Human rghts in Singapore: Always derogated (part 2)

See part 1 here. Alex Au has a post that has more details here (more on this below).

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

To recap: On 24 October 2012, the Handa Centre for Global Governance and Human Rights was scheduled to be opened with a launch at the Singapore Management University (SMU). SMU’s School of Law was to be host of the Centre, and a job for a part-time executive was even advertised before the launch was so unceremoniously cancelled.

On political pressure and wiggle room
The conflict at first blush focused on the naming of the Centre, particularly the words “Human Rights” in it, according to citizens’ journalism website The Online Citizen (TOC), and a “compromise name involving ‘Global Justice’ would have been acceptable” (more comments on this farther below).

This post is the second of a two-parter. It aims to dissect the issue and understand the context for the closure of the Centre – before it was even properly opened. The reasons and motivations for the various actors and stakeholders involved are not so essential here, but they will be taken into account. As such, this piece will cover quite a bit of ground, but may not be sufficient to satisfy everyone’s curiosity or queries.

To begin this exploration, take this part from the TODAY article:

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”.

As Au has seemed to corroborate, Dr Handa Haruhisha’s WSD organisation* – and by extension I would include the organisers at SMU – had decided not to proceed with the establishment of a “new centre”; or in this case, any Centre for that matter. But it appeared that it was not done strictly voluntarily. Such things never are in Singapore, even given the nuances pointed out by Au:

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.

It therefore appeared as though the government was being quite ‘progressive’, no? It was quite a thing to read about the combined weight of the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Law and Education like that. But then:

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.

However. We should also take into account this bit from TODAY, much as I am distrustful of this particular unnamed source:

Sources told TODAY that the setting up of the centre would have raised many red flags, not least its name and the fact that it was largely funded by a foreigner.

“Human rights remain a topic that has to be carefully managed in Singapore. The Centre would lack credibility if it critiques the human rights situation in other countries but not Singapore’s.” a source said.

“We are not quite ready yet for foreign funding, to be matched by a matching grant from the Government, on human rights research. It is a prudent move by SMU but one wonders how things went as far as they did before the plug was pulled. There were just too many red flags. The embarrassment could have been avoided.”

Ermm…excuse me?

The first question that needs to be asked is, “red flags” about what exactly (human rights?) and for whom– Singaporeans in general, SMU faculty and/or students, or the government (specifically, the Home Affairs Ministry)?

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The second question: Why did the Home Affairs Ministry express objections? And what was the basis for and nature of their objections?

Third, what did the “source” mean by, “We are not quite ready yet for foreign funding”? As Leong Sze Hian has written here, “There are other ‘Centres’ in the universities that are funded by foreigners. So, clearly the issue is not one of foreign funding.” And he’s right. Just do an internet search on this. The issue then is obviously about funding for human rights research (and other forms of work) in Singapore.

Fourth, this is quite telling: “The Centre would lack credibility if it critiques the human rights situation in other countries but not Singapore’s.” So apparently the “source” is aware of this incongruity. But s/he still does not want to look as if s/he is taking sides…yet. Which leads to my last point.

Fifth, the source’s choice of phrasing such as “It is a prudent move by SMU but one wonders how things went as far as they did before the plug was pulled” and “The embarrassment could have been avoided” is interesting, to say the least! A question of perspective is missing here, i.e. from what/whose perspective is the “source” coming from? Given the current overall context AND phrasing of these comments (e.g. “not quite ready”, “prudent move” to pull the plug, etc.), I can only conclude that TODAY‘s “source” (or sources) was a conservative and regressive voice in favour of the Centre’s closure.

And also, embarrasment for whom? For SMU, or for the government, or both? There are plenty of red flags raised here alright, but not what the “source” imagined them to be.

The first red flag is his/her very first quoted sentence: “Human rights remain a topic that has to be carefully managed in Singapore.” Read with the rest of his/her comments, it of course tells you much more about the worldview of this person and the state of Singapore’s political and social environment rather than anything about “human rights” itself.

Regarding SMU’s so-called voluntary decision to shut the Centre before it had even been properly established, Au had his own take on it. While ignoring TODAY‘s account, he does not directly contradict it either:

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.

The kind of political pressure put on SMU or that which it would face in Singapore’s political climate, even when not explicitly stated in his post, is revealing.

Au’s main point was about taking advantage of “wiggle room”. SMU did not do this, but it seemed that another institution did instead. From TODAY:

TODAY sent queries to the Ministry of Education (MOE) asking when it came to know of the centre and whether the Government had stepped in on the matter. 

In response, an MOE spokesperson would only say: “We were informed by the SMU that it had decided not to go ahead with the launch of the centre.”

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

…By which the Education Ministry is conveniently let off the hook, or at least wiggles its way free. (I promise this will be the end of the fishing and wiggle wordplay.)

Finally, let us explore the term “global justice”, which apparently would have been acceptable in place of “human rights” in the Centre’s name.

Okay, let’s see here…

“Global Justice”?
The notion of “global justice” evokes two broad images and sets of understandings.

The first is ‘social justice‘ with its emphasis on economic equality and egalitarianism. This is exemplified by the work of NGOs like Focus on the Global South, related or sympathetic media agencies like Inter-Press Service, research organisations, and think-tanks such as Transnational Institute and Foreign Policy in Focus – none of which are based in or have any presence in Singapore (surprise, surprise).

The second understanding refers to international norms of behaviour, organisations, and institutions (i.e. both laws and the organisations that administer/facilitate them). A good example is an organisation like the International Center for Transitional Justice that deals with seeking justice in the wake of massive human rights abuses and mass atrocity crimes. Others in this category include the International Criminal Court, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (the Khmer Rouge Tribunal), and the various ‘truth and reconciliation commissions’  that have emerged in various places, from South Africa to Chile, to address issues in these countries and societies that have been heavily scarred by conflict.

But ‘global justice’ of this scale and type should not be the focus of the Handa Centre, as the never-carried-out name change (e.g. “Handa Centre for Global Justice and Governance”, as Au has written) could have implied. It would be better to concentrate on social justice issues that have emerged due to the PAP government’s state capitalist and selective neoliberal policies, which has caused social tension and discontent, and increasing inequality in Singapore.

Social justice and human rights
Although they are different, social justice does overlap with and complement human rights issues. Leong has even claimed that Singapore is deficient where it involves economic, social and cultural rights, particularly in the areas of social security and public housing. He pointed out the possibly inadequate access to social security, and the lack of transparency, democratic processes as well as independent oversight in monitoring policy.

Such a Centre, even if established in Singapore with the words “Global Justice” in its name, does not need to get involved in the “transitional justice” arena of investigating and prosecuting for mass atrocity crimes. There are more than enough individuals, institutions, and organisations already doing this. Such a Centre, if it ever exists, needs to focus on Singapore as well as the ASEAN region, and should therefore study issues of social justice, which would logically also involve human rights.**

But now of course we’ll never know.


* 1. Worldwide Support for Development is a partner organisation of the Kofi Annan Foundation (set up by former UN Sec-Gen, Kofi Annan).
* 2. ‘Track 2’ institutions such as Pacific Forum CSIS have established a WSD-Handa Fellowship Programme “to help young East Asian, US, and European scholars and professionals obtain the knowledge and skills that will define them as they grow into the leaders of tomorrow.” While Singapore for its part is bereft of even a simple Centre supported by a (never-hired) part-time executive, within a School of a university.
** See “Egypt’s Workers – From Protest Movement to Organized Labor” for a real-life case of how the fight for social justice based initially on economic inequality has intersected with human rights and the broader social and political issues in Egypt.

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