~ By Ghui ~
The concept of human rights sits uncomfortably with Singaporeans. As a country, we have oft been accused of being economical with press freedom, freedom of speech and the like. These allegations have no doubt caused Singaporeans to become defensive, both at a governmental level and at an ordinary citizen level. So ready to deflect any perceived criticisms we are that we often employ the “strike first” approach. It doesn’t matter if what’s being said is objectively reasonable or if it is warranted. If it is from a foreign source, we immediately disregard it as “foreign intervention”. In so doing, we limit ourselves, lock ourselves in with “small country syndrome” and conflate the concept of human rights with a misplaced idea of nationalism and “Asian values”.
The Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF)
The OFF is a conference about human rights. It aims to bring together world leaders including former heads of state, winners of the Nobel Peace Prize and prisoners of conscience as well as a selection of authors, together with business, political, media, technology and cultural leaders from both Norway and internationally.
I understand that Dr. Chee Soon Juan has been invited to attend this forum but permission for him to travel to Norway has been denied on the grounds that he is a bankrupt individual. This is despite the fact that the OFF has undertaken to pay for all of Dr. Chee’s travel expenses ("Human rights group writes open letter to PM Lee", Yahoo News, 25 Apr 2012).
Perhaps the government is worried that Dr. Chee would escape but in all honesty, he could have done so a long time ago if he were so inclined.
I may not agree with all of Dr. Chee’s views but at the end of the day, I see it as an honour for a Singaporean to be invited to such a conference with all expenses paid.
Singapore wishes to be an internationally recognised city. Would it not be a privilege which would enhance Singapore’s image on the international stage if a Singaporean is invited to be a part of a conference that would involve some of the world’s most famous names?
Fair Comment does not equate to Foreign Intervention
Some commentators have alluded to the fact that it is yet again the West trying to stir trouble in Singapore. These commentators have gone on to suggest that the OFF could have invited anyone else but they chose to invite Dr. Chee because they knew that he would not be permitted to travel and that this refusal could then be used as a further opportunity to lambast Singapore.
With all due respect, this presents itself as very flawed logic. The OFF is a gathering of so many individuals and has a far more global outlook and reach than Singapore. Surely, they have better things to do than to plot on how to find a way to criticise Singapore?
The real reason why they invited Dr. Chee is far simpler than the grandiose subterfuge that has been imagined by some. The OFF invited Dr. Chee because they feel that he embodies human rights and to a large extent, I can see why they think that.
Whether Dr. Chee’s views are right or wrong is not the point. The point is that he was willing to speak his mind when many people would not have. Perhaps he was needlessly antagonistic but again, that is a separate issue altogether.
Dr. Chee spoke out, was deemed defamatory and made bankrupt in the process. People have speculated that the defamation suits were but a means to discredit a dissenting force. But again, that is a topic for another day. Rightly or wrongly, Dr. Chee has inherited the mantle of “poster child for what not to do in politics” from JBJ and by so doing, is perceived as a martyr for freedom of speech, a subset of human rights.
I digress but let’s not miss the forest for the trees. The OFF is not about trying to tell other sovereign nations what to do. It is simply a conference about human rights with attendees who are involved in its proliferation. Dr. Chee’s invitation is not an endorsement of his political views. It is merely acknowledgement that he has spoken about human rights numerous times. It is not an affront to Singapore that he has been invited and we should not take it as such.
Even if Singapore is criticised, so what? If it is a preposterous accusation, we can simply ignore it or state our side of the story. If there is truth in the allegation, then, we should take heed and reflect. Hitting out like a hedgehog with its spines out only serves to make us impervious to development.
Many countries get criticised. Singapore is not alone in this and should not take objective comment so personally.
Dr. Chee was not invited as a representative of Singapore
On the Huffington Post website, a Mr Jeffrey Tas commented, “As far as I know and in my opinion, there are worse infringements of "human rights" in for example Middle East, China, India, as well as in parts of Africa… I support Singapore's decision not to grant Dr. Chee leave, because in as so far as the actions of Dr. Chee go, he does not represent Singapore, he does not represent the general Singaporean, and he does not give a fair assessment of Singapore and how the system works.”
With all due respect to Mr Tas, this is a misunderstanding of the OFF’s objectives. The OFF is a human rights forum. It does not purport to seek views from candidates as representatives of their sovereign states. Dr. Chee was invited in his personal capacity and not as a representative of Singapore. As such, whether or not he represents Singapore is not relevant.
Besides, should we be using “worst” countries as a benchmark?
I would urge the Public Trustee’s Office to grant Dr. Chee leave to attend the conference. The risk of his escape would be negligible. Nor would they have to worry about Dr. Chee’s expenses.
Granting him leave to attend this conference can have the twin effects of not only increasing Singapore’s standing in the world of intellectual discourse but will also dispel the notion among Singaporeans that our government cannot accept dissenting views.