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.

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