What are 'controversial social issues with political overtones' foreigners must stay out of?
On June 4, Hong Lim Park played host to the Pink Dot rally, an annual event to support the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
A few days after the event, on June 7, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued a statement that said: "The Government's general position has always been that foreign entities should not interfere in our domestic issues, especially political issues or controversial social issues with political overtones. These are political, social or moral choices for Singaporeans to decide for ourselves. LGBT issues are one such example.
"This is why under the rules governing the use of the Speakers' Corner, for events like the Pink Dot, foreigners are not allowed to organise or speak at the events, or participate in demonstrations."
The statement has drawn a flurry of criticism online and in mainstream media. I must confess it got me a bit puzzled too.
First, when is a foreign entity foreign, and when is it resident?
This year, there were 18 corporate sponsors of Pink Dot. They included Google, Barclays, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Twitter, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. Local sponsors included PS.Cafe and Cavenagh Law.
Pink Dot's organisers have stated that its sponsors are all registered and incorporated in Singapore. As writer George Hwang put it pointedly in a commentary on The Online Citizen website: "You cannot consider MNCs' locally incorporated subsidiaries as 'Singaporean' for tax purposes and as alien for Speakers' Corner."
The issue of what is "foreign" when applied to Pink Dot sponsors is one grey area.
Another grey area is what constitutes "interference".
If sponsoring an event constitutes interference, then why do iconic summits organised by Singapore government agencies seek sponsorship from companies, including foreign ones? The World Cities Summit and Singapore Energy Summit, for example, both have foreign sponsors. In the cities summit, there is a discussion on whether culture matters in a city - a potentially sociopolitical issue.
The Singapore International Film Festival includes Swiss watch manufacturer IWC Schaffhausen as official time partner, and Marina Bay Sands, a subsidiary of Las Vegas Sands Corp, as presenting sponsor. Movies too can feature "controversial social issues with political overtones" - as we know from the Government's periodic moves to ban the public screening of films such as Tan Pin Pin's To Singapore with Love.
Will the ban on foreign sponsorship be extended beyond the pro-gay Pink Dot event, to film and other cultural events and even conferences on socio-political themes? If not, why single out Pink Dot as an event that cannot get foreign sponsors?
Or perhaps the concern about Pink Dot is over law and order, given its rising popularity. Attendance rose from 2,500 in its first year in 2009 to 28,000 last year. Gay pride parades in Turkey and Russia, among others, have sparked riots, sometimes when anti-gay protesters clashed with gay pride marchers. Last week's horrific mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando highlights the potential for violence over this polarising issue. But if law and order were a concern, MHA should say so explicitly and offer solutions that make sense from a security point of view, not restrict foreign sponsors.
In making the arguments above, I am merely trying to sketch out the anomalies and contradictions that ensue when one tries to apply the rule that "foreign entities should not interfere in our domestic issues, especially political issues or controversial social issues with political overtones".
To be sure, the rule on no foreign interference in domestic politics is not a new one. I think most Singaporeans would support the line in the sand against foreign meddling drawn by this Government. I, for one, certainly do.
We want to evolve our political system at a pace we are comfortable with. We do not want, or need, foreign democracy activists or human rights groups - some with dubious sources of funding - to push our tiny, fragile and extremely beloved island-nation down paths we will find hard to turn back from.
What is unsettling about the MHA statement is its addition of the category of "controversial social issues with political tones" to the list of off-limits issues for foreigners. This definition is so widely written that it can become a trawler net to catch any issues that become embarrassing or inconvenient to the Government.
Already, activist group Aware has asked if its advocacy work - such as on workplace harassment, and support for single parents - will be affected by the rule.
Citing the latter issue, Aware executive director Corinna Lim wrote in The Straits Times' Forum page: "If a group objects to this and floods the Government with letters of complaint, would it become a 'controversial' social issue? Would any support we might have from foreign entities thus be deemed 'interference'?
"We are troubled by these potential implications of MHA's statement, which is ambiguous, leaves too much open to possibly arbitrary interpretation, and seems to go much further than previous pronouncements."
Ms Lim has a valid concern.
Singapore is at a transition point.
We have a Committee on the Future Economy to chart our economic blueprint. We are rethinking our school and training model, to integrate in-school and after-school learning better. We are concerned about the limits of our meritocracy system, and want to broaden our social safety net.
We should not close ourselves off, mentally or culturally, from the rich debates raging worldwide on many issues of social equity that have a bearing on the challenges we face. These range from income inequality to disruptive technologies and the impact these will have on jobs and incomes, to the equity of health systems, and to the continued relevance of our industrial-model education system.
Many of these issues can all justifiably be described as "controversial social issues with political overtones". What does keeping out foreign interference in these issues then mean? No foreign sponsors , even from local subsidiaries of foreign firms? No foreign academics allowed to speak at a conference on these issues? What is a "foreign academic" anyway? Does a foreign lecturer at a local university count?
There are many grey areas and questions arising from this loosely written rule against foreign interference in "controversial social issues with political overtones".
Keeping debate on difficult social issues entirely local hinders our ability to learn from the experiences of others. An open, inclusive attitude can help us better reach a national consensus on difficult issues.
As for LGBT issues, they are certainly contentious and emotionally charged because they deal with people's freedom to love without breaking the law, and some religions have clear teachings against homosexual practices. Debate on these issues will be fractious. They may even be "controversial social issues with political overtones". Pro- and anti-gay camps may want to tap foreign sponsors and foreign groups (such as churches, universities, organisations) to talk to Singaporeans about such issues.
To be sure, it makes for a messier socio-political environment.
But do LGBT issues fall under the category of domestic politics that is core to Singapore's interests and identity as a nation, and from which foreign participation and sponsorship of events should be banned? I do not think so.
Singaporeans are a nationalistic lot. We will support a government that ringfences our political system and domestic political contests from foreign interference.
But Singaporeans are also a probing, sceptical bunch.
If the Government wants to keep out foreigners from some debates and events, yet include them in others, we need more convincing on why, and how.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 19, 2016, with the headline 'Grey areas in rule against 'foreign sponsorship' of Pink Dot'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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