Friday, 11 January 2008

OPQs 18 September 2007: Public Lecture by Professor Emeritus Douglas Sanders and UNSW Asia

The first OPQ here was about a public lecture by Professor Emeritus Douglas Sanders that was initially approved by the police, but the permit was subsequently withdrawn. Alex Au's account made it all seem a little farcical, and I wanted to know exactly what had happened.

The second OPQ here was about UNSW Asia. This was filed in the wake of a news story about UNSW Asia's possible insolvency, which could have affected the Singapore government's ability to recover the money that it had loaned and/or disbursed to UNSW Asia. Since detailed facts about what had been going on with UNSW Asia were not forthcoming, I decided to try to find out.


(Reasons for cancellation of public entertainment licence)

6. Mr Baey Yam Keng asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs (a) what are the reasons for the change in assessment of the permit for Prof. Emeritus Douglas Sanders' public lecture after the permit was previously approved; and (b) what is the number of similar cancellations of approved permits in the past five years and what are the main reasons for their cancellation.

7. Mr Siew Kum Hong asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs (a) why was a public entertainment licence initially granted for a public lecture on 7th August 2007 by Prof. Emeritus Douglas Sanders; and (b) what circumstances had changed to result in the cancellation of the licence.

The Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs (Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee) (for the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs): Sir, may I take Question Nos. 6 and 7 together?

Mr Speaker: Yes, please.

Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee: Sir, Police assesses each application for a public entertainment licence (PEL) carefully based on the information available. After approving a licence, Police will continue to monitor developments. There may be circumstances under which Police may re-assess the application and cancel the public entertainment licence, if necessary, for public safety, good order or public interest reasons.

In the case of the public lecture on 7th August, after careful deliberation, Police assessed that the event was contrary to the public interest and cancelled the licence for the event. This was because it became subsequently clear to Police that the event was part of the efforts of gay activists to promote their political agenda which involved a foreigner. Our laws are an expression and reflection of the values of our society and any public discourse in Singapore on such matters should be reserved for Singaporeans. Foreigners will not be allowed to interfere in our domestic political scene, whether in support of the gay cause or against it.

There has been no similar cancellation of a licence granted for talks by foreign speakers in the past five years. This is because Police is usually able to make a decision whether to approve or reject a licence application based on the information available. As I have said earlier, in the case of the public lecture by Prof. Sanders, Police decided to cancel the licence based on additional information which subsequently came to its knowledge.

Mr Michael Palmer (Pasir Ris-Punggol): Mr Speaker, two supplementary questions. The first is, given that the permit or the licence was approved and then cancelled four days before the event, will this affect Singapore's reputation of having a stable operating environment where there are sudden U-turn decisions? The second supplementary question, if foreigners should interfere in local politics and local policies, many foreign experts are engaged by the Government to comment and advise on local policies, are we saying that the Government is permitted to engage foreigners in policy making to the exclusion of initiatives by the civil society?

Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee: Sir, I understand that the event did go ahead. In other words, even though the PEL was cancelled for the event, the condition was that there should be no foreigners speaking in it. But as long as there are no foreigners speaking in it, you will not need a talk which is indoors. In any case, Sir, the information subsequently came to the Police shortly before it withdrew the PEL on 3rd August, which was the full four days before the talk. In other words, Police acted as expeditiously as it could.

On the other question, the context is important. It is not as though that foreigners cannot make their comments or views known on Singapore's policies and laws. In fact, they all do. But it is quite different if in the context of a situation in Singapore where we know that there is an ongoing debate for some time already on a topic which is divisive, a topic which has caused two sides in particular to expound different points of views. From what we know, Prof. Douglas Sanders who is a known advocate for the human rights of the gays and lesbians to take a position - we can hear his views on the air or read it online - it is quite different to invite him here to speak to a Singapore audience at this time.

Mr Siew Kum Hong (Nominated Member): Sir, two supplementary questions. My first question is whether the Minister can clarify what is the nature of the additional information that led to the licence being cancelled. I am asking that because there could be a concern that the Police did not fully deliberate the circumstances of the application before they granted it the first time round. My second question is whether the Police had considered granting the licence subject to conditions. This is because, as I understand it, the application was for a talk on international trends outside Singapore. So the application itself did not cover Singapore at all. If that was the case, would the Police have considered granting the licence subject to the condition that the speaker did not touch on Singapore?

Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee: Sir, the information was made available to Police which was the information online. Essentially, the context of the original application was for a talk, as Mr Siew has said, on a topic which looked innocuous enough, which was "Sexual Orientation in International Law: The Case of Asia". So it appeared to be a lecture highlighting Prof. Sanders' research and comparing the laws of Europe and Asia. But subsequent to that, like I have said, Police came across information available online. We then understood the larger context which was really part of a two-week stretch of events where local activists had organised several other events, such as talks, exhibitions, forums, etc, which promoted the gay cause.

I think the Police have a better understanding of the background of Prof. Sanders, in particular, there was another talk which was also publicised online, an intended talk by Prof. Sanders at another place, which led Police to believe that Prof. Sanders was likely to talk about our section 377A which is the criminalising of homosexual sex. And also, in terms of the background of Prof. Sanders, Police subsequently came to the knowledge that, in fact, he was an advocate for the criminalising of homosexual sex who had spoken, for example, at the United Nations. That is the context. It was not taken lightly. Neither was it a case where Police just approved without careful consideration. Police did approve carefully, based on the information then available.

Mr Speaker: Mr Siew, one last question.

Mr Siew Kum Hong: Sir, I have two supplementary questions. My first question is whether the Police had fully investigated the background of the speaker before they granted the licence the first time around because I am sure that the information was available online when they were considering the first application. The MOS has referred to another talk. I would just like to ask whether the other talk was in Singapore and whether a licence has been granted for the other talk and, if so, when is it.

Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee: The first point is, like I have said, the Police assessed the application according to the information made available to it. So the applicant would have to furnish the information. So, here, the curriculum vitae of Prof. Sanders that was given to Police did not indicate, for example, his involvement in the UN or the fact that the written articles which talked about our local equivalent of section 377A. The other talk was organised by a body and because it was a statutory body under a parent Ministry, it did not require a licence.

(Financial obligations)

10. Mr Siew Kum Hong asked the Minister for Trade and Industry (a) whether the obligations of UNSW Asia are subject to a guarantee by the parent university in Australia; and (b) whether the Economic Development Board, when negotiating an agreement with a university intending to invest in Singapore, takes any measures to ensure that the university fulfills its financial obligations to its academic staff if the venture fails.

The Minister of State for Trade and Industry (Mr S Iswaran) (for the Minister for Trade and Industry): Mr Speaker, Sir, EDB generally does not require parent companies to give any over-arching guarantee on their Singapore operations. For companies who invest in Singapore, it is in their own interest to see that their Singapore operation is successful. Companies also value this operational flexibility. It makes Singapore an attractive place for business. This is also the case for educational institutions. The parent institutions have a strong interest to make sound business decisions about facilities, employees and students. If their Singapore operation fails, the parent institution will suffer significant reputational and financial loss.

The Minister for Trade and Industry has previously informed this House that as UNSW will not be able to meet its commitments to EDB, UNSW is required to return the disbursed loan and grant to EDB. The loan is backed by a bank guarantee. For the grants that had been given to UNSW Asia, EDB is currently in discussions with UNSW on its recovery.

Organisations based in Singapore are bounded by our laws and regulations. EDB does not interfere in the university's decision on employment policies beyond our legal requirements. The employment contract is negotiated and agreed upon by the university and its employees. Employees are encouraged to seek legal advice on their rights and consult with the university directly.

Mr Siew Kum Hong: My first supplementary question is to clarify whether the grants were disbursed to UNSW or UNSW Asia, and who would we be calling that back from because, as I understand it from the press reports, UNSW Asia is very much insolvent, in which case, unless you can get it back from UNSW, the parent university, there is not much chance of getting funds back.

My second question is with respect to the MOS' answer on the EDB not interfering with employment contracts. The number of academic staff at UNSW Asia had uprooted to come to Singapore, and this whole event has left them with a very unpleasant aftertaste when it comes to Singapore. My question to the MOS is whether the EDB and the Ministry accept that the reputation of Singapore is important and that, therefore, it is beneficial to invest some effort into ensuring that the reputation is not affected when things go bad.

Mr Iswaran: Mr Speaker, Sir, as far as the grant is concerned, the legal entity is the UNSW Asia. But as the Member has pointed out, the negotiation is now with the parent, UNSW, and the process is now one of engaging them in a discussion and negotiation to settle the final terms.

As far as the second point is concerned, on the impact on Singapore's reputation, I think in a way this is no different from any other investments we have attracted to Singapore. The implicit presumption in the Member's point is that somehow the employment situation in this particular instance has a wider implication on Singapore. All these institutions that we attract, that EDB courts to come in are usually very reputable and of international standing. They have a vested interest to protect their reputation, and that includes ensuring that they comply with the laws of the land in terms of employment legislation and treating their staff fairly. From public accounts and reports in the media, it would appear that that seems to be the nature of the engagement between the parties concerned.

EDB rightly confines itself to what is really its remit, to ensure that the parties we attract to Singapore comply with our laws and that means all laws, including our labour laws, and then we leave it to the businesses to work it out. Whether they are university professors or engineers and wafer fabrication plants or indeed any other foreign talent or workers coming into Singapore, ultimately, their contracts would bind their obligations.

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