How Singapore’s Courts hold up to Rawl’s ‘Justice as First Virtue of Social Institutions’

31 May

Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought – John Rawls

As Walter Woon, Singapore’s Attorney General, decries human rights as a western concept, its courts have decided to pronounce its Opposition, Dr Chee and Singapore Democrats, guilty of defamation against its country’s ruling party leaders, Senior Lee Kuan Yew and son Hsien Loong. This outcome is unsurprising given the courts have ‘demonstrated a singular facility at bending over backwards to render decisions favourable to the Singapore government and its leaders’ (Seow 2007). Human rights organisations from Amnesty International to the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists, and the Lawyers’ Human Rights Watch Canada have also ‘send legal representatives to Singapore to observe the trial proceedings at first hand’ (Seow 2007) in previous defamation suits and arrived at the same conclusions.

What is of course disturbing is the fact that the courts have been mis-used and abused as an instrument for not just denying freedom of speech, but also to deliver unjust decisions.

This reminds me of the great political philosopher, John Rawls, who most famously wrote, ‘Justice is the first virtue of social institutions’. If we agree with what he has said, then it must be particularly true that the judiciary, which is an arbiter of rights and wrongs, protector and enforcer of basic issues of justice, should be held to such high standards and esteem.

In an essay entitled, ‘The Law of Peoples’, Rawls noted that while some societies might not be liberal in the Western sense of the word, it should, nevertheless be held to certain standards. Referring to these societies as hierarchical, he opined that there be three requirements expected of them:

1. ‘It must be peaceful and gain its legitimate aims through diplomacy, trade, and other ways of peace’ (Rawls 1993, p. 50);

2. Using ‘an idea of Philip Soper. It has several parts… It requires further that its system of law be guided by a common good conception of justice, meaning by this a conception that takes impartially into account what it sees not unreasonably as the fundamental interests of all members of society. It is not the case that the interests of some are arbitrarily privileged while the interests of others go for naught… These aspects of a legal order are necessary to establish a regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of its own people’ (Rawls 1993, p. 51).;

3. it respects basic human rights (Rawls 1993, p. 52).

These points advanced by Rawls are important for they contradict what supposedly learned legal scholars, Walter Woon and Thio Li-ann of the National University of Singapore have argued – that human rights have been pursued as a fanaticism and that these rights must be ‘balanced with responsibilities’ (Kin 2008). For even if we begrudingly agree with their traditional communitarian view; that even if it is true that if Singapore citizens, intellectuals and leaders does not seek to pursue the duplicitous model of western liberal democratic societies (if there is one), they are still unable to defend their positions. Thio and Woon cannot justify their arguments for they are unable to defend themselves against the above mentioned assumptions (in particular, part of assumption two) expected of hierarchical societies, essential for its people to recognise the legitimacy of the laws of their society.

Fact One: The Singapore courts have seriously compromised itself by allowing itself to be used as a political instrument thereby delegitimising itself as an institution of and for justice. Fact Two: This undermining of itself will subsequently erode its own standing in the eyes of the international community especially pertaining to political cases. Fact Three: The legitimacy of the laws as perceived by its people will also crumble, and not be strengthened as Senior Lee argues, when the people realise that the laws to be applied is, in fact, arbitrary.


Works Cited

Kin C. C 2008, ‘A-G cautions against human rights becoming a ‘religion’ with fanatics’, Straits Times, 31 May.

Rawls J. 1993, The Law of Peoples, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 20, No. 1, Autumn, pp. 36-68.

Seow, F. T 2007, Beyond Suspicion? The Singapore Judiciary, Yale Southeast Asia Studies, May, accessed 31 May 2008.


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