Interview with Remy Choo Zheng Xi – Director at Peter Low & Choo LLC, Singapore on Human Rights Protection in Singapore and why the interpretation of such rights matters
Q: Remy, first let me thank you for accepting CPG’s invitation to speak at this year’s Winter Academy on Human Rights and for accepting this interview on some of your experiences as a human rights lawyer in Singapore.
A: It’s a pleasure!
Q: Let’s get right to it: During your lecture at the winter academy you referred to the international legal framework regarding human rights, and shared your impression that it is often less useful in court than domestic law. If that is so, is there space for international legal framework advocacy outside the courtroom?
A: Sure. The reason international human rights law is not as useful as domestic law in Singapore is because it is a dualist country. So, to the extent that there is are conflicts between domestically passed law by parliament and international human rights norms, the domestic law will prevail. So, as a litigation strategy, it is often not that favorable for the judges to hear arguments based solely on international human rights conventions because they may be looking at domestic laws first to base a ruling on. So, one utility that International Human Rights law has in legal advocacy in the court room first is as an interpretation framework that you use as a secondary argument to tell the court when there may be an ambiguity in the statue as it should be read consistently with Singapore’s international obligations, which include the four international human rights treaties it has ratified. Outside the court room, the most useful utility of international human rights law is at the universal periodic review (UPR). It is a very good opportunity for activists and advocates to ask friendly nations to ask for clarifications about the Singapore government’s position on certain human rights issues and compliance with its treaty obligations. This is useful because it locks in the government’s position as the government wants to present the most favorable interpretation of its compliance towards an international audience. This can then be used as evidence of state practice at the domestic level.
So, for example, just to bring it back to something that is clear, the government has previously said in relation to a question regarding its compliance with CEDOW (Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) that it does not discriminate based on gender or sexuality or sexual orientation. And this was cited in court litigation to try and overturn and repeal anti-gay sex laws in Singapore. Unsuccessfully, but that is one of the examples how international human rights norms can be used to interpret or push back against domestic statute that are not good.
Q: In addition to all the work you are doing in court, prevention is always better than the cure. To that extent, how is your advocacy materializing outside the court?
A: Governments are always getting smarter about how to cut down rights and they are getting more sophisticated in passing legislation that is very insidious. For instance, in Southeast Asia, a lot of governments are passing fake news legislation. On the surface, that is a very good idea but that presupposes an environment where there is a free press, strong checks and balances in the form of a functioning democratic system to make sure that such legislation is not misused. The problem we have in a lot of Southeast Asian countries is that these laws are passed with one intention, but are then used for a different purpose. One concern in the instance of fakes news is that it could be used against independent journalists or against mainstream media to silence or curtail government critics. And the way, of course, we try to push back against these arguments is to make that case at the select committee stage and at the stage of open hearings. We explain why fake news might be a double-edged sword, what kind of safeguards are needed and why they are important.
Q: Singapore’s constitution is relatively short. With regards to domestic constitutional rights, is that problematic? Is it too short or do you see other problems?
A: I think the biggest hurdle in constitutionalism in Singapore is that the manner of interpreting rights is quite conservative. So, it’s not so much a problem that there are few rights, rather the larger problem is that the interpretation of these rights is very narrow and they are very much “black letter” interpretations. But in my view, it is important not just to have constitutional protection, but to interpret those protections against the backdrop of the constitutional morality. That is the spirit of constitutionalism: to restrain state power. Very often, the manner of the interpretation tends to be very formalistic and judges have said that people interpret these rights without reference to social-political concerns or “extra-legal concern”. This is very problematic because actually, constitutional rights, in fact all legal rights, cannot be divorced from the political superstructure and the backdrop that they operated in.
Q: Remy, thank you very much for your time and I hope you can make it here again to our Human Rights Winter Academy in 2019!