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Sunday July 10, 2011

Leave me alone!



Trying to unearth details about a person’s illness against her will, you

may think, is a trivial matter. It is not. It is part of the whole subject

of privacy.


YOU know Madam Privatus from the club? She is a bad person. I know she has

cancer, but she does not want to talk about it. What is there to hide? Me,

I have cancer and I tell the world about it!”


I am dumbstruck by Madam Publicus’ remarks to me. I know both Privatus and

Publicus. We are well acquainted with each other at the club. They are both

my patients. I have never thought of them as good or bad. Certainly not in

terms of their talking about their cancer.



This must be a new twist to what it means to be moral. Blab about your

illness to all and you appear to the world as an open and honest person.

Keep it tightly under wraps and you are considered closed, secretive and





I could not disagree more.

To want to tell the world about your ailment or not – be it food poisoning

or advanced cancer – is a matter of choice. It is also a matter of




There are those who feel their burden lightened if they tell. They may at

the same time want to be regarded positively as being open and frank. For

others, talking about their misfortune does nothing for them. They feel

uncomfortable, vulnerable and violated. It is their choice not to tell.

We should not venture into another’s private space as we have no right to

do so. In the 1890s, US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis articulated a

concept of privacy that regarded it as the “individuals’ right to be left

alone”. That was all what Madam Privatus wanted.

In the same context, we should not enquire about a person’s financial

standing, sex life, sexual orientation, marital status, family and social

relationships and religion (or lack of it).

I am amazed that in this time there are those who share Madam Publicus’s


Trying to unearth details about a person’s illness against her will, you

may think, is a trivial matter. It is not. It is part of the whole subject

of privacy.

Privacy goes to the heart of human rights and liberal philosophy. The

concept of privacy has roots in history. The Bible has numerous references

to privacy.

There was also mention of protection of privacy in early Hebrew culture,

classical Greece and ancient China. This protection mostly focused on the

right to solitude (remember Madam Privatus).



The law of privacy can be traced as far back as 1361 when the Justices of

Peace Act in England provided for the arrest of peeping toms and



Privacy protection is a way of drawing a line at how far society can

intrude into an individual’s affair.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) recognises privacy as a

fundamental human right. Article 12 reads: “No one shall be subjected to

arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence,

nor to attack upon his honour and reputation.”

Privacy underpins human dignity and other key values such as freedom of

association and freedom of speech.

More than six decades later, nothing has changed. In fact, in our age of

surveillance, universal internet access and hyperconnectivity, we should

even be more vigilant than ever to intrusion into our privacy and autonomy.

Interest in the right of privacy increased in the 1960s and 1970s with the

advent of information technology. The surveillance potential of powerful

computer systems prompted demands for specific rules governing the collection and handling of personal information.

In many countries, new constitutions reflect this right. The genesis of

modern legislation in this area can be traced to the first data protection

law in the world enacted in Germany in 1970. This was followed by national

laws in Sweden (1973), the United States (1974) and France (1978).

“It’s a private matter.”

“I really don’t want to talk about it.”

“Excuse me, I feel uncomfortable discussing it.

“If you don’t mind, let us change the subject.”



“This is something I don’t really want to go into.”



“Thanks for your concern but I can’t go into it.”


These are perfectly polite and reasonable statements to make when the

occasion calls for it. Our private domain is something we can jealously

guard if we want to.



By contrast, our behaviour in public should be guided by what is for the

common good. Good driving etiquette, queuing, not littering, keeping public

toilets clean, punctuality, complying with no smoking signs, no talking and

ringing mobile phones during lectures, concerts and movies, preserving our

shared natural resources.


The list is interminable.


There is a place where everyone knows clearly the difference between the

private and public domains. It resides in my dreams.


Dr Albert Lim Kok Hooi is a consultant oncologist. For more information,