Why ideals are a must in life

Declarations look good at first glance, but read between the lines and one will find escape routes to shirk the very responsibilities spelt out for those in power.


IN the last couple of weeks I have been told that I am really quite a pathetic fellow; out of touch, overly idealistic and generally quite sad.

This is quite a common accusation, one that has been thrown at me in the past, and added to the fact that I work in a university, that old chestnut of making my living quarters in an ivory tower often comes into play as well.

My comments on university rankings not being the be all and end all when selecting where to study was dismissed as wishful thinking.

I was told in no uncertain terms that parents will look at rankings to choose a university for their children.

Oh, incidentally, for the sake of accuracy, in my last column, I should not have said Leeds was higher ranked than Nottingham. They are not. I should have said Sheffield, or Manchester or Durham instead.

And at a talk where I said “meaningful public participation should occur in developmental and environmental issues”, again I was painted as some trippy hippy freak who really should just sit quietly in a VW van listening to Hendrix and burning incense. Frankly, this sounds like a very enticing idea.

However, all these barbs (admittedly they were thrown at me in a gentle and humorous manner) got me thinking. Why do I bother with these ideals? No one seems to care any way. The world is a hard, calculative and oft times, a cruel place. Pragmatism, not idealism, will ensure survival, both literally and metaphorically.

I guess this is true, if mere survival is what one aspires for. I can’t buy into this thinking though. Yes, when one is floating in the clouds of principles and ideals, one may lose track of the realities of the world and one’s ideas become no more substantive and useful as “insignificant fluff”. But pragmatism without the overarching and necessary restraints of idealism is dangerous, too.

If we live our lives without aspirations, then what is to prevent the strong and the crass to rule? Without a higher ideal, then so many things become utterly pointless.

A case in point is the Asean Human Rights Declaration. Personally, I view this document as something positive. It has its problems, and I shall deal with them later, but within the context of Asean.

It is important because for decades the issue of human rights was not really part of the Asean agenda. It was only in the Asean Charter of 2007 did the countries of Asean formally recognise human rights as an essential value. And now, we have this declaration which spells out the human rights that in principle Asean agrees has to be protected.

I say “in principle” because the Asean Human Rights Declaration is, in international law parlance, a “soft law”.

By this, it is meant that it is merely a statement of principle, it is not a binding law as say a treaty is. Therefore, legally it would be rather difficult to insist that the Asean governments comply with this declaration.

This does not mean that they do not have a moral responsibility and it is up to the people of Asean to keep pressing their governments to respect the Declaration and to make the necessary domestic legislation to give legal weight to these “soft law” principles and make them hard.

Surely our erstwhile leaders did not sign the declaration for fun.

They agreed to these principles, so let’s make sure they live up to them.

Aside from the lack of legal obligation, another criticism of the Declaration is that it appears to provide loopholes for its signatories.

For example, Article 7 begins with the emphatic statement that “all human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated”.

So far so good, but it closes with “the realisation of human rights must be considered in the regional and national context bearing in mind different political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds”.

The following article continues in this vein and states “the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition for the human rights and fundamental freedom of others, and to meet the just requirements of national security, public order, public health, public safety, public morality, as well as the general welfare of the peoples in a democratic society”.

Suspicious, is it not? Signatories of this document have left themselves a method of avoiding their responsibilities.