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Man-made laws on trial

 | September 17, 2012

What is the role of the citizen in a society where injustice reigns?

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In a letter from Birmingham jail, American freedom fighter Martin Luther King Junior defines a just man-made law as a “code that squares with the moral law or the law of God”.

“An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law, not rooted in eternal law and natural law,” he explained.

Large populations across the globe are now ruled by man-made laws that are either tied to the notion of a nation’s sovereignty or a constitution that undergoes constant change.

There is no denying that some man-made laws do reflect aspects of natural law or are directly derived from religious teachings. They thus “square with the moral law”, to use Dr King’s phrasing.

But we often find oppressive regimes seeking to dominate citizens by compelling them to accept unjust laws. In modern times, the oppressive nature of these regimes is not always obvious; they are often able, by glib political arguments, to convince a majority to accept these laws and thus further their hidden agenda.

So how do we ensure that the essence of natural justice can survive in man-made laws? There are no ready answers, but we are in trouble if we answer “yes” to  questions such as the following:

Should a judiciary system be beholden to the executive arm of government?

Should we allow politicians belonging to a party with a self-serving agenda to formulate laws to promote that party’s definition of patriotism?

Should we allow a ruling regime to use laws to punish political opponents while sparing offenders who come from within its support base?

Should a piece of law be retained when civil society no longer supports it?

Law of existence

If we look at the innumerable injustices saturating human history and consider the global inequity that exists in our own time, we might perhaps want to subscribe to the pessimistic view that natural justice has rarely been the norm.

All religions speak of togetherness, roles and responsibilities, rights and proprieties, ethics and decorum, according to Kamar Oniah Kamaruzaman, a scholar of comparative religion.

“On the other hand,” she said at a seminar in 2006, “law and politics are concerned only with the interpersonal dimension.

“Religions look at everything as part of a whole, interdependent and inter-connected, human as well as non-human. This is the law of existence.

“Because ethical education through religion is more holistic than through laws and politics, the teachings of religions have survived the ages whereas laws and politics have always failed to legislate religious teachings away although they may be able to repress them now and then.”

Indeed, man-made laws will not survive for long if they do not acknowledge and support moral and spiritual values. Neither will the politics that give birth to such bad laws, such as those that deny us our right to speak, to assemble, to receive information and various other human rights.

And then there is the question of application of the law. A law may be good, but if it is used to catch flies while the hornets are left undisturbed, then something is out of joint. It is unjust to punish a white dog for a wrong committed by a black dog, or to persecute the whistle blower and let off the culprit in a crime.

As conscientious citizens, what do we do if we live in a society ruled by bad laws, or by intrinsically good laws that are perversely applied and enforced?

We cannot, to borrow Dr Kamar Oniah’s expression, adopt the “culture of the mosquito”. We must not continue to “whisper and whimper at the back and in the dark, and do practically nothing more”.

If, despite differences in our social and religious affiliations, we fail to act against man-made injustices and tragedies, we would have failed our society and our religions. We would have failed as human beings.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice,” Dr King said, “but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

Stanley Koh is a FMT columnist


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