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9 Jul 2010

The Lawyer Is In: George Hwang

The Lawyer Is In is a new monthly legal column by George Hwang who will answer questions from readers on subjects related to civil rights, workplace issues, discrimination, immigration, sexuality, privacy, estate planning and assets management; personal rather than business issues. In short, daring to be who you are and living your chosen life proudly, in Singapore.

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.

Human rights

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 editor@fridae.com. 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.


Reader's Comments

1. 2010-07-09 21:47  
um. It's not a choice.
2. 2010-07-10 00:22  
I wanna be like him. Reach to be a high-income lawyer
Comment #3 was deleted by its author on 2010-07-10 00:25
4. 2010-07-10 00:34  
Great idea for a column. Good to know there is at least one lawyer in Singapore that considers that gays are included in the "human" part of human rights. His must be an unusual church - I thought the churches in Singapore went against their parent churches and campaigned for criminalising gays (and Lesbians).
5. 2010-07-10 01:20  
I have a question, are gay Christians allowed to have a float in the Christmas parade if they asked? I.e.that gay church (sorry, forgotten the name).
Comment #6 was deleted by its author on 2010-07-10 17:33
7. 2010-07-10 15:23  
thank God he is inspiring the next generation of young people to do something since this older generation seems incapable of doing anything since too many people associate this group with the gay sauna owners association vs. people that really care about the day to day needs of gay people, too political and out of touch with they have become and out of tune with a more sophtiscated and highly educated and better behaved and less self absorbed younger generation

8. 2010-07-10 17:28  
It's a great service to the LGBT community. While the macro issues affecting the entire community are important, I think that's more urgent are the micro issues affecting individuals in the community. For example,
1) How to find a gay-friendly lawyer to represent you if you are detained by the police.
2) How to protect oneself from blackmails from ex-partners, admirers, etc.
3) How to protect one's assets from wife. (Some gays marry straight females or lesbians for a variety reasons)
4) How to write a Will that will ensure that one's estate will go to a worthy LGBT cause (e.g. AFA, Oogachaga) instead of greedy siblings after his death.
5) Landlords' and Tenants' rights. For example, can a landlord drive you out of his house if he finds out that you and your BF who had signed a tenancy agreement with him are a gay couple.
6) Harassment from colleagues about your sexual orientation. What are the legal means to protect oneself?
7) How to economically create an IOU to prove that a friend/partner had borrowed money from you and promised to return you the money before a given date
......and other issues that affect individuals.

9. 2010-07-11 11:05  
George you ARE indeed a Diva of monumental proportions, I can testify to that and I find it kind of cute that you should deny it but it shows how little we ever know and see our own self even when we are gifted with a brain as remarkable as yours.

And that you are too! I have no doubt that professionally you are brilliant, committed, original in the best sense, totally sincere and efficient in your contribution to the various causes you engage in. So... thanks for joining Fridae and thanks in advance to whatever you will do for the community here.
Comment edited on 2010-07-11 13:45:30
10. 2010-07-11 15:12  
Sorry, but 'living your CHOSEN life'?
11. 2010-07-12 03:22  
you guys in singapore have to get rid of that s377A crap
12. 2010-07-13 12:19  
Out of pure goodness, a hero like George has emerged. This column will be more than useful; maybe even save lives. And I thank him for stepping up.

But let's leave references to all religions aside, as pure goodness is not a product of religion: it is an innate human quality. For example the comment: 'the Christian concept : Do unto others what you want others to do unto you." It detracts from the 'humanness' of this human right movement, for this 'concept' existed centuries before Christ and applies to all religions that came after it.

I find that one of the greatest and cruelest culprits of human right abuse is the church, in all its forms. Perhaps before a church puts forward any proposal to a Ministry to change a country's law, it should first tackle its own backyard, and then this will give it more moral substance to talk for the public. If that sounds difficult, how more difficult it would be to tackle a country?
Comment edited on 2010-07-13 12:20:36
13. 2010-07-14 08:44  
Hi September your second paragraph makes a very accurate point but the paragraph after that comes as a contradiction.

The Church "in all its forms" does not create humans. It's the other way round, so who should we actually blame ?

Why do humans (ie us, you, me everyone) do evil, and not only do it but plan it, organize it, justify it, cover it up under the guise of self righteousness ? Where is it in you, where is it in me ? that's the nagging mystery and question, not about to be given a satisfactory answer any time soon, I'm afraid.

How is it that human beings are so good (and quick) at turning gold into lead ? Christ into the Inquisition, Mohammed into Al Quaeda, Karl Marx into the KGB and so on and so forth.... ?

Truth is, no one knows. We are quick to accuse all these organisations and to (rightly, no doubt) wish they could be eradicated, but it's a rather naive view that does not adress the root of the problem. Sometimes these organisations are successfully dismantled but only to be rapidly replaced by something similar, because they are the effects and not the cause.
The root of the problem has to be in each and every human being, so we have to find that thing in ourselves if we really want to do something about it. But it's a frightening thought isn't it ?
We'd rather think of ourselves as good and demand that the bad guys be neutralized... unfortunately, that is precisely what the humans involved in the Inquisition, Al Quaeda and the KGB think they're doing ... what an abyss.
Comment edited on 2010-07-14 08:50:26
14. 2010-07-15 13:04  
Post #13
As I know this is not the platform to discuss isssues of good and evil, I will nevertheless say a bit to clarify lest I get misunderstood:

True, the root of all that is good and evil is in each human being. However I am not even sure that we can classify something as 'good' or 'evil' because everything is subjective.

The church was brought up because Georage said he led his church to submit the repeal of S377a to the MHA. On that basis, I suggested that it is better if it first addresses the 'bigger' church ie its own backyard. 'In all its forms' means the church in all its various forms and permutations. This is not to say that it is only the church who is blind, but all religions - precisely because of the humans who constitute them.

Human beings have the greatest capacity to create and destroy. Such is its nature. It just IS. Like positive and negative, night and day, etc. Both elements always in a flux. It is in our constant struggle to achieve a balance or equilibrium that makes for experience and learning, and of course history. The struggle for human rights is a struggle to achieve this balance. Unfortunately again, this point of balance/equilibirum, once achieved, is easily lost...hence the struggle goes on and on. This applies to all forms of 'struggle'.
15. 2010-07-29 18:29  
Is it true - as the PM said in parliament - that it's constitutionally sound NOT to repeal 377A - in other words Singapore's Constitution allows for the provision to discriminate against GLBT? If that's true then we are wasting our time with penal code reforms. Besides when is this going to be put back on the agenda or are all the local queens doing what their grandfather wants yet again?
16. 2010-09-26 20:23  
hi. i'm a local with a partner whose PR. could you help recommend a lawyer we could use to make our wills. We both have property and investments in as well as outside Singapore and wish to make wills which entitle us to bequeath our assets both in and outside singapore. thanks.
17. 2010-10-26 11:22  
I have an important question:
My Taiwanese partner and I (Canadian) are legally married in Canada. Will our status be recognised in Taiwan so I can get PR?
18. 2010-11-15 19:20  
Well, what happened to the 'The lawyer is in' feature? Died a sudden death? George Hwang expressed such gratitude to be able to serve this Fridae community. Did he have a change in heart?

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