Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Killing the Innocent

Unfortunately, another innocent life has been snuffed out in the “war against terror”. I am of course speaking of the killing of the Brazilian by police recently in London. Brazilians are protesting (as you would expect) but many British are also concerned and calling for a review and an investigation. On my part, I was dismayed (but not surprised) to read (in the ST I think) that if it had happened here, we would have kept quiet… why is it so many of us look the other way when something nasty happens to “somebody else”. This society and culture is sometimes so sad…

Anyway, my feelings on the entire issue were so well summed by one John Gardner that I just had to put his views up. I fully support what he has to say and simply hope that the review and investigation will lead to improvements in policing in general so that all police forces the world over may learn from this tragedy…

John says; Like many of my fellow-Londoners I am less alarmed by suicide bombers than I am by the police's Mossad-style execution of a 'suspect' (who turned out to be a completely innocent passer-by) on Friday 22 July. This is not because we are at greater risk of death at the hands of the police than at the hands of the bombers. Rather, it is because, all else being equal, it is worse to be killed by one's friends than by one's enemies, and worse to be killed by people in authority than by people not in authority.Here are some other important things to remember in thinking about the police actions of 22 July: (I believe he is talking about British law here…)
(1) There is no general legal duty to assist the police or to obey police instructions.
(2) There are special police powers to arrest and search. But there is no special police licence to injure or kill. If they injure or kill, the police need to rely on the same law as the rest of us.
(3) The law allows those who use force in prevention of crime to use only necessary and proportionate force. Jack Straw (foreign minister) and Sir Ian Blair (police chief) say that officers are under great pressure. But this is no excuse. In law, as in morality, being under extra pressure gives us no extra latitude for error in judging how much force is proportionate or necessary.
(4) Arguably, the police should be held to higher standards of calm under pressure than the rest of us. Certainly not lower!
(5) The necessity and proportionality of the police use of force is to be judged on the facts as they believed them to be. This does create latitude for factual error. In my view it creates too much latitude. The test should be reasonable belief. The police may be prejudiced like the rest of us, and may treat the fact that someone is dark-skinned as one reason to believe that he is a suicide bomber. But in court this reason should not count.(6) It is no defence in law that the killing was authorised by a superior officer. A superior officer who authorises an unlawful killing is an accomplice.
(7) The fact that those involved were police officers is irrelevant to the question of whether to prosecute them. It is a basic requirement of the Rule of Law that, when suspected of crimes, officials are subject to the same policies and procedures as the rest of us.
(8) Some people say: Blame the terrorists, not the police. But blame is not a zero-sum game. The fact that one is responding to faulty actions doesn't mean one is incapable of being at fault oneself. We may blame Tony Blair for helping to create the conditions in which bombing appeals to people, without subtracting any blame from the bombers. We may also blame the bombers for creating the conditions in which the police act under pressure, without subtracting blame from the police if they overreact. Everyone is responsible for their own faulty actions, never mind the contribution of others. This is the moral position as well as the position in criminal law.

(By the way, the fact that John is the Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Oxford, and occasional Visiting Professor at Yale Law School, in no way influenced my thinking on the matter…ha ha ha.)

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Racism / Prejudice

Have you noticed that when conversations here move towards whether this or that country is a nicer place to stay, e.g. the UK, Australia, the US, then someone will inevitably bring up the subject of racism and perhaps encounters of it in these specific countries? There will be the shaking of heads, the wagging of fingers and even sighs of despondency will be heard. But that in itself is neither here nor there…

What I find curious is that although we tut-tut at the perceived racism encountered in such countries, we hardly bat an eyelid to the stuff that happens in our own backyard! Try looking around for a place to rent in Singapore by using the phone to contact the numbers placed in the newspapers and you will get agents asking about your background, what you do for a living and your race! Many of them would thereafter sheepishly explain that they had to find out on their clients behalf as their client does not want to rent to Indians because they “smell”. I find it incredible that they are so upfront! Look further at the ads and you can see some touting Indian owners looking for tenants. It appears the race of the owner is an important fact to provide! I also new of a Chinese lady with an Indian boyfriend who was looking for a flat to rent… Initially, the agents were welcoming but once they knew the boyfriend was Indian and would also be sharing the flat, their tunes changed!

That’s just the rental scene. How about the employment scene? I have seen cases where Malays seem to get the short end of the stick. There was once when I was going to select a Malay candidate and I was asked by my superior whether I was sure I knew what I was doing… implying that perhaps I should get my head examined,… or was I too sensitive? That was just my reading of the situation.

How about the political scene? Can you imagine the Republican party in the US or the Conservatives in the UK saying they only allow whites or Anglo-Saxons are allowed membership? It would be unthinkable! However in a place like Malaysia we have race-based parties! Yes, there may be a National Front to pull them all together but no-one joins the National Front. Citizens join one of the race-based parties which is then part of the National Front. We do not bat an eyelid about such things and I find that amazing!

Thererfore, I think that;
1. Racism (or prejudice) is everywhere. We need not go to other countries to see it.
2. Racism is just a form of stereotyping. However, I truly believe that practically everyone stereotypes or generalizes. We need to do so to get things done in this complex world. The key, of course, is the extent to which we practice the stereotyping and generalization. For example we say “Singaporeans are generally hardworking people.” Is that not a generalization? I guess since it is perceived to be a positive generalization, it would not be controversial. How about “Singaporeans are quite ill behaved when they go out of their country to say, Johor or KL.” Hmmm, I am sure that will raise some protest...
3. I strongly believe that due to (1) and (2) above, we all have our own prejudices and it is just a matter of degrees. The key question is what can we do about it? For starters, I just hope we can start to recognize that we are all afflicted by it. Only then can we begin to decide whether or not we want to do anything about it.