselves. The government has a multimillion dollar PR apparatus, and the ultraconservatives have their churches, their pulpits and can organise their own little get-togethers. Neither needs the NUSPA to represent them. So just leave the NUSPA forum to take whatever angle on the family it wants, balanced or otherwise! And neither do NUS students need these so-called alternative voices to be ‘well-informed’, they’re adults who can drink, drive, vote and damn well think for themselves.

Oh, and by the way, I’ve never heard of any pro-family group inviting pro-LGBTQ speakers to give sermons or talks – hypocrisy, anyone?

In any case, I think that the NUSPA is trying their level best to make the forum a representative one, even by Miss Ho’s standards. The Guest-of-Honour, after all, is PAP MP and establishment politician Mr Baey Yam Keng. I don’t know if she realizes it but this makes things rather awkward for Miss Ho and her ilk. By saying that there’s no one at the forum to represent the government’s pro-family viewpoint, she’s implicitly accusing Mr Baey of ditching the PM and his government to pursue his own line on these touchy social issues. I wonder how Mr Baey feels about that? Will he stick to what he’s said before and support decriminalising gay sex? Or will he risk highlighting the divisions in the ruling party at this fractious political juncture? It’ll be interesting to watch.

Perhaps the author was just alarmed by his selfies. After all, metrosexuality is strongly correlated with homosexuality, isn’t it?


“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”
– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Whether you’re growing up and growing old in New York, Dubai, Shanghai or Singapore, you’ll find that space is one thing big cities don’t have. The biggest and most vibrant cities are always growing, always moving and perennially bursting at the seams, and because of this cities need endless amounts of space – for the next high rise skyscraper, the next noisy expressway or the newest subway line.

If there is no adjoining space on the borders of the city to devour, the city begins to cannibalize itself. In cities like Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore, old neighbourhoods and buildings are constantly being demolished to make way for new ones. But  oftentimes it is not simply buildings which are razed to the ground but voices, histories, ideas and thoughts. Sometimes, these perspectives are best broken down and demolished as the city sheds old layers of concrete for newer and sturdier ones. At other times, invaluable ideas and personalities are consumed by the city as it evolves, never to be rediscovered, in the constant struggle for (intellectual and physical) space that is the city.


Perhaps the two paragraphs above seem a little melodramatic and pretentious  (having written them, I think so too). Nonetheless, I thought I should do my best to justify giving a blog a name like ‘littleblankspaces’. And therefore this post, in lieu of an ‘about’ page.

I am a citizen of Singapore – no, not a province of China, but a city at the tip of the Asian landmass located right above the equator on the world map. It looks a little like a little red dot. At the time this post is being written, I’m currently serving my full-time National Service – the mandatory period of military service for all Singaporean men that lasts two years and takes place before the start of university education (for most of us).

An aside on ground rules. I welcome comments, but I ask all readers to keep discussions civil and meaningful; I will moderate comments in the interest of excluding those which are clearly irrelevant, hateful or spam. Aside from these, all comments are welcome! I may not be able to reply to all comments because I have other things to do – if this offends anyone, I apologize.

Space allows growth. It’s for this reason I decided to create this blog – as a small space for ideas, musings, recollections and thoughts (I feel) are worthwhile to take root and grow, and hopefully make a difference to someone, somewhere.