If you were to get hold of any of the people both for and against LGBT rights here in Singapore, you would quickly find out that there is no consistent view of what the concept of rights entail. This is not merely a matter of opinion – there are people here in Singapore who have little to no understanding of what rights are, but yet hasten to develop comprehensive socio-political frameworks based on their approximation of the concept.
If you were then to evaluate the majority of either sides’ arguments, you would find that the both sides agree on a fundamental premise, that something as basic as the right to marriage only exists as a government-granted privilege. What both sides do not do, you will observe, is define an objective understanding of what rights are.
Because of this difference in definitions, the issue of LGBT rights have sparked rigorous debate. Contrary to popular belief, the human rights controversy, is not a subset of recent times; the concept of natural, inalienable rights stem all the way back to the 17th century.
Recently, a short op-ed was published in Today Online, defending the Singaporean government’s status quo position of same-sex marriage not being a human right.
The question remains: What exactly are human rights?
Good Intentions Are Not Enough
Darius Lee, the author of the op-ed is primarily concerned about the future children of our society. He believes that all children should receive good parental care. That by itself is quite the noble goal, but by what means does he propose to achieve this?
Lee does not falter when he quotes different legal charters from various courts to enforce his viewpoint, not once doubting that these legal charters are by no means omniscient (and thereby revealing his understanding of rights as purely legal convention).
Legal Rights and Moral Rights
To even begin the discussion on “rights”, we must have a strong philosophical understanding of what rights are and how they are derived. The question that has to be answered is whether such rights exist only prior to the conferment of the government or that they precede the existence of the government?
While the liberal Pink Dot movement makes the encouraging case of marriage equality in our law system, human rights (the fundamental right to marriage being one of them) is not merely a legal convention. Human rights have pre-existed before law and government. It can be observed that there are, in fact, legal systems that both protect rights and yet violate rights at the same time.
Rights are, and have always been a moral convention. To illustrate this point: Take for instance a traveller in ungoverned international waters – if his money were to be robbed on gunpoint by a pirate, would he then lose the moral claim i.e. his right to his money? Would it be justice (also a moral concept) if he were to get back what he owned?
Rights are dependent on the concept of ownership and responsibility, which are moral notions that exist prior to the existence of government. Your life, your body and your property morally belong to you and that anyone who seeks to deprive you of your right to your property or to take away your ability to use such property is acting unjustly – they would be the moral equivalent to the robber in my analogy.
A country whose legal system is based on the protection of rights and not the infringement of them is would be a country whose system is based on the notion of justice. Any deviation from protection to aggression would then necessarily mean a deviation from justice.
Since Lee cites that we live in an “imperfect world”, we shall always have to pursue the best set of legal conventions to protect human rights in order to promote the fairest way in which people can interact with each other. The key point to avoid is to implement legal conventions that divides society vertically by separating people into tribes and pitting them against one another.
How society evolves spontaneously is beyond the imagination of any one, including the government. The idea of having a network that can facilitate transactions and recreation like the internet would have been laughed at or thought of as mere science fiction in the early 20th century. This is self-evident when one honestly examines the history of mankind. How would society would develop once it accepts that same-sex marriage will not be as linearly described as how Lee puts it?
Moral End in Themselves
Lee’s cherry-picking of legal conventions around the world that support his views also brings to our awareness that there are legal conventions that violate basic human rights itself.
Government intervention into the private affairs of consenting citizens effectively turns them into amoral beings – instead of asking whether what he is doing is right or wrong, a person often forced to replace this question with whether something is legal or illegal. It is a substitution of legality and morality.
Indeed, it is an alarming cause for concern when a government sets out to be the arbiter of morality, prescribing cut and dried formulations of value-judgements on its citizens. Any proponent of this cause must ask himself honestly one the most basic questions of moral philosophy – are human beings the means to some form of ends, or are they individual, sovereign and ends in themselves?
Advocates for the governmental moral policing rarely see the vicious extent of their beliefs – the implicit assumption that men are pawns to be moved around on a chessboard; slaves to be coerced into submission.
Whatever these advocates espouse as their end goal, it is most certainly not compassion nor love of mankind that guides them.
The current split of opinions pertaining to the LGBT issue in Singapore is between two opposing camps.
On one end is the prominent Pink Dot movement – they are the advocates of LGBT rights, marriage equality being one of such rights. Their cause is just and their movement worthy, but without proper knowledge of what rights are, they are reduced to pitting their emotions against the emotions of their idealogical opponents.
On the other end, we have Pastor Lawrence Khong of Faith Community Baptist Church and
Islamic religious teacher Noor Deros spearheading the “We Wear White” movement, declaring themselves to be spreading a “pro-family, pro-Government, pro-Singapore message”.
It leaves little to imagination as to why the claims of “pro-Government” was a necessary declaration on their part.