Human rights must be viewed in context of cultural legacies

The editorial on Dec 21 ("Making haste carefully on human rights") is a fine piece of balanced advice at a time when we are being constantly bombarded by interest groups pressing for others to accept their lifestyles and value systems.

In principle, human rights are worth critical consideration.

The neglect of human rights has seen some terrible inhuman assaults on the dignity and well-being of certain groups of people, mainly the vulnerable ones.

But human rights should not be solely informed by what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has aptly described as atomistic individualism, where the individual is given a more privileged claim, with little or no regard for the well-being of the community.

While the United Nations' universal declaration of human rights is a convenient reference point in our discussion of human rights, it is worth noting that the authors were mainly from the West.

Rights must be understood and assessed with input from our cultural legacies, which may be more communitarian than libertarian.

This is not asking too much.

The rights currently expounded in Europe and North America exclude the individual rights claimed by, say, those who are inclined to be polygamists or paedophiles, primarily because of Western cultural sensitivities.

There will be changes and correctives in the way we view and develop our idea of human rights.

For richer and more contextual understanding, our views ought to take input from various groups and not just any particularly vocal group; from local communities and our rich Asian cultural heritage and not just something we import wholesale from the West.

To avoid superficiality, it is crucial that our understanding not be dominated by any particular group, especially versions pressed by those who are more articulate and adept at using social platforms to voice their opinions.

Daniel Koh Kah Soon

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2015, with the headline 'Human rights must be viewed in context of cultural legacies'. Print Edition | Subscribe