Human rights lessons from S’pore

May 2, 2010
Singapore Democrats

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Maxwell Coopers
Free Malaysia Today

From all outward appearances it may seem odd. A developed nation with enviable per capita incomes has to open its books on race relations. And what is more, the exercise is not for any domestic self-flagellation. Instead it is for the international community’s most august body, the United Nations.

The ‘poster boy’ of Asia last week received a visit from UN special rapporteur Githu Muigai who led a special team to investigate human rights issues, alleged instances of racial and other discriminatory practices.

Even as the visit may be viewed as something of a victory for human rights campaigners who have long complained of abuses and the restriction of free speech, there inexplicably was none of the self-congratulations on the part of these complaining bodies.

Instead if an inference can be made to why the reports of the visit  were ever made public at all, it is perhaps to glean lessons out of Singapore’s experience and later have them presented to nations’ rent apart with racial and religious strife.

As after all rarely a week passes when foreign delegations do not troop over to Singapore to take lessons in governance or economic management.

And just as commonplace are the glowing tributes the more than 8 million visitors to the Republic bestow; after taking in the sights and scenes of the nation, marvelling particularly at the ease with which Indians, Chinese and Malays mingle, live and work closely together.

That they be living in harmony is but a sterling tribute to the feats of social engineering. That they may not be doing so, out of sovereign will, is something for erudite debate.

And here is why.

Under Singapore’s public housing programmes commonly called known as Housing and Development Board (HDB), rules are custom designed to ensure that families residing in every block of flats reflect their percentage ratio in the population.

And though discrimination for jobs has existed by the subtlety of only Mandarin-speaking applicants- thus effectively in a masterstroke leaving out Indians and Malays – these have somewhat ceased following loud complaints to the newspapers and other forums.

That’s not all.

The bugaboo of discrimination has long existed in the armed forces and the fact it does; has been but an open secret.

Then there is the growing income gap between the rich and poor and the emergence of a hitherto underreported underclass.

Amid all of the charges of state impropriety, lapses and the heavy price needed for social stability, the one vexing issue perhaps is the mandatory death penalty administered to drug traffickers.

That it is mandatory has always been a long-held bugbear of campaigners such as human rights lawyer, M Ravi.

But as difficult and knotty as the moral validity of human rights maybe; what’s undeniable is the relativity of the credo for societies in the incipient stages of development as opposed to those so-called developed ones.

There is no doubt like democracy, human rights does mean different things to different people.

And what people develop by sheer grit and hard work such as to attain a higher standard of living cannot be divorced from the fact that societies are at liberty or in fact at their very own discretion to choose the models they want.

As a matter of fact the world will scarcely forget Malaysia’s former premier Dr Mahathir’s famous 1998 dictum of the need to re-draw the 1948 Helsinki accords on human rights.

That point was also seized upon by Singapore’s former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in the mid-1990s when he once told that human rights espoused by certain quarters, is hardly representative of the present-day global conditions inferring instead that a new order may just need to be drawn up.