Bread. August 2007
Bark and crumble
On Saturday morning (4 August 2007), you're going to see reports in the
Straits Times and Zaobao about how the police or Ministry of Home Affairs
has very capably stopped a foreigner from interfering in Singapore's
I will be named as the fifth columnist trying to smuggle him in. Thanks to the alertness of our men in blue, the threat to national security has been averted.
The story will regurgitate the police's press release saying they have cancelled a permit for a forum to be held on 7 August, involving a certain dangerous agent known as Douglas Sanders. The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) will also share in the glory: they refused to issue a professional visit pass to said infiltrator.
Straits Times and Zaobao are likely to quote me in response. Of what I said, what bits will be included and what left out, I shall be most interested to see. (Update: the Straits Times article can be seen here. Give them a pat on the back -- they were quite fair to me.)
The story in detail
Now, let me tell you the story, chronologically.
On 28 June 2007, I lodged an online application for a permit for a public lecture by Professor Emeritus Douglas Sanders, to be held on 7 August 2007. I wanted a licence from the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit (PELU) since by law, any talk or forum involving a non-citizen speaker requires such a permit beforehand.
Prof Sanders retired recently from the University of British Columbia, after a long and distinguished career, but continues to teach at Chulalongkorn University.
In the application form, I declared the topic to be "Sexual orientation in international law: the case of Asia"
In the box which asked for a synopsis (and which limited me to 500 characters), I explained,
I used up 213 characters saying that.
The next day, an Inspector Kelvin Yeo from the police phoned me and asked me who Sanders was. I briefed Yeo on Sanders' background, and explained what the term "Professor Emeritus" meant in terms of academic recognition.
Yeo asked for a script, suggesting that my synopsis was too brief (but I only had 500 characters!). I said no self-respecting professor gives a lecture by reading dryly from a script. But I could try to get from Sanders a longer abstract if it would help.
Yeo then sent me an email to confirm this teleconversation. The email said,
distinguished guest speaker.
This email was copied to four other persons: Kok Huei TAN" <TAN_Kok_Huei@spf.gov.sg>, "Justin TANG" <Justin_TANG@spf.gov.sg>, "Yin Cheng PANG" <PANG_Yin_Cheng@spf.gov.sg>, "Joey TSUI" <Joey_TSUI@spf.gov.sg>
I don't know who they are, nor could they be found via the Singapore Government Directory (http://www.sgdi.gov.sg/). Nonetheless, it was noteworthy that so many people had to be copied. It's typical self-preservation behaviour when difficult decisions are anticipated.
In the first week of July, I had a face-to-face chat with Douglas Sanders, firstly to ask him for more details of his talk, and secondly, to sort out his dates and travel plans.
In the course of that meeting, I learnt that part of the reason he was agreeable to come to Singapore was that he was anyway going to be in Kuala Lumpur in the week prior to the Singapore lecture. He would be in KL to attend a conference and give a couple of talks.
My third aim was to forewarn him of possible complications coming from the authorities since we are dealing with a paranoid government. Was he comfortable with the risks? To that, I recall him saying, "Well, tell them that in KL I will be speaking at the Islamic University."
"The Islamic University!" he repeated for impact. "If they don't have a problem with the topic, why should Singapore?"
He would be speaking on sexuality and similar topics while in Kuala Lumpur.
Sanders, who travels considerably, giving talks, passed me a copy of a paper he had presented at the International Labour Organisation, as probably the closest to what his Singapore lecture would be like. It was over 2,000 words. I sent the entire thing to Kelvin Yeo soon after.
On 20 or 21 July 2007, I was notified by the police/PELU that they had approved the permit, subject to a $20 fee. They also reminded me to get a Professional Visit Pass (PVP) from ICA, a reminder that I appreciated because I hadn't known about that before. Here is a screenshot of the online application status check (the $20 had been paid by this point):
Professional Visit Pass
It took me a few days to get from Sanders all the necessary details before I managed to submit the online PVP application around 24 July 2007. For the next 4 or 5 days, I got one phone call after another from ICA asking for more, more, more clarifications. Sanders' pages-long curriculum vitae was faxed.
Then the ICA lapsed into silence, which was a good thing, I thought, for it meant they at last had enough information to seriously process the application, once again, in a manner that would cover their backsides.
I was expecting no further problems, since PELU had already given their green light, a fact that seemed to impress ICA very much.
What I didn't anticipate was a whirlwind that had nothing at all to do with my event.
On 30 July 2007, a friend sent me a copy of an email flyer announcing a lecture by the same Prof Douglas Sanders, organised by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies for 8 August 2007 (the day after mine). I had had some inkling of that beforehand, but until seeing the flyer, I didn't know if ISEAS' event was on or not. Obviously, I had nothing to do with ISEAS' plans.
What was interesting was that at ISEAS. Sanders would also be speaking on the same topic as in the lecture I was arranging. The ISEAS flyer said "Topic: Society and Sexual Diversity: Human Rights, International Law, Western Patterns, Asian Developments."
Apparently, the flyer had gone out some days before a copy came to me, for by the time I saw it, trouble was already brewing at ISEAS, I would later discover.
A former PAP heavyweight, known to be an extreme Christian -- I know who he is, but I'm not saying yet -- had started calling various people in the Home Affairs Ministry, as well as the head of ISEAS, to protest the planned lecture there. Sanders was painted as some evil-doer out to destabilise Singapore.
Almost immediately, procedures and good sense were thrown out the window. Raise the drawbridge! Enemy in sight!
Somewhere along the way, it was discovered that ISEAS did not need anybody's permission to organise their lecture, not PELU, not ICA/PVP. As an academic institution, they had exemption.
But "Douglas Sanders" did figure in the PELU and ICA files, under my name, for my talk. The rest of the story, you can fill in yourselves.
The narrative over, allow me some observations:
PELU (Police), ICA and ISEAS had plenty of time to consider Douglas Sanders' credentials and proposed topic.
The Police and ICA seemed well aware from the outset (remember the email copied to 4 other people?) that my application could be "sensitive" to their political masters, but after being offered lots of information by me, and careful consideration, the Police's higher-ranking officers (I don't believe it stayed with middle-level ones) came to the view that the permit could be granted. Which they did by mid July.
ICA seemed to be moving in the same direction, based on my conversations with them.
ISEAS clearly considered the topic and the man worthy of a forum. Sexuality, social and legal trends, after all, are established fields of academic and public interest.
In short, plenty of people had been involved trying to make their respective decisions dispassionately, and it was green light almost all the way.
Yet, the moment a former PAP heavyweight started to bark, everybody ran for cover. This heavyweight is not even in government currently. But he obviously had strings to pull and enough like-minded friends in high places with similar Christianistic prejudices.
It's so typical of Singapore that once the tempest starts, nobody stands by his decision. Nobody has backbone. Everyone crumbles. Even senior civil servants would reverse their decisions with no discernable resistance.
It must be a sorry sight. It's like an ex-general coming into a field barking madly, and everyone, from captains to sergeants to privates, runs helter-skelter, deserting his post. Who's left to defend the lines?
All that remains is to let the ends justify the means. The "big man" wants this result. Therefore give him that, never mind how absurd it is. Just find a reason, excuse, anything, to give to the press.
And so at 5 pm, 3 August 2007, the police phoned me to say the permit was being cancelled. At the same time, they sent me this email:
It's pathetic. They're grasping at vague references to probabilities -- "unlikely to be held in the public interest"!
The funny thing is, the law's cited provision actually says something different. It says -- and read it carefully -- the police can cancel, if the public entertainment
The second "is" is critical to parsing the clause. When you note that, you'd see that the word "likely" relates to the conditions of the licence. Since at no time is anyone saying that I won't be abiding by the conditions of the licence, likely or not likely anything is irrelevant.
The "public interest" bit only comes in with the last 6 words – "is contrary to the public interest". It has to be construed in a positive sense, that is to say, the event has to be contrary to the public interest to justify cancellation. And not merely likely. In any case, to demand that it should be "in the public interest" is quite different in meaning from "contrary to the public interest"; the former phrasing -- that used in the email to me -- is not provided by law.
Ergo, they don't seem to know the law.
But I doubt that they care, because all they want to do is to carry out the big man's wishes one way or another.
ISEAS seemed to have crumbled too and cancelled Sanders' lecture even though they ostensibly had exemption. At the end of the day, is there academic freedom in Singapore? Are certain topics off-limits?
In 2005, when Warwick University turned down the Economic Development Board's invitation to set up a campus in Singapore, they cited their concerns about academic freedom. The Singapore government (and the Straits Times) rubbished those concerns. Seeing how ISEAS was stared down, was Warwick University right after all in their assessment of the Singapore landscape? 
We grumble that it's so hard to do business with the Indonesians due to a lack of "legal certainty". The President can agree to a treaty but domestic politicking can scupper everything. We like to boast that in Singapore, we pride ourselves in our adherence to legal certainty.
PELU had approved my permit by middle July, on which basis, I paid the $20 fee and proceeded to finalise arrangements for Sanders' talk. On his part, he bought his airline ticket. Did we enjoy legal certainty?
Before we point fingers at others, take a hard look at our own banana republic.
© Yawning Bread