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The Straits Times says

Making haste carefully on human rights

Singapore has undertaken several initiatives since 2011, when it had the first Universal Periodic Review of its human rights situation under a United Nations mechanism.

These measures include amending laws to better protect families and children; helping those with disabilities integrate into society; and signing on to international conventions on racial discrimination, trafficking in persons, and the rights of persons with disabilities.

These concrete steps are a vindication of its pragmatic and non-ideological approach to human rights. They are also a reminder of the truth that human rights exist in specific cultural, social, economic and historical contexts. The state cannot ignore the public sentiments associated with these spheres if it is to make changes that the majority of citizens are likely to accept willingly and abide by voluntarily.

That is not to say, of course, that the state enjoys a monopoly on determining the evolution of human rights. Civil society groups, including human rights activists, intervene constantly in the direction taken by public debates and official policies.

The movement for human rights is a marathon. It involves the moral imagination and political energy of all citizens, but particularly the inevitable radicalism of impatient interest groups and the inherent conservatism of the state, which embodies the existing balance of social forces. The hope is that, as Singapore evolves, the distance between civil society and the state will narrow; each will become more comfortable with the space and the pace of the other.

For this to happen, individual activists and interest groups need to recognise that they represent valuable parts of the national whole but, nonetheless, only parts of it.

An issue that might appear to be clear-cut, and of overwhelming importance and urgency, to a particular group might be contested and divisive on the national landscape. How far and how fast to move on that issue would depend on citizens' overall appetite for change.

Legislators, whose job it is to be plugged into the popular mood, would be able to assess the wisdom of proceeding in religiously and culturally controversial areas such as sexual choice. Few realities in politics are cast in stone, but not all of them can be recast overnight.

Another salutary need is to beware of the political internationalisation of human rights. Foreign intervention must be kept out, no matter how consonant it might appear to be with developments within Singapore. Foreign interest in human rights trends in a country is rarely, if ever, altruistic. Such interest reflects the political agenda of the intervening, usually more powerful, country. UN mechanisms and protocol are one thing. It would be another if a foreign country were to use them to interfere in Singapore's domestic politics. They belong only to Singaporeans.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2015, with the headline 'Making haste carefully on human rights'. Print Edition | Subscribe