Donaldson Tan

There have been acts of mis-information over Thio Li-Ann’s decision to cancel her visit to New York University (NYU). Particularly, Thio Li-Ann’s supporters attempted to demonise the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) community and their supporters by categorically stating them as an intolerant lot – an abuse of the vernacular term tolerance on top of the unspoken conflation between the Singaporean and American LGBT communities.

The Princeton Wordnet defines tolerance as “permissible difference; allowing some freedom to move within limits”. Clearly, tolerance does not mean no disagreement and hostility but being able to accommodate the disagreement or hostility of others regardless of others’ triumph. Moreover, it is naïve to demand people to solely rebut Thio Li-Ann’s arguments and opinion on LGBTs when these people do not necessarily share her access to the major public platforms and policy forums in Singapore. Reasoning alone is insufficient.

The crux here is what is considered permissible and what isn’t. The fundamental liberties guaranteed under Part IV of the Singapore Constitution are the freedoms of movement, speech, assembly, association and religion. An individual does not necessarily operate alone and he may use his freedoms to promote a particular opinion and persuade his target and opponents to accept this opinion.

However, these freedoms are subject to restriction by law. For example, religious liberty is curtailed by the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act while free speech is curtailed by the Defamation Act. Similarly in the United States, these rights are guaranteed by the United States Bill of Rights and they are also subjected to restriction by federal and state legislation.

Ronald Wong wrote to TODAYonline: “I think it is one thing to hold an opinion and tolerate others who have their own, and another thing to hold an opinion and then persecute others who disagree, in the name of non-discrimination.” Such a statement is symptomatic of “constantly shifting the goal posts” because no person holds the same criteria on what persecution is and there is no mechanism to ensure that this personal criteria is a fixed one. As a commonly accepted standard, the law sets the bar for what is considered as civil or illiberal and how opposing camps operate.

Christian Blogger Alastair Su wrote: “By intimidating professor Thio out of her appointment, they have essentially silenced someone in the name of freedom.” While suppression is illiberal, there is a need to differentiate between suppression and competition in the marketplace of ideas. In suppression, one’s liberty is taken away forcibly. In competition, one’s ability to exercise liberty effectively is damaged. The fact that Thio Li-Ann’s letters are published in the mainstream media is testimony to the fact that she retained her liberty but lost an international platform to propagate her views on LGBTs.

Going beyond permissible limits in Singapore and America is not only illiberal but also criminal. So why are there people mislabelling civil means to express disagreement and hostility as illiberal? Petition and boycott are democratic means to either express disagreement with policies or sway policies towards a particular direction. This is democracy at work. Rejecting democratic means to achieve result is surely illiberal and this embodies a tinge of dominionism.

A petition with 887 signatories questioned Thio Li-Ann’s suitability to teach “Human Rights in Asia” as a visiting professor at NYU. The signatories include NYU alumnus, faculty, students and other LGBT Supporters. The low registration rate of Thio Li-Ann’s classes also suggests boycott and a legitimate scepticism of her candidacy. Heartland Alliance also wrote to NYU to inform the university’s administration that they would boycott NYU’s future fund-raising events. The LGBT association NYU Outlaw also sought a Town-hall style meeting with the university’s administration to clarify the situation on Thio Li-Ann’s appointment.

An important thing to note is that the petition and boycott are targeted at the administration of NYU and not Thio Li-Ann herself. In a letter to TODAYonline dated 27 July 2009, Thio Li-Ann wrote: “To say I was ‘disappointed by the hostility’ minimises the virulence of the attacks I received. A cursory glance at the invective online explains why many friends worried for my safety.” Avoiding unnecessary risk is prudent but it is paranoia when she and her friends assume the LGBT Community in New York are not law-abiding citizens. By voluntarily resigning from NYU, she had missed out on a good opportunity to learn how LGBTs are just as human as her, how LGBTs can be just as conservative as heterosexuals in terms of public display of affection, and how LGBTs support family values..

Last but not least, is there a need for her to invoke nationalist sentiments in defending herself? She wrote in the aforementioned letter: “This was just one of the hostile, often vulgar messages I received, some insulting my intellect, gender, ethnicity and country.” Our national pledge emphasises “to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality”. Invoking nationalist sentiments in Singapore to resent democratic manoeuvres in America runs contrary to our national pledge and this begs a question: what is she really up to?

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