Civil society members protest law professor's invitation to speak at human rights seminar

Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Thio Li-Ann is a NUS law faculty lecturer. A group of 78 civil society members have expressed their disappointment that law professor and former Nominated Member of Parliament Thio Li-ann has been invited to
Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Thio Li-Ann is a NUS law faculty lecturer. A group of 78 civil society members have expressed their disappointment that law professor and former Nominated Member of Parliament Thio Li-ann has been invited to speak at a human rights seminar. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - A group of 78 civil society members have expressed their disappointment that law professor and former Nominated Member of Parliament Thio Li-ann has been invited to speak at a human rights seminar.

The group said in a statement on Wednesday that Dr Thio's past public speeches against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community made her an unsuitable speaker at the Human Rights Day event, which is organised by the European Union (EU) Delegation to Singapore.

Dr Thio, a Provost's Chair Professor at the National University of Singapore's Faculty of Law, is slated to talk about international human rights law and national courts in Asia at the event on Thursday.

In their statement, the civil society members recalled Dr Thio's argument in Parliament in 2007 against the repeal of section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sex between men.

Dr Thio had said such a repeal would be the "first step of a radical, political agenda" to subvert social morality and the common good. Section 377A was eventually not repealed.

Her speech had also argued that while "human rights are universal", demands for "'homosexual rights' are the political claims of a narrow interest group masquerading as legal entitlements".

The civil society members said this showed the law don's belief that the LGBT community was not entitled to human rights protections with respect to issues of sexuality.

They also noted that Dr Thio had characterised homosexuality as a "gender identity disorder", a position which they said is contrary to that of medical associations such as the World Health Organisation and the American Psychiatric Association.

The group cautioned that the EU's invitation of Dr Thio to speak at its event could be construed as an "implicit endorsement" of her views. This would run counter to the European Commission Treaty and the European Union's Charter of Fundamental Rights, which prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

They added: "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." The European External Action Service (EEAS) is the EU's diplomatic service.

Among those who signed the statement are playwright Ovidia Yu, blogger Alex Au and non-governmental organisation Think Centre.

But not everyone in civil society agrees with the group's stand.

After the statement was issued, another group calling themselves Singaporeans United For Family posted on Facebook that they "condemn the efforts of some groups and individuals in society to attempt to silence those with whom they disagree".

"Categories like 'gender, sexual orientation and gender identity' are controversial both in Singapore and worldwide. They are neither recognised as universal human rights nor accepted under the Singapore constitution," the second group noted.

This is not the first time Dr Thio's anti-gay views have caused a ruckus well after her 2007 speech.

In 2009, she cancelled a planned teaching stint at New York University's School of Law, after the school's students, alumni and faculty protested her suitability to teach a course on human rights law in Asia, and few people signed up for her classes.