Neither priest nor philanthropist welcome here

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.

* * * * *

Yet, there may be a bit more wiggle room than first appears. The disappointing thing is that Singaporeans sometimes don’t seize the opportunity to wiggle.

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

23 Responses to “Neither priest nor philanthropist welcome here”

  1. 1 yuen 12 November 2012 at 05:48

    > journalists and editors today are not doing enough to push …. out-of-bound or “OB markers”.

    this echoes a call by Mr Ngiam Tong Dow on university professors (I am a retired professor) to “critique” government policies; well, why should they? what is in it for them?

    people who say such things should remember that not everyone is in their positions; Mr Ngiam, for example, was a retired senior civil servant who personally worked with and were trusted by people at the highest level, and enjoys certain protective status and aura that others do not have; his views may not lead to government actions, but at least get reported in Straits Times and produce some discussion.

    Singapore Inc is a powerful “system” with great financial resources providing many career opportunities, and few people want to risk alienating themselves from it with criticism, even mild ones; the “system” is also very selective in what criticisms it listens to, such as popular grievances expressed in elections, opinions of international “somebodies” (e.g., william safire and long yingtai can make quite nasty comments and till receive a respectful hearing), and to varying extents “system insiders” like Mr Ngiam and Prof Lim Chong Yah; the chance of less privileged critics being listened to is low

    • 2 octopi 14 November 2012 at 09:24

      In many other countries, being a Cassandra is commonly understood to be the job of professors, a job which has – sadly – been neglected by the cadre of professors in Singapore.

      By and large it is understandable that professors keep their mouths shut because there is no academic freedom in Singapore. But it doesn’t mean that people do not demand it. Or rather, put it another way, once they have a taste of what it’s like for professors to step out and start acting like pundits in public, they might call for more of the same.

      You might recall that Ben Bernanke was a professor and an occasional critic of the government until he was plucked to become the Fed Chief. Or that Paul Tambiah became a vocal critic of the health system in Singapore and helped the SDP to make alternative policy proposals for health care in Singapore. Or, if your field is computer science, you might have some insight into why the government’s efforts to foster a start up culture has run into roadblocks, and you can perform some public service by telling the whole world about it.

      • 3 yuen 14 November 2012 at 10:58

        > if your field is computer science

        precisely because of that, I saw first hand the way professors changed – after stanford showed that professors can become very rich, professors all over the world want to become very rich, and consequently, are reluctant to offend people with money and power

        you mention Ben Benanke; he, Larry Summers and Paul Krugman are all well known economists familiar with government policies and wall street operations; what did they do to warn people about the financial collapse before it happened? Krugman regularly attacked the Bush government in his NYTimes column but was curiously oblivious to the growing crisis in his own professional domain

        > you can perform some public service by telling the whole world about it.

        again I have a lot of experience in this area (try searching for my recent articles on and , I know how hard it is to gain traction, and how irritating it is to be told by others to try harder

      • 4 octopi 14 November 2012 at 14:15

        Well I’m criticising the professors as a whole, so if you’re pulling your weight you should not be ashamed of yourself.

        Yes, it is true that professors in America are less likely to talk freely than 1 generation ago. This is not only due to the entrepreneurship thing at Stanford: it is also due to the fact that the rich class is funding professorships, and professors know they can get their research funding pulled if they are too independent.

        I wouldn’t blame Paul Krugman for being oblivious to the financial crisis. He knew a housing bubble was coming. And attacking the Bush government is not mutually exclusive from sounding an alarm over the financial crisis, given that they did so much to cause the crisis. And did you not notice how much he has been slagging off his fellow professors? Bernanke gets a passing grade for me for avoiding a depression.

        And even then, you shouldn’t attack straw men. I am criticising Singapore professors for being unwilling to speak up in public. You are basically criticising the economists for not being right. That doesn’t make sense. If I were to say that you are not a good com science professor because you did not found the next google, would that be fair? Are you brave enough to predict all the trends in computer science for the next 10 years, or even 5? My point is that professors have to speak out what’s on their minds, even though they may be wrong, and not worry so much about what happened to Chee Soon Juan.

        What I am criticising is them not speaking up enough. Whether or not they have any political power to effect change is not their problem. The power will come from the people or the government, not the professors. Worrying
        that you’re wrong, worrying that people won’t like it, worrying that you don’t have the power to effect change – you should not be so kiasee.

        Never mind, the netizens are here to help you, and give you courage. For those professors who are too shy to speak up in public, they are like your students who are too shy to speak up in class. We’ll just whack you until you become less shy. “You” meaning professors as a whole.

      • 5 yuen 15 November 2012 at 05:37

        > the netizens are here to help you,

        I guess you have more faith in netizens than I do

  2. 6 Lye Khuen Way 12 November 2012 at 07:30

    Indeed we need more brave souls !

    Unfortunately, brave souls need to feed bodies and many a times, pragmatism dictates a retreat. A tactical withdrawal to fight another day.

  3. 7 Regime Change 12 November 2012 at 08:58

    It looks like any angmo foreigner who is associated with the SDP is persona
    non grata in Singapore. Strange that no other opposition party has this problem.

    The SDP is obsessed with playing to the foreign gallery just as the late JBJ was
    obsessed with knocking the Old Man on the Hill.

    Politics is about winning votes and getting elected to Parliament. That is the
    raison d’etre of any political party. Winning votes and getting elected is about
    promising the electorate that you can do a better job looking after their interests
    and that of the country. The people who need to be persuaded are the Ah Sengs,
    Ahmads and Lingams in the HDB heartlands who form 80% of the electorate
    and these people could not give a rat’s ass about high-falutin ideas such as
    democracy, freedom of the press and so on.

    Just look at the WP, SPP and NDP. They keep their heads down and work the
    ground and they produce better results in elections than the SDP. They know
    what pisses off the government and they understand that all politics is local
    politics and they play by the rules, even if they are unfair and the playing field is

    If the SDP continues along the same path they will remain no more than just
    a civic pressure group like NGOs and intellectual bloggers.

    • 8 Chanel 12 November 2012 at 14:37

      “Strange that no other opposition party has this problem.”

      Because no other opposition party has invited foreigners!! IMHO, SDP is taking the intellectual route towards winning voters. It has accomplished many things such as coming up with Shadow Budgets and housing plan.

      A party can’t just keep their “heads down and work the ground…”. Publicity is needed. In this aspect, PAP has great advantage as it controls all mainstream media. Look what happened to SPP in GE 2011. Mr Chiam and his party worked the ground tirelessly, but was voted out.

  4. 9 Kelvin Tan Tuan Wei 12 November 2012 at 09:21

    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.

    Rationally, a single individual is reluctant to test the OB markers because he will end up paying the cost, yet, others will reap most of the benefits.

    In economic jargon, the external benefit is much higher than the private benefit, thus the standard result is that everyone prefers to “act blur”, say that the emperor has clothes, and hoping that someone else test the OB markers.

  5. 10 Jentrified Citizen 12 November 2012 at 09:30

    Absolutely agree with you. As stakeholders of the country the people really needs to question ans speak up more and not accept whatever ob markers imposed on us no matter how unreasonable. Sometimes the ob markers fall into grey areas. How much of the ob marker truly benefits the country and how much of it is for power preservation of the party? The people should learn to step forward andd question with their minds and eyes open and not just swallow the official line that is trotted out or worse sometimes no reason is even given. How can we ever be a real democracy if we keep retreating behind the wall of fear?

  6. 11 Kliff 12 November 2012 at 09:45

    It is a vicious cycle on Singapore’s social development. The government has been too efficient in pruning the ‘bonsai’, nipping things in the bud, that the ‘bonsai’ probably doesn’t know how to grow differently. For any social issue to gain any traction, people must be informed and educated in a way that they are capable critically analysis such issues. Your example of the unsuccessful SMU’s Human Rights Centre is a prime example of how the government fails to deliver this form of education. Hopefully, the liberal arts university will make up for this loss. (though how these two cases ended up treated so differently needs to be questioned) Also, the people of course need to feel motivated or want to talk about these issues. The government has created a rat race that begins from the moment the child enters primary school. From there it is a race for good grades, then the 5 Cs, which always seems difficult to achieve with rising costs. Hence, people are too engrossed in the rat race to have any time or energy left to be concerned about other issues, apart for the economical ones. Plus the fear of crossing any invisible lines ensures opportunities such as the one mentioned above to be allowed to slip by.

  7. 12 Alan 12 November 2012 at 11:38

    Incidentally, why didn’t our govt have Father James detained and sued for defamation if he has indeed questioned the integrity of the judiciary? There again what is it that our PAP leaders are afraid of by not taking legal action against him while not sparing others in similar suits?

    Because our bullies here know they cannot continue to antagonize the Christian electorate more often than necessary which can cause a backlash to already worsening decline in PAP voter support as well as a publicly battered image of our leaders as no different from other greedy politicians disguised as clean ones?

  8. 13 Unconvinced 12 November 2012 at 13:15

    The Singapore government is a master of the application of “soft” power. They can catch you by the b—s and squeeze you until you cry father mother and convince all onlookers that you deserve it or that they have nothing to do with it. Push the ill-defined OB markers at you own peril.

  9. 14 Duh 12 November 2012 at 13:57

    MHA’s explanation is clearly bullsh*t – providing a critque of PAP’s form of governance is not equivalent to interfering with Singapore’s domestic governance. Is MHA meaning to say that just bcos Minchin said something about PAP dictatorship and heavy-handedness, this will change?

    What is interference? Something like a COUP.

    MHA thinks Singaporeans are idiots or something? I find it highly amusing when the govt entities and various PAP affiliated judges, academics and lawyers can just spout off nonsensical reasonings as public statements without flinching with embarassment.

  10. 15 LinCH 12 November 2012 at 16:34

    Our brave souls have been decimated and consigned to the dustbins of history. That’s why people are so reluctant to speak up. JB Jeyaratam is one brave soul. So is Dr Lee Soon Juan. But they are left for us to see because the ruling party see them as a part of a charade.

    The real brave souls are those whom you barely hear of.

  11. 16 Galven 12 November 2012 at 18:02

    A minor amendment – Minchin’s book was first published in 1986.

    I am personally acquainted with Fr Minchin. As a researcher in local Christian history, I’m quite interested as to the veracity of the following: “though was later horrified at the way it has been turned by his successors into the torch-bearer of anti-gay campaigning.” Did he say it himself, or has it been documented somewhere?

  12. 18 Chow 12 November 2012 at 21:38

    Well, most people just don’t care. What they want from life is simple. A (well-paying) job, a house, another house to collect rent, perhaps a family, and some amount of social recognition which mainly takes the form of the size of your pocketbook in our society. These people make up the large majority of the electorate and as long as they can get the above, they don’t exactly care about other things like democracy and freedom of speech. What the PAP has done is to walk the fine line between juggling the economic benefits for most of the people and hammering down the nails that stand out too much. It doesn’t engage in Stasi sort of eavesdropping and engaging snitches so people can still ventilate in forums or in coffeeshops. It is unfortunate but that’s the way things go.

    • 19 Duh 13 November 2012 at 03:34

      How can one care for something (e.g., freedom of speech) when one never had it or experienced it in the first place? Singaporeans who do (i.e., migrated) seldom come back to Singapore – go figure.

      Do most N Koreans yearn for freedom? Do they even know what it is after being brought up in that repressive environment? Did they experience anything else that is different from what they have now to make a personal choice (e.g., voting)? By analogy, do Singaporeans?

      There is a diffierence between – don’t care bcos Singaporeans are largely ignorant and don’t care bcos they experienced what it is and do not want it (as reflected in their voting patterns). Do Singaporeans have that fair voting system? Do Singaporeans ever experienced a system where their civic rights are constitutionally protected and labour unions are not neutered organizations? Can Singaporeans vote for a particular non-performing PAP MP out of parliament without him/her hidden in a GRC team? Is the judicial system independent from the political one?

      My point is – SIngaporeans don’t care largely bcos they don’t have it and never experienced it in the first place. So, they don’t know what they have been missing all this while. Civic freedom – love it or hate it, one must experience it and then make an informed choice – this is democracy, got it? It’s in our national pledge while PAP continues to make a mockery out of it.

      • 20 Chow 14 November 2012 at 09:25

        I agree with you that there is a distinction between not wanting something due to “ignorance” and “rejection”. On the other hand, that was not my point. I suppose I must have phrased it poorly. What I wanted to say was that in my opinion, even of we do have such freedoms here, a sizeable proportion of the voters will not pay too much attention to such things if they perceive that these freedoms are not going to be excessively repressed. What they care about more will be the kind of lives (material) that they will be able to lead.

      • 21 Duh 15 November 2012 at 17:00

        Your argument is wholly hypothetical – we simply do not know. How can one create an argument based on something that has never happened yet? This is exactly the same kind of flawed reasoning used by the PAP – Singapore owes it progress to the PAP so if PAP does not continue to govern, Singapore will fail as a nation. Another spurious argument – it is equally likely that a non-PAP party would had made Singapore as developed or even more developed than the PAP. By analogy, it is equally likely that Singaporeans, after having given true democracy, may never wish to go back to PAP’s tyrannical rule ever again and place laws in the Singapore Constitution to ward against the re-occurence of such a situation (e.g., changing the constitution via one party dominance in the parliament), could it not? You appear, like the PAP, to know what all Singaporeans desire and want for Singapore (i.e., material comfort as the sole concern)?

        I don’t share such confidence. And the PAP wasn’t either – why did you think they oppressed the opposition via the GRC system and various other means? Historically, there have been a number of instances when PAP almost lost and lost a constituency (e.g., Chengsan) even when PAP was doing a better job than present – Singaporeans are not interested in civic freedom you say? If it wasn’t for PAP’s heavy-handedness (e.g., bankrupting opponents) and their constant ‘tweaking’ of the voting system, what happened to Aljuneid would had been sooner.

        Tell me, why did a whole bunch of people turned up for WP’s rallies during the last GE and few did for PAP’s rallies? If Singaporeans couldn’t be bothered with politics, why bother turning up for ANY political rallies at all? Free packed dinner perhaps? (snigger) Do not underestimate the political fervour of Singaporeans for democracy.

  13. 22 Bill 13 November 2012 at 09:32

    I don’t know much about this case. But I do know that the PAP government has always been selective in policies they wish to import. I always love hearing this words uttered by our dear ex PM Goh saying we strive to become the Switzerland of Asia. But that’s only in the economic area. Because what does Switzerland have besides a great banking industry that Singapore desperately wishes to emulate? Direct democracy in the sense that any citizen can request a referendum on issues tht they oppose. Another thing they have is proportional voting system instead of only the first-past-the-post system which we have whereby opposition parties still get seats according to a percentage of popular ites they get with a minimum percentage needed to acquire a seat of course. None of these political systems are studied nor imported here. So how can we be the Switzerland of Asia? More like we are the Cayman Islands instead.
    The only most effective thing to push boundaries is to galvanize still more voters to vote against the PAP. It is still years away but the grassroots movement must start now. Even if the opposition party that contests in you’re area is ineffectual, I still believe the first thing we needed to do as proud and patriotic citizens of Singapore is to break completely the majority status that the PAP government currently holds for generations. Then could we have the luxury to selectively choose which political parties based in their different strengths.

    • 23 The 14 November 2012 at 16:39

      /// Bill 13 November 2012 at 09:32
      I don’t know much about this case. But I do know that the PAP government has always been selective in policies they wish to import. ///

      They will deny being selective, but are eclectic instead.

      What do you think makes a perfect wife? Did Jerry Hall get it right when she quoted her mother as saying “to keep a man, you must be a maid in the living room, a cook in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom”?

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