Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Human Rights vs. Cultural Norms

Human Rights -- Human Wrongs

Those of you who've taken a class with Professor Billig know how much he loves to mention Lee Kuan Yew. Oxford-educated, Yew was the prime minister of Singapore for over 30 years; naturally, his time in the West gave him a keen insight into the Western mind. "We don't want democracy or free speech in Singapore", he often declared, "we want stability. Who are you to push your cultural norms onto us?" This was hardly tin-pot dictator posturing: Singapore has complete religious freedom, the lowest crime rate in the world and a flourishing economy. In return, they have severely restricted most of the freedoms that we in the West enjoy. Most of you have probably heard about the American kid who was caned there for vandalising cars, or the large fines levied on litterers or even gum-chewers. You may not know that Singapore's laws make it almost impossible to move out of one's parents' home until 25, or that being caught with tiny amounts of heroin can lead to a mandatory death sentence (the title article paints a grim picture; it's a couple of years old, so the exact number may be off, but the spirit is still very much alive).

So what do we do? Lee was castigating "open-minded" Westerners who couldn't accept that some non-Western cultures place a low value on individual liberty. Is that right? Do we tell Singapore that they're violating universal human rights, or do we accept that these people have voluntarily given up what we consider essential because they think something else is more important?

4 comments:

Wolfgang said...

I think the age is 35 not 25 (You may not know that Singapore's laws make it almost impossible to move out of one's parents' home until 25).

Only at the age of 35 (if you are single) can you buy government built apartments, which is about 3-4 times cheaper than private housing in terms of floor area and price you pay (80% of Singaporeans live in government built apartments).

If you can afford private housing, you can actually move out anytime.

Anonymous said...

YOu got it wrong on the chewing gum bit-
Gum-chewers are alright..you do not get a fine for doing that..... You just cannot sell them.(which means if u go overseas, u can buy them for personal consumption, not sell them in Singapore)..except for those nicotine -type which you can buy them from pharmacy, after we signed the free trade with the Amercia.

gunther said...

I believe MM Lee went to Cambridge, not Oxford.

MM Lee's cries for stability chilling remind me of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, where the government resorted to Darwinist conditioning and class segregation, all in the name of pursuing "stability".

Sometimes, too much stability can be boring.

Ozymandias said...

I seem to recall that a friend of mine told me it was 25 a few years ago, but since he's actually from Singapore, it's much more likely that I'm misremembering. He also said that the government basically controls the housing market in order to insure that young people stay with their parents.