George Hwang is a dual qualified solicitor in Singapore and England. Whilst his practice focuses on Intellectual Property, Information Technology, Media and Entertainment Law with substantial emphasis in Commercial and Corporate work, he is also a member of MARUAH – the Singapore Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism and a Steering Committee Member of International Media Lawyers Association. He is also known to the Singapore gay community as a co- petitioner for the repeal of s377A in 2007 in Singapore.
æ: You have a varied string of accomplishments on your 8-page CV from a stint in Brussels with the European Commission (1999) to lecturing law at a university in the Bahamas (2002-2004) after being called to the bar in Singapore in 1998, and in England and Wales in 1997. You’ve also worked in Hong Kong as a lawyer before becoming the General Manager of Warner Music Publishing Hong Kong. More recently, you’ve become involved with human rights related work and have the dubious honour of being the first Singaporean lawyer/human rights activist to be interrogated by Vietnamese Internal Security for trial observation work in Vietnam. Is the ‘lawyer/ human rights activist’ descriptor accurate; and why?
George: I think it is only partially accurate. I am also a student, a teacher, a son, an uncle, a colleague, a neighbour and a friend. Some people will also add, “a diva”, although, I disagree. However if you are describing me by my work only, then “lawyer/human rights activist” would be accurate.
æ: As a lawyer you specialise in Intellectual Property and International Business Transaction, when and how did you become interested and involved in human rights work?
George: I have been interested in human rights work, all the time. The first time I really got involved, instead of just protesting, was in Hong Kong, with Amnesty International.
æ: Do you see relationship between human rights and your work as an Intellectual Property and International Transactions lawyer?
George: Do you know that copyright and patents are rights enshrined in the US Constitution from Day One? If you think of Intellectual Property as a kind of property, then this makes sense. I am aware that in Harvard in 50s or 60s, there was a very strong movement to think of property as the common heritage of mankind. I am very capitalistic and would rather relinquish this concept to the deep seas, outer space or environment.
As for international transactions, especially, foreign investments, a credible legal system is crucial. Though more a rule of law issue, it is inordinately linked to human rights. You can, of course, treat everyone dastardly equal.
æ: Was there a particular incident that awakened your interest in human rights work?
George: If I look hard enough, it would be pre-school, when I witnessed the evilness of ‘wife battering’ by my godfather on my godmother. My godsisters would send me home (we were, also, neighbours) or hugged me in a corner in another room, whilst all I wanted to do was to stand between them, protecting my godmother with my innocence.
æ: What was the first issue you got involved in?
George: It was equal rights. I had a classmate when studying in London, she was from South Africa. We spoke a lot about the situation back home. We protested outside the South African Embassy. Before that, I was already very sensitive to apartheid issues. I was friendly with a Zimbabwean theatre that perform in the Festival of Arts, which I worked for during the university vacation. Growing up in the region in the 80s, who would not be sensitive to the issues on discrimination.
æ: You’re also a founding member of MARUAH, the Singapore Working Committee for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism that was established in 2007. What does human rights mean to you?
George: Human rights reduced to its simplest form, for me, is the Christian concept of: “Do unto others, what you want others to do unto you.”
æ: What made you decide to be involved and how do you contribute to the group?
George: I was invited by the Working Group on ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism to a dialogue. This was held at the Asia-Europe Foundation on 1 September 2007. I realised the significance of an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism, especially, when we do not have a national human rights body. Therefore, when Braema Mathi, former NMP, decided to form an interim Singaporean chapter, I decided to join.
I contribute by giving my two cents worth of opinion and doing whatever I can. Sometimes, it can be indirect. My work in other areas, obviously, will reflect on MARUAH. An example with be my work with UNDP at the moment on MSM and HIV. Another will be my work on trial observation in the region.
æ: What are two or three human rights related issues in Singapore or internationally that you are involved in or monitoring right now?
George: You cannot really look at a particular human right issue in isolation. They are all interlinked. They are, in no order of priority or importance: 1. Equal rights; 2. Freedom of Expression; 3. Rule of Law or due process e.g. ensuring a fair trial. I am also interested in the growth of religious fundamentalism and their incursion in human rights.
Singapore and equal rights for gay men
æ: In 2007, you were one of the three co-petitioners (alongside Fridae CEO Stuart Koe and former President of Association of Women for Action and Research Tan Joo Hymm) who petitioned the Parliament of Singapore to repeal s377A which criminalises male-to-male sex on grounds of constitutionality. How did you get involved in that?
George: It started with leading my church in its submission to the Ministry of Home Affairs, when it was seeking public feedback on its draft bill on the amendments to the Penal Code, in Nov 2006. Somehow, Stuart got hold of a copy. A meeting was called at Fridae’s office, where everyone and anyone who has pride and is concerned with the future of Singapore, came. And the rest is history.
æ: Although the petition was not successful, what would you say the community or yourself learnt from it?
George: Depends on what success means.
Many thought that the aim was to repeal s377A. The petition cannot do that. It was not the objective. To repeal s377A, we need to introduce a bill. The main aim of the petition was to ensure that the bill to amend the Penal Code was sent to the Select Committee. I wanted the issues to be properly debated. It was the only way for me to enter the arena and argue the case, as the Select Committee has to invite the public to make its submissions. To the extent that it did not make it to the Select Committee, the petition was unsuccessful. But we had it debated in Parliament and in the media. Some academic monitored the media and counted the amount of articles, letters etc. It is the most hotly debated since independence. I learned to believe in myself and in the goodness of mankind. I learned about the human spirit and never to fear the negative messages bombarded at you. An ex-journalist refused to read my draft submission to the Ministry of Home Affairs, fearing recrimination. Today, he talks about being proud and speaking up on this issue. If you have the correct values and speak out, the silent majority in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” will speak out too.
æ: Do you think it would be something we would try to do again?
George: No. Reruns are boring. However, I do think that a “cover” version should be done by the younger generation of activists, when they think the time is right. All cover versions have creative ingredients, in order to speak to a new audience.
æ: Aside from 377A, are there any issues pertaining to gay (and lesbian) Singaporeans that you think constitute human rights abuses which we do not commonly think as such?
George: Freedom of expression and assembly - Not only have the government deprived gays of their equal rights, it has “gagged” them and everyone else from speaking on this issue. In more developed countries, developed not just economically but also morally, there are “hate speech” laws.
Let’s start from the beginning, the state is the primary protector of human rights. Think of the job of the police in preventing you from being beaten or robbed. Unfortunately, it is often, also, the worst infringer. By the way, Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran explores this concept in a very interesting way. It is also one of the most powerful feminist book after Marilyn French’s A Woman’s Room I have read in terms of “fiction” (Nafisi’s is an autobiography).
Most secular developed countries have decriminalised or never criminalised consensual sex between same sex adults. Those which have decriminalised same-sex sex have moved from that of an infringer to a protector, when they passed “hate speech” laws. I, therefore, think that our government by refusing PLU to register itself as a society and its censorship laws has doubly infringed the rights of the LGBTQ community. It has failed miserably in doing its job in upholding equal rights for all.
æ: And lastly, what will this new column be about and what do you hope to do?
George: Firstly, I hope that it will reflect the fears and aspirations of the community. This is why we have decided on a Q&A format. Within this, I hope to empower, to inform them on their rights and to make the best of the situation, e.g. same sex couple should make a will.
Making the best of the situation does not mean accepting our lot. It merely means to “live well”, whilst never to loose sight of the “promised land”.
The Lawyer Is In is a new monthly column. In the columns, George Hwang will answer questions posed by readers on subjects such as personal and civil rights, workplace issues, discrimination, immigration, sexuality, lasting power of attorney and estate planning. To submit a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Responses will be made by placing your question (without identifying you) in an upcoming column, and answering it there. We regret that questions cannot be answered privately.