Father James Minchin arrived from Australia around midnight between November 7 and 8 and was told that he has been barred from entering Singapore. Immediately, one associates this turn of events with his appearance on a video talk show produced by the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP):
Minchin was held inside a room, his phone taken away, with no access to the internet. Since there were no flights back to Melbourne till around 10pm the following day, he was thus confined for nearly 24 hours.
It is one of my regular themes that on the matter of political reform, the People’s Action Party (PAP) government is resistant to any change. This stands in contrast to their more flexible position (relatively speaking) on economic policy and bread-and-butter issues. The refusal to admit Jim Minchin last week is a case in point.
Minchin is a familiar figure in Singapore. He first came in the 1960s (or maybe soon after) to serve with the Anglican Church here. My understanding of the history is imperfect, but I believe he helped set up the Church of Our Saviour, though was later horrified at the way it has been turned by his successors into the torch-bearer of anti-gay campaigning.
More importantly, around 1990 he turned his close and keen observations of Singapore into a book: No Man is an Island: A Study of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.
A statement from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said Minchin “has interfered in Singapore’s domestic politics” and that he had spoken at a political forum last year “where he alleged that the rule of law was bypassed and corrupted in Singapore, and questioned the independence and integrity of the judiciary”. The statement also mentioned the video produced by SDP, calling it a “political interview”.
This is not the first time that the Singapore government defends its heavy-handed action by saying that politics is for Singaporeans only; foreigners should not interfere. If pushed, the government will cite the fact that other countries have similar rules. Yet, neither argument completely stands up to examination.
As I have argued before, all sorts of foreigners are paraded before us on matters of economic or industrial policy. If what they say coincides with and bolsters the PAP’s programs, their “words of wisdom” are given full-page coverage in our government-kissing mainstream media. Going further, foreign consultants are hired and paid handsomely to comment and give advice on this and that — remember the hundreds of thousands paid out to bless the choice of name “Marina Bay”?
Yet, it is a false line between foreigners commenting on our politics and human rights, and on our economics.
What about the argument that other countries have similar rules? Yes they do, but — discounting what other less-than-democratic countries do — in the more democratic places, the principle is applied not so much to speech, but to attempts to manipulate the political process directly e.g. through funding of political parties.
And so our government carries on in this heavy-handed way, assured that Singaporeans don’t care enough about human rights.
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Take what happened to the aborted Handa Centre for Global Governance and Human Rights. The news that broke at the start of this month was that after invitations had been issued by the Singapore Management University (SMU), including to ambassadors, the opening ceremony of the Centre was suddenly cancelled.
The centre was named after Japanese philanthropist Dr Haruhisa Handa who is known for his active involvement in social causes around the world. He is believed to be the main person who funded the setting up of the centre, donating a few million dollars.
Dr Handa, who is the founder and chairman of Tokyo-based non-profit organisation Worldwide Support for Development (WSD), has also provided funding for Curtin University’s Centre for Human Rights Education.
Dr Handa could not be reached for comment yesterday. But he was quoted by website Singapolitics as saying that, after consulting SMU, the WSD leadership “has decided not to proceed with the organisation of a new centre”. He added that WSD “remains supportive of SMU and will continue to consider future projects in Singapore”.
— Today, 3 Nov 2012, SMU pulls plug on human rights centre, by Ng Jing Yng
Word soon spread that the Ministry of Home Affairs put a stop to it. But those a little closer to the action described what happened as somewhat more nuanced than that.
Handa’s proposal apparently either went first to the government or was quite early on referred to the government. Not only did the Foreign Affairs, Law and Education ministries give it their nods, equal matching funds were put up by the government. The Centre would have been a useful adjunct to the SMU’s law school. It might have organised talks and seminars to enrich faculty and students’ understanding of governance and human rights issues — surely an area that Singapore is immature in.
Sources told me that it was the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) that expressed some objections after invitations had been issued. Exactly how strong those objections were is unknown, but there was some effort at seeking a compromise, e.g. renaming it the Handa Centre for Global Justice and Governance. In the end however, the decision to abort was said to have come from SMU rather than as a direct order from the government.
Why did SMU choose to abort? It is hard to say. Like so many things in Singapore, key people have been tight-lipped, perhaps afraid of being taken to task for leaking embarrassing details. One can speculate that the university calculated that it wouldn’t be worth the continuing hassle to operate the Centre under the suspicious eyes of MHA. Hence, it is not possible to pin blame for the decision on SMU or MHA alone. It’s a mix of factors and considerations, not least the fact that SMU depends on government grants for other things.
My point is this: There is wiggle room. SMU could have clenched its teeth and gone ahead. It didn’t.
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Just last weekend, two prominent media watchers, Cherian George and P N Balji, said something similar with regard to the our mainstream media being “behind the curve”:
What exacerbates the situation, add both George and Balji, is that journalists and editors today are not doing enough to push what were previously recognised in Singapore’s media space as out-of-bound or “OB markers”.
“The biggest sin in Singapore journalism is self-censorship,” said Balji.
“The first question is, who sets OB markers? The government does, let’s accept that. But do OB markers remain as society changes? As people change, and we have seen with online media, OB markers have to change.
“But the government that sets the OB markers doesn’t tell you they’re changed, so how do you know the OB markers have changed? That can only come about if you test the waters,” he continued.
“I get the sense that the media generally is not active in testing OB markers, (and) my view is that the media, and to a certain extent the country, will pay a big price (for not doing so).”
“Now we have come to the era with a bit more openness, and I would have expected now for the testing of waters to be a bit more robust. But actually I’m quite surprised, even shocked, that this actually doesn’t happen as much as it should now,” [Balji] said.
— Yahoo Singapore, 10 Nov 2012, Control of mainstream media in S’pore must be reviewed: media experts, by Jeanette Tan. Link.
Testing the OB markers doesn’t mean you’ll always win. But often, even when you don’t succeed, you can score a moral victory, making the PAP government look bad. These add up, and the cumulative effect over time is the delegitimising of the OB marker and its eventual erosion.
One problem that really needs talking about in Singapore is how reluctant people are to push the envelope, how fear and playing safe has become our dominant personality characteristic.
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And yet, one could argue that a conversation about human rights is ongoing, albeit that it is more about economic rights than civil and political rights. Income gap, minimum wage, right to affordable housing and healthcare — these are issues of economic rights, a subset of human rights. We also talk about cultural rights every time issues such as recognition of our linguistic heritage or our culinary heritage spring up. Remember incidents like Diner en blanc? Curry lady?
Nor can we isolate civil and political rights from economic or cultural rights. Most obviously, we need the right to freedom of expression, in order to assert our economic and cultural rights. We need rights of political enfranchisement to translate speech into political effect. In fact we need the freedom of assembly to impress upon government our strength of feeling on issues. All talk on media platforms can be ignored and dismissed as idle chatter, but when people mass on the streets, they cannot be ignored. That’s how Hongkongers managed to shout down the proposal for patriotic education. See BBC report: Hong Kong backs down over Chinese patriotism classes.
One can argue that it is our timidity over civil and political rights that hold back progress on other rights. But one can also use the fact that the government cannot avoid engaging over economic rights to broaden the discussion to include all other rights. The trick is not to pass up on the opportunity like SMU did.