Prof Douglas Sanders: Barred last year, back this year

Source: Today
29 May 2008

Barred last year, back this year

Barely a stir last Friday as Canadian don presented paper on Section 377 at annual legal conference
by Loh Chee Kong

TEN months ago, at the height of the polarising debate on whether homosexual acts should be decriminalised, controversy broke when Canadian academic Douglas Sanders was barred from giving a public talk on the topic here — four days before he was due to speak.

Last Friday, Professor Sanders came and went, barely creating a ripple as he delivered a lecture at the Asian Law Institute’s (ASLI) 5th Annual Conference organised by the National University of Singapore law faculty. And it was on the very paper that he was scheduled to present last year.

The ASLI conference, which was held at NUS’ Bukit Timah campus, attracted more than 200 law experts and academics from 14 countries.

Responding to Today’s queries, a Ministry of Home Affairs spokesman explained that NUS, along with the other two public-funded universities, are exempt from the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act (Pema).

Said the spokesman: “The Pema licence for the earlier planned public lecture by Prof Sanders was cancelled because it was clear that the event was part of the efforts of gay activists to involve a foreigner in promoting their political agenda in the context of the Penal Code Review.”

In contrast, the ASLI Conference is “a bona fide academic event with many scholars and speakers … addressing issues of legal scholarship”, the spokesman added.

:Prof Sanders had last year been also scheduled to take part in a forum at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies. But the institute had cancelled it after the police withdrew the licence for his talk at IndigNation, an annual series of events organised by local gay groups.

Today understands that Prof Sanders’ lecture last week on his paper, “377 and the unnatural afterlife of British colonialism in Asia”, drew about 50 participants. It ran concurrently with other parallel sessions.

According to Prof Tan Cheng Han, the dean of the NUS law school and a member of ASLI’s Board of Governors, the institute “was aware that Prof Sanders would be presenting a similar paper to the one that he had wanted to present last year” at both events.

Noting that homosexuality — and Section 377A in particular — was a topic discussed at more than one session at last year’s ASLI conference in Jakarta, NUS’ Prof Tan said the law institute “generally has an open policy towards academics who wish to present papers at its annual conference”.

Prof Sanders’ 39-page paper, which is available online, described Singapore as “the best example of a jurisdiction with the odd trinity of criminal prohibition, social disapproval but little actual police enforcement of the law”.

It also asserts that by retaining Section 377A, Singapore politicians “want to avoid controversial subjects” including adoption, social recognition and support for homosexuals.

When addressing Parliament last year on why Prof Sander’s talk at IndigNation had been banned, :Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee — the Senior Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs — had described Prof Sanders as “an advocate for decriminalising homosexuality”.

Assoc Prof Ho had also said the lecture was “contrary to public interest”, and reiterated that foreigners “will not be allowed to interfere in our domestic political scene, whether in support of the gay cause or against it”.

Yesterday, however, the ministry spokesman said there was “no objection to Prof Sanders the person or his right to express his views whether on gay issues or other matters”.

Today was unable to reach Prof Sanders for comments. The :Chulalongkorn University emeritus professor is understood to be in Russia.

Gay rights activist Alex Au, who met Prof Sanders when he was in town from last Wednesday to Saturday, felt that the Government “overreacted last year”.

“It’s in the nature of academic talks on minority interest issues, that they do not create any risk to public order,” said Mr Au.

While noting the “material difference” between a public lecture and an academic conference, Tanjong Pagar MP Baey Yam Keng felt it was “just coincidental” that the timing of Prof Sanders’ scheduled talk last year was “very close to the debate (on the Penal Code amendments) in Parliament”.

Still, Mr Baey added: “No one can be sure what would have been the public reaction if it had gone ahead. But I thought it could have actually added to the discussion last year.”

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