Acts of Civil Society

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

Photograph by Robin Rheaume. 2014.

Photograph by Robin Rheaume. 2014.

On the morning of 4 December 2014, a small group of concerned Singapore folks stood in protest of the EU Human Rights Seminar’s invited speaker, former Nominated Member of Parliament Dr. Thio Li-Ann, who was scheduled to address “International Human Rights Law and National Courts in Asia”. While four members of civil society stood at the front of the room, two others in the crowd unfurled and held aloft a rainbow flag. Several others sat documenting and publicizing the event on social media as it transpired. The whole time Dr. Thio spoke, these folks stood and sat in silence. They never interrupted her talk, never tried to stop her from speaking. EU delegates and organizers did not interfere with their demonstration.

This protest was a courageous, inspired, and smart act of civil disobedience. It was a demonstration of tactics learned and adapted, of strategies developed from “movements within movements,” and of the multiplicity of paths being taken by contemporary groups to amplify their voices.

The complaints I’ve heard over the past twenty-four hours follow a certain pattern. “This is the result of foreign influence.” “This is the imposition of Western ideas on traditional Singapore society.” “These people are trouble makers who don’t represent the majority of Singapore society.” “This was disrespectful and only hurt the protesters’ positions.” “Such protests have no place in a civil society because there are other channels for addressing these issues.” “Things just aren’t done like this here.”

Two points.

First, I was immediately impressed because these actions were a protest against the EU Human Rights Seminar. This was not a protest against local authority, local government, nor local law. Here was a facet of Singapore civil society talking back to an international Human Rights body, demanding local delegates be recognized to represent their perspective on this seminar, especially in a local context. Here was a well-informed segment of Singapore society teaching the EU (and other watching) about the multiplicity of people and the competition of ideas in conversation in contemporary Singapore and the larger region of South East Asia.

Second, following this event as I was on social media, I was reminded of the alternative histories and possibilities–the movements of movements, paths not taken–that mark the history of Singapore. In Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-war Singapore, editors Michael D. Barr and Carl A. Trocki collect a group of essays that trace the history of multiplicity and diversity that was Singapore society and politics from the 1950s through the 1970s. As I read and watched video on Thursday morning, I thought, the complexity that was Singapore, the possibility for different, parallel, and competing strategies was resurfacing. This was direct civil action that recalled the alternatives in play, for a time, in Singapore’s past. (For those of us who are following along, this change has been in motion for some time now.)

In the end, this civil dissent recalls the very best of acts of civility, of acts within civil society in its oldest meanings. Civil, of course, comes from the Latin, civilis, meaning “relating to public life” and especially public life outside official channels or possibilities. Acts of civility are acts related to the betterment of public life through popular means. “To be civil,” while it now connotes an inherited middle-class sense of manners and taste, once implied only that one was acting outside State-sanctioned, especially military, channels. Civil acts were separate from Military acts. At its roots, then, to be civil is to act with regard for others–to look at/to care for–others. This complex relation is at the heart of civil society, as demonstrated in Singapore this past week.

The day before the event, these members of civil society submitted this statement of their concerns to The Online Citizen, a local online news source:

Statement of concern on Thio Li-Ann as speaker at EU human rights seminar

December 3, 2014 by Howard Lee in Civil Society

The European Union Delegation to Singapore is organising a half-day seminar to mark and raise awareness of Human Rights Day (10 December) on 4 December. Former Nominated Member of Parliament Dr Thio Li-Ann has been listed as one of the speakers, with the topic “International Human Rights Law and National Courts in Asia”. The following is a statement issued by various members of civil society expressing concern at Dr Thio’s representation at the seminar.

We, the undersigned, write to express our disappointment at the choice of Prof Thio Li Ann as a speaker for the Human Rights Day seminar hosted by the EEAS European Union Delegation to Singapore.

It is a matter of public record that Prof Thio: –

1. believes the LGBT community is not entitled to the protections of human rights with respect to issues of sexuality, even between consenting homosexual adults.

In 2007, Prof Thio argued, in the Parliament of Singapore, in favour of the continued criminalization of adult consensual same sex relations in Singapore. She asserted that:

“Human rights are universal, like prohibitions against genocide. Demands for ‘homosexual rights’ are the political claims of a narrow interest group masquerading as legal entitlements….You cannot make a human wrong a human right.

2. deliberately used graphic language to engender repugnance against homosexual adults in her 2007 speech:

“Anal-penetrative sex is inherently damaging to the body and a misuse of organs, like shoving a straw up your nose to drink. The anus is designed to expel waste; when something is forcibly inserted into it, the muscles contract and cause tearing; fecal waste, viruses carried by sperm and blood thus congregate, with adverse health implications like ‘gay bowel syndrome’, anal cancer. ‘Acts of gross indecency’ under 377A also covers unhygienic practices like “rimming” where the mouth comes into contact with the anus. Consent to harmful acts is no defence – otherwise, our strong anti-drug laws must fall as it cannot co-exist with letting in recreational drugs as a matter of personal lifestyle choice.

3. characterizes attempts by LGBT activists and their allies to promote non-discrimination on grounds of gender and sexuality as a conspiratorial attempts to subvert law, order, community and public morality.

In the same parliamentary speech of 2007, she asserts that: –

“Homosexual activists often try to infiltrate and hijack human rights initiatives to serve their political agenda, discrediting an otherwise noble cause to protect the weak and poor.”

And again,

“Conversely, homosexual activists lobby hard for a radical sexual revolution, waging a liberal fundamentalist crusade against traditional morality. They adopt a step­by­step approach to hide how radical the agenda is.”

4. continues to speak of homosexuality as a “gender identity disorder” from which individuals can be “reoriented” and characterizes any scientific research which calls her perspective into question as “politicised pseudo science”.

The EEAS should note that she explicitly endorses a position which runs counter to the professional standards of internationally recognized mental health associations including the World Health Organisation, the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, The Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK, and the Chinese Psychiatric Association amongst others.

An invited speaker is a position of honour and prestige and conveys significant legitimacy to the speaker. With this in mind, we are concerned about the underlying principles and values being communicated to the public with the EEAS’s invitation to Prof Thio to speak at a Human Rights event, given her public statements against the LGBTQ community. Under these circumstances, some may construe this invitation as an implicit endorsement of the speaker and her views by the organizer.

Article 13 of the EC Treaty and the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights explicitly prohibits discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Moreover, the Commissioner for Human Rights recommends that authorities in Council of Europe member states should:

  • Take a strong public position against violations of the human rights of LGBT persons and promote respect on issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, for example through human rights education and awareness-raising campaigns.
  • Take steps to encourage factual, objective and professional reporting by the media on LGBT persons and issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity.

The European External Action Service lists one of its key roles as “Human rights defender”.

We are profoundly disappointed and we urge the EU and the EEAS to explain how inviting Prof Thio as a speaker for a Human Rights Day seminar is consistent with its own stated role as a defender and advocate of human rights.

2 thoughts on “Acts of Civil Society

  1. Pingback: Daily SG: 8 Dec 2014 | The Singapore Daily

  2. Pingback: Statement of concern on Thio Li-Ann as speaker at EU human rights seminar | The ASEAN SOGIE Caucus

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