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9 Jun 2008

Sanders returns

Barred from giving a public talk at IndigNation in August, 2007, Professor Sanders returned to Singapore to give the same presentation at the Asian Law Schools conference in May.

The National University of Singapore plays a leading role in the region. The Law School hosts ASLI, the Asian Law Institute. Under the ASLI banner, annual conferences of Asian laws schools have been held since 2004.

I teach in a graduate program in law at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, one of the founding members of ASLI. At ASLI 2 in Bangkok, I presented a paper on corporate social responsibility (which mentioned homosexuality once). At ASLI 3 in Shanghai, I talked about court cases on LGBT rights in Asia - a paper completely focused on homosexual rights. ASLI 5 was held at NUS in Singapore in May, 2008. And thereupon hangs a story.

As fridae reported, I was invited to give a talk on homosexuality and human rights as part of IndigNation in August, 2007. I had written a very detailed paper on the history of anti-homosexual criminal laws in Asia, tracing them back to the Indian Penal Code of 1860.

I had been fascinated that criminal laws in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore all had essentially the same section 377, even using the same section number. And the same kind of law turned up in most former British colonies, North, South, East and West. An amazingly successful piece of imperialism. But, in what seemed an odd paradox, the same wording was never part of British law.

I presented my paper "377 and the unnatural afterlife of British Colonialism in Asia" at the International Convention of Asia Scholars in Kuala Lumpur in July, 2007 - ICAS 5. Under the banner of AsiaPacifiQueer (APQ), we had a 'queer' panel, with five or six speakers. No resistance from the organisers. The home organisation of ICAS is in the liberal Netherlands. Malaysia likes hosting international conferences (even if the price is an occasional queer speaker).

APQ first organised some queer panels for the ICAS 3 meeting in Singapore in 2003. National University of Singapore was the host. We had no idea whether our speakers and panels would be accepted. For us this was a first testing of the waters.

All our panels were accepted - all six of them. So we asked that they be streamed, so that no two were scheduled at the same time. The organisers seemed a bit defensive in telling us that they were not streaming any sessions. It appeared they wanted us to known that we were not being discriminated against. Then they went ahead and streamed our sessions.

Our next worry was whether anyone would come. Would we just be speaking to ourselves? Our opening panel was in a modest room, perhaps seating forty. When the panel began, the room was packed. People were sitting in the aisle and crowding around the open door to the hallway.

We were so pleased with our success - the number of speakers that had come forward for our panels - and the crowds at our sessions - that we started plans for the big queer studies conference held in Bangkok two years later.

So that's the background. NUS hosting ICAS 3 in 2003 in Singapore with six queer panels. ASLI as the secretariat for the Asian Law Schools conference, which had gay content in 2006.

The next step in the story, as fridae.com readers would know, was the decision of the government of Singapore that it was not in the public interest for Professor Sanders to give a public talk at IndigNation in August, 2007.

I was actually scheduled to give two talks - one at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) and another for IndigNation - though both would be on the same subject. As an academic institution, ISEAS did not need to apply for a police permit to hold the talk, but this exemption did not apply to IndigNation's event.

The folks behind IndigNation duly applied for the necessary permit, and, in short order, they were informed it was approved, subject to the immigration department giving me a "professional visit pass" which was expected to be routine.

Before that was wrapped up however, the ISEAS event got into difficulties. A former Foreign Minister got wind of the ISEAS event and swung into action, objecting strenuously to ISEAS hosting my talk. Eventually, under much duress from government officials, apparently contacted by the same gentleman, ISEAS backed down and cancelled their event.

In the course of that, it was also discovered that my name was already on a tentative police permit for an IndigNation event as well as in the queue of the immigration department for a professional visit pass. That wouldn't do, of course. And so to keep things neat and tidy - this being Singapore, you would expect no less - the IndigNation folks were told that the permit would be revoked and the application for a professional visit pass allowed to lapse.

The people behind IndigNation were naturally upset, and they went to the press with the story. There was lots of publicity. I got calls from radio stations back in Canada for interviews. A friend in China told me he read about the refusal in Chinese language online news.

But there was another possibility for a return to Singapore. ASLI 5 was meeting on the NUS campus. As a proper law school academic, a teacher at Chulalongkorn University, and someone who had already given presentations at two Asian Law Schools conferences, I submitted a short 'abstract' of my 377 paper for presentation. In December, 2007, ASLI informed me that I was accepted as a speaker.

Two questions remained in my mind. Would I get dropped somewhere along the way? Secondly, would there be some hassle when I tried to enter Singapore? I kept checking the ASLI website and maddeningly, they were very very late in posting a detailed list of speakers. But when it was up, my name was there. And when I turned up at Singapore immigration, I was cleared through in three minutes.

The Canadian High Commission, as the embassy in Singapore is called, hosted a nice lunch celebrating my speedy sweep through immigration. People from PLU, fridae.com, NUS, the media and a researcher from ISEAS chatted, ate and sipped fine wine.

About fifty people attended the panel at which I gave my presentation on May 23rd at the law school. NUS was very aware that I was the formerly banned Professor Sanders. But the ASLI meeting was an academic affair and closed to the public. No permits were required - as they had not been required for those speaking at the ICAS 3 conference in Singapore in 2003.

My paper on 377 was now longer. The paper had started out as a record of the spread of anti-homosexual criminal laws in Asia. I realised it needed to deal with the globalisation of de-criminalisation as well. And, of course, it needed to tell the story of the law reform debate in Singapore in the fall of 2007. And I had to tell my audience the story of being banned from speaking at IndigNation. It was probably the best received presentation in the whole conference.

Professor Douglas Sanders is a retired Canadian law professor living in Bangkok. He can be contacted at sanders_gwb @ yahoo.ca.



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