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Human rights "pragmatism"

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore
Human rights "pragmatism"
In January 2016 Singapore will be up for its Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations. The city-state's human rights record will be scrutinised, and (limited) discussion has already begun.

Singapore, by most accounts, is a pretty successful city-state. Its statistics – when it comes to things like Gross Domestic Product and test scores, at least – look great, and the city skyline is testament to an advanced, developed nation that is the envy of its neighbours.

But when it comes to human rights, things look far less rosy. A shadow report recently submitted by a coalition of civil society organisations in Singapore to the United Nations highlighted a variety of issues, including detention without trial, marital immunity for rape, freedom of speech, LGBT equality and the death penalty. (Disclaimer: I am a founding member of We Believe in Second Chances, one of the groups that submitted a report on the death penalty.)

Human rights issues don't gain very much traction here. People usually believe that there are "better" things to be worried about, like the cost of living, or the efficiency of the public transport system. Human rights are then cast as "airy fairy", rooted more in naive idealism than sense.

This is clearly reflected in the government's stance on human rights and civil liberties. In a press conference on its National Report to the UN for the Universal Periodic Review, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the state's approach is both "pragmatic and non-ideological", citing the need to balance different interests and community groups within a diverse society.

An excerpt from The Straits Times' report on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference.

This position was firmly backed up by The Straits Times, Singapore's only English-language general news broadsheet and "paper of record". In language lifted straight from the government's line, an editorial reiterated the need to be "plugged into the popular mood" when dealing with controversial issues such as "sexual choice", which I'm assuming was meant to be taken as a reference to LGBT equality.

An excerpt from The Straits Times' editorial.

Human rights activists in Singapore already know that the struggle is a marathon. Many have been chipping away at their respective issues for years, even decades. It is no secret among members of civil society that the argument about pragmatism and "whether society is ready" allows the state to side-step issues it doesn't want to deal with; after all, when it does have the will to do something, popular opinion isn't often an issue.

But the widespread acceptance of such a framing is a privilege. It's always easy to say that one should "just accept" or "agree to disagree" when one doesn't have to deal with the real-world effects. 

It's easy to say that LGBT people shouldn't be so vocal, so demanding, so insistent upon getting S377A – a law that criminalises sex between men – repealed. It's not as easy to be an LGBT person, to be told in school that homosexuality is illegal, to not get recognition that you and your partner are a family unit (and therefore to be excluded from all the social and financial benefits that the state ties to marriage and family units), to be consistently demonised or erased from the public consciousness through state censorship.

This is something that the government, and the wider public, do not acknowledge. The state simply does not recognise that while they remain reluctant to improve on human rights issues out of fear of blowback from conservative voices, they are not weighing two equal sides of an argument, but privileging the feelings and opinions of one side over the real discrimination faced by the other. 

And therein lies the challenge: to shift human rights discourse in Singapore away from "pragmatism" and more towards discussion of power and oppression, and the experiences of those on the receiving end of such oppression. Seeing editorials such as the one in The Straits Times simply reminds us all how much further there is to go.

#LGBT, #equality, #social justice, #human rights, #singapore