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I absolutely agree that Singapore politics is for Singaporeans to decide – Blacklisted human-rights activist

In early June this year, Taiwan-based journalist and human-rights activist Bo Tedards flew to Singapore to attend a friend's funeral but learnt that he had been 'blacklisted' and barred from entering. (Read his Facebook entry here) In an exclusive interview with The Online Citizen, he reveals the details of the incident, and explains why he will continue working to promote democracy in Asia.

Mr Bo Tedards on an election observation mission in Cambodia near the Laos border in 2002

 

You are the coordinator for World Forum for Democratization in Asia (WFDA).Can you tell us about what the organisation does?

WFDA is a network of Asian democracy and human rights advocates and activists, be they civil society leaders, political figures, or academics. It tries to provide a platform for mutual solidarity and exchange of information, as well as a means to amplify the voice of Asian democrats in global democracy forums, where they are often underrepresented.

What is its stance on Singapore?

The same as for all countries, to hope that the Singaporean people can enjoy all the universal (see below) principles of human rights and democracy

You had been in Singapore on several occasions, including once where you were photographed at a Mayday walk conducted by the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) in 2007. When was the last time you were here?

I’ve only been to Singapore twice, actually, and neither time participated in any public events. I went to observe the SDP’s activity mostly out of curiosity, although I am not embarrassed to say that I have the highest respect for Dr. Chee and his courageous efforts on behalf of his countrymen.

Mr Tedards with Dr Chee Soon Juan at a democracy forum in Kuala Lumpur in 2005

Before this occasion where you were banned from entering, were there any time when you were in Singapore that you were given some indication that you would not be 'welcomed' or that you might be blacklisted?

No.

Could you give us more details as to what happened at Changi Airport? Did the immigration officers give you any reasons why you were refused entry?

My impression is that everything was more or less standard routine for them. I was taken out of the regular immigration line, sent to a side office room to wait. When I had a chance to talk to the officer on duty, I informed him of the purpose of my visit. He said he didn’t know the reason for the refusal, but hinted that I should have known myself, and thus I should have applied for permission to enter. Since I normally do not need a visa to enter Singapore (I hold a valid US passport), I have no idea how I should have known this. In any case, I only learned about my friend’s passing one day before the funeral, so there was no possibility of any such application. But he said he would report the purpose of my visit to his superiors. After a little while, he said since he hadn’t yet had any response, he had to continue the standard procedure, which was to serve me with the notice of refusal of entry, and then transfer me to the holding facility. I was allowed one phone call en route to the facility (it’s in another part of the airport), but when one gets there, one has to surrender one’s phone, computer, sharp objects, etc. It’s basically a kind of detention center, actually.

The officer said that if any word came from the Ministry (I assume he meant Home Affairs), they would notify me immediately. But none came, and at midnight I was escorted to the gate to board the next flight back to Taiwan. Ironically, that was the flight I had booked in the first place, since I intended to return immediately after attending the funeral and having dinner with the family.

You have written to the Ministry of Home Affairs for an explanation of the blacklisting. What is the reply?

The reason cited in the letter is that on my previous visit I had been invited by a NGO to share my experience with a group of local activists here in a private function: "You had thus interfered in Singapore's domestic politics ... [and] as such you have been barred from entering SIngapore." However, as was my understanding at the time, apparently I have not violated any laws; at least no such violations were mentioned.

With your 'blacklisting' how would your work be impeded in any way?

It’s not a major impediment, since there are usually very few relevant international conferences, etc. in Singapore. In our network, we have to do most of the work by email and telephone anyway, due to constraints of distance and cost. But of course face to face contact is preferable when possible, and this makes it marginally harder to keep this up with Singaporean friends, especially those who are banned from travelling out of Singapore.

The Singapore Government is very firm on its stance that Singapore politics is for Singaporeans to decide. Quite a number of Singaporeans agree. In fact, they often point to the 'West's' problematic human rights records as a sign that foreign critics should be cleaning up their own houses first before importing 'Western' notions of human rights to the rest of the world. What is your take on such views?

There are several red herrings bound together here.

First, there is the hoary old red herring that human rights are “Western” and therefore that it’s “unfair” to “impose” them on non-Western countries. While there are some aspects of human rights that are still developing, that have not reached a high level of global consensus, the basic set of fundamental rights (at a minimum, this includes those that are in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the primary United Nations conventions) are truly universal. They have been drafted and adopted by people from around the world, and they apply to all people everywhere.

But you say your readers are basically familiar with the concept of universality, and some of them are not fully convinced?Let’s try to illustrate it in another way, with a thought experiment.

What does it mean to argue that human rights are not universal? If they are not universal, than one group (be it a racial, religious, or simply geographical one) must be entitled to enjoy more rights than another group. Making such divisions means that groups are categorized as less worthy of enjoying rights, in other words that some people or more or less human. This recalls two historical circumstances. First, the original US Constitution stipulated that each slave was to be counted in the census as 2/3 of a person. Second, under most colonial administrations, citizens of the metropolitan country enjoyed more rights than local colonial subjects (I suppose such was the case in Singapore under the British, yes?). Once one considers human rights as not universal, it is quite difficult to make any principled argument against either of these arrangements. If the categories used are racial (or quasi-racial, like “Asian” and “Western”), denial of universality is racist. The discourse of “Asian values” is actually a holdover from colonial, orientalist mentalities that supposed Asians to be inherently inferior to Europeans. I don’t subscribe to any such notions, and I hope you don’t either!

The second red herring is the confusion (quite deliberate, at least on the part of authoritarian regimes and their defenders) between international human rights work conducted by individuals and civil society organizations and the foreign policies of various governments. All human rights workers worth their salt are just as quick to point out flaws in their own countries as they are in others. To take a “Western” example, Freedom House not only rates all countries, including the US, on the same scale of indicators, but they even published a book-length report about human rights issues in the US. To take an example closer to home, many Southeast Asian human rights workers are very outspoken about the grave abuses in Burma; if you asked, you would find that these same people are almost invariably severely critical of the human rights records of their own countries’ governments.

Now, do governments (from whatever region) sometimes try to utilize human rights as a tool to achieve other foreign policy objectives? Yes, they do. Do human rights workers consider that legitimate? It depends on the case, and there are often serious debates within the human rights community (and, for that matter, the foreign policy community) about the merits of each. Sometimes any international attention or diplomatic pressure might be better than nothing; other times a cause might be misused to the extent where the human rights goals become harder to reach or even discredited. An obvious, by now almost clichéd, example of the latter would be US President George Bush’s “freedom agenda” in the Middle East, which by being associated with the Iraq War has probably set back progress in the region. Thankfully, the younger generation of Arabs has recently taken matters into their own hands, and we wish them all the best of success in building a brighter future for their countries.

That gets me to the third red herring. Democracy by definition means that the people decide how to arrange their own political, economic, and social systems. Thus, saying a country should practice democracy is exactly the same as you said, that the country’s politics must be decided by the people for themselves. Therefore, like all genuine democracy advocates, I absolutely agree that “Singapore politics is for Singaporeans to decide.” Unfortunately, the position of the current leaders of Singapore is quite contrary to their fine-sounding rhetoric. They do not want ordinary citizens to decide freely for themselves, they want a hand-picked elite to decide for them. Otherwise, there would not be so many restrictions on what Singaporeans can and cannot say, or on how they may participate in the public arena. For that matter, turning full circle, there would be no need to impose arbitrary entry restrictions on people for political reasons.

Which gets to my final red herring. Are Singaporeans less able than people in other countries (not only in the “West” but even other Asian countries) to understand and evaluate information? Less educated? Less intelligent? Less competent? I certainly don’t think so. If you agree with me, than what possible harm is there in anyone from either inside or outside Singapore expressing any opinion? Does anyone seriously believe that because a “Westerner” says something, Singaporeans will somehow be hypnotized into following it blindly? If not, then how could I or anyone like me “interfere” in Singapore’s affairs with only my pen or my mouth?

If I or someone like me writes rubbish, surely everyone will just delete it! But if any Singaporean decides that it is useful in any way, then by all means she should use it. Finally, it hardly makes any difference these days whether a person speaks or writes inside or outside the country. Unless you are going to shut off the internet altogether like North Korea, how are you going to prevent Singaporeans from accessing almost everything that is written or spoken all around the world? The government should have more confidence in the people of Singapore: when they need to make decisions for the public good, they will weigh all the information and opinions they have received from all sources and make whatever decisions they see fit to make. And that is how it should be. That is democracy!