Govt explains ban on Douglas Sanders’ lecture

Editor’s note: In August 2008, the Home Affairs Ministry put pressure on the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) to cancel a lecture by Prof Douglas Sanders, an international expert on human rights and gay-related laws. A second talk scheduled for the same visit to Singapore by Sanders, organised by Alex Au of People Like Us also had to be cancelled when the police reversed the approval that they had originally given (subject to getting a professional visit pass for Sanders). This was the explanation given by the government in Parliament a month later:

Source: Parliamentary reports (Hansard)
Date: 18 September 2008

Public lecture by Professor Emeritus Douglas Sanders

(Reasons for cancellation of public entertainment licence)

6.  Mr Baey Yam Keng asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs (a) what are the reasons for the change in assessment of the permit for Prof. Emeritus Douglas Sanders’ public lecture after the permit was previously approved; and (b) what is the number of similar cancellations of approved permits in the past five years and what are the main reasons for their cancellation. 

7.  Mr Siew Kum Hong asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs (a) why was a public entertainment licence initially granted for a public lecture on 7th August 2007 by Prof. Emeritus Douglas Sanders; and (b) what circumstances had changed to result in the cancellation of the licence.

The Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs (Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee) (for the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs):  Sir, may I take Question Nos. 6 and 7 together?

Mr Speaker:  Yes, please.

Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee:  Sir, Police assesses each application for a public entertainment licence (PEL) carefully based on the information available.  After approving a licence, Police will continue to monitor developments.  There may be circumstances under which Police may re-assess the application and cancel the public entertainment licence, if necessary, for public safety, good order or public interest reasons.

In the case of the public lecture on 7th August, after careful deliberation, Police assessed that the event was contrary to the public interest and cancelled the licence for the event.  This was because it became subsequently clear to Police that the event was part of the efforts of gay activists to promote their political agenda which involved a foreigner.  Our laws are an expression and reflection of the values of our society and any public discourse in Singapore on such matters should be reserved for Singaporeans.  Foreigners will not be allowed to interfere in our domestic political scene, whether in support of the gay cause or against it.
There has been no similar cancellation of a licence granted for talks by foreign speakers in the past five years.  This is because Police is usually able to make a decision whether to approve or reject a licence application based on the information available.  As I have said earlier, in the case of the public lecture by Prof. Sanders, Police decided to cancel the licence based on additional information which subsequently came to its knowledge.

Mr Michael Palmer (Pasir Ris-Punggol):   Mr Speaker, two supplementary questions.  The first question: given that the permit or the licence was approved and then cancelled four days before the event, will this affect Singapore’s reputation of having a stable operating environment where there are sudden U-turn decisions?  The second question: if foreigners should interfere in local politics and local policies, many foreign experts are engaged by the Government to comment and advise on local policies, are we saying that the Government is permitted to engage foreigners in policy making to the exclusion of initiatives by the civil society?

Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee:  Sir, I understand that the event did go ahead. In other words, even though the PEL was cancelled for the event, the condition was that there should be no foreigners speaking in it.  But as long as there are no foreigners speaking in it, you will not need a talk which is indoors.  In any case, Sir, the information subsequently came to the Police shortly before it withdrew the PEL on 3rd August, which was full four days before the talk.  In other words, Police acted as expeditiously as it could.

On the other question, the context is important.  It is not as though that foreigners cannot make their comments or views known on Singapore’s policies and laws.  In fact, they all do.  But it is quite different if the context is a situation in Singapore where we know that there is an ongoing debate for some time already on a topic which is divisive, a topic which has caused two sides in particular to expound different points of views.  From what we know, Prof. Douglas Sanders is a known advocate for the human rights of the gays and lesbians. We can hear his views on the air or read it online but it is quite different to invite him here to speak to a Singapore audience at this time.

Mr Siew Kum Hong (Nominated Member):   Sir, two supplementary questions.  My first question is whether the Minister can clarify what is the nature of the additional information that led to the licence being cancelled.  I am asking that because there could be a concern that the Police did not fully deliberate the circumstances of the application before they granted it the first time round.  My second question is whether the Police had considered granting the licence subject to conditions.  This is because, as I understand it, the application was for a talk on international trends outside Singapore.  So the application itself did not cover Singapore at all.  If that was the case, would the Police have considered granting the licence subject to the condition that the speaker did not touch on Singapore?

Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee:   Sir, the information was made available to Police which was information available online.  Essentially, the context of the original application was for a talk, as Mr Siew has said, on a topic which looked innocuous enough, which was “Sexual Orientation in International Law: The Case of Asia”.  So it appeared to be a lecture highlighting Prof. Sanders’ research, comparing the laws of Europe and Asia.  But subsequent to that, like I have said, Police came across information available online. They then understood the larger context – which was really that it was part of a two-week stretch of events where local activists had organised several other events, such as talks, exhibitions, forums, etc, which promoted the gay cause.

I think the Police then had a better understanding of the background of Prof. Sanders, in particular, there was another talk which was also publicised online, an intended talk by Prof. Sanders at another place, which led Police to believe that Prof. Sanders was likely to talk about our section 377A which is the criminalising of homosexual sex.  And also, in terms of the background of Prof. Sanders, Police subsequently came to the knowledge that, in fact, he was an advocate for the criminalising of homosexual sex who had spoken, for example, at the United Nations.  That is the context.  It was not taken lightly.  Neither was it a case where Police just approved without careful consideration.  Police did approve carefully, based on the information then available.

Mr Speaker:  Mr Siew, one last question.

Mr Siew Kum Hong:   Sir, I have two supplementary questions.  My first question is whether the Police had fully investigated the background of the speaker before they granted the licence the first time around because I am sure that the information was available online when they were considering the first application.  The SMOS has referred to another talk. I would just like to ask whether the other talk was in Singapore and whether a licence had been granted for the other talk and, if so, when was it.

Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee:  The first point is, like I have said, the Police assessed the application according to the information made available to it.  So the applicant would have to furnish the information.  So, here, the curriculum vitae of Prof. Sanders that was given to the Police did not indicate, for example, his involvement in the UN or the fact that he had written articles which talked about the local equivalent of our section 377A.  The other talk was organised by a statutory body and because it was a statutory body under a parent Ministry, it did not require a licence.

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