When laws become bad

October 24, 2007
Singapore Democrats

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Chee Soon Juan

If you are like me, your mum probably told you when you were a kid that the police would “catch” you if you misbehaved. That was my introduction to law and order.

Through years of political indoctrination, the message that the ruthlessly efficient arm of the police will descend on the poor soul who steps out of line has long been seared into the Singaporean mind.

This, together with the compact size of the country, has had the effect of producing one of the most compliant and docile societies on earth.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily.

It is only through an orderly society, one based on respect for the law that stability can do its work to bring about progress and raise the quality of life for all.

Anyone who, despite repeated warnings, carelessly leaves stagnant water for mosquitoes to breed in must be penalized swiftly and effectively, as such disregard for the environment jeopardizes the health of everyone in the community.

Likewise, drunk driving cannot be condoned, as innocent lives are lost through unthinking boozers.

Unjust laws

Laws are servants. They exist to help humankind. Most laws, that is.

There are also laws that do not serve the common good. If you were a black person living in America 40 or 50 years ago and you had walked into a restaurant in, say, the state of Mississippi and wanted to have a meal, you would not be served because the tables there were reserved for whites only.

Blacks, and presumably other non-white people, were not allowed to sit in the same public rooms, or use the same toilets, or drink from the same taps as whites.

In fact, you were liable to be arrested as the law stipulated that whites and “colored” people had to be segregated.

If something like that happened to you, wouldn’t you be offended? Wouldn’t you think that such a law was unjust and needed to be changed?

History has shown that many laws, passed by perfectly sane human beings, have inflicted much pain and misery on their fellow men and women.

America had laws up through the middle of the 19th century that enabled rapacious merchants to kidnap people from Africa and bring them back to America to be worked like mules, whipped like criminals, and raped like objects.

The law as laid down by imperial Britain during its colonial era demanded that whatever riches found in their colonies made their way back to the United Kingdom to satisfy the greed of wealthy Britons even before the masses in the conquered lands were fed and clothed.

Laws enacted by the Communists in the former Soviet Union forbade citizens to read anything other than the newspapers and journals the government printed.

From these few examples, no intelligent person would say that laws are always good and right.

Unlawful is good?

The more important question is what do we do when we are confronted by such oppressive laws. Before we delve into that subject, however, I’d like to spend some time talking about the distinction of just and unjust laws in the Singapore context.

As I have made clear, laws that are just and serve society must be obeyed. Laws that are unjust and serve the avarice of the few must be abolished.

What we in Singapore must resist is the dogma that all laws passed by the PAP Government are good and therefore must be obeyed without question. This is a sign of a society with an arrested maturation process, a sign of an amoral, if not immoral, society.

Let me explain. A psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg, once posed a dilemma:

A man’s wife who was ill needed a drug without which she would die. The man did not have the money to buy medicine and the drug company would not give it to him nor sell it to him cheaply. The man then broke into the drug company and stole the medicine for his wife. Was what he did right or wrong and why?

Kohlberg put this question to a group of people ranging from young children to adults.

He found that with young children, the answer was undeniable: What the man did was wrong because he broke the law and he should be punished. They could not grapple with more graded and complex responses of moral justification as adults could.

In a similar vein, a society that continues to insist that all laws laid down by the government are to be adhered to without qualification is one that demonstrates retarded moral development.

We must, as responsible adults, be able to see that what is legal is not always right, and what is illegal is not always wrong.

In a democracy, laws are passed by our fellow citizens whom we elect to regulate and coordinate activities that we would not otherwise be able to do in our daily lives. Enforcing traffic laws, regulating the printing of currency, and punishing criminals are some examples.

But when lawmakers, upon their election, start passing laws to make sure that they remain “elected” regardless of what they do, the system breaks down.

In many cases, the lawmaker or group of lawmakers do more harm than good through the laws that they pass.

Without any means of withdrawing our support for these “representatives”, the undemocratic system becomes unchangeable and the citizenry is locked into a system that subjects them to abuse and repression.

What do citizens do in such cases? If they do what is necessary to voice their displeasure and speak up against the people they had originally elected, they run the risk of breaking laws (such as those banning public gatherings or closing down independent newspapers) that the autocratic legislators have put into place.

If they don’t, they continue to live under repression.

In such a scenario, many societies have reasoned that it is important to break unjust laws in order to free themselves from oppression.

Are such acts right or wrong? To be able to answer that question, the stage of moral development of a society comes into play. A mature society is able to distinguish between just laws and unjust laws, and willing to work to rid itself of repressive laws while preserving just ones.

Morally it is necessary, desirable even, for society to take action against unjust laws. In fact, the alternative—doing nothing—is unacceptable.

In recent history, there have been many examples of individuals or groups of individuals who have taken to breaking oppressive laws. The more popular examples are Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Nelson Mandela.

Cemeteries are peaceful too

Admittedly, citizens’ resistance to repressive laws cannot take place without some disruption to normal everyday activity.

At the beginning of this essay, I had mentioned the docility and meekness of Singaporean society, and how this contributes to a sense of orderliness and stability.

A compliant society, however, runs the danger of slipping into an unthinking populace that can be manipulated by regimes; the Germans and Japanese in the World War II era are infamous examples.

There is a clear difference between an intelligently cooperative society that has the freedom and maturity to question its own actions and the actions of its political leaders, and one that is fearfully obedient to the government.

The former is one that will ensure genuine peace and stability, where people live in material as well as spiritual comfort.

The latter enjoys what the late U.S. President John F. Kennedy described as the peace of the cemetery and the security of the serf.

It is so easy to forget that peace and stability is not just the absence of violence, but requires the presence of justice. As Edmund Burke, an English statesman and philosopher, observes: “It is not what a lawyer tells me I may do; but what humanity, reason, and justice tell me I ought to do.”

The above text is taken from
“The Power of Courage

by Chee Soon Juan, 2005.