America's media hardly covers Singapore. This rich and highly developed state belongs in the old British sphere of influence. Every now and then something news worthy with an 'exotic' flavour will grace the eyes but hardly the ears of the grand American public.
Singapore's sitting member of parliament and professor at the National University of Singapore [NUS] Thio Li ann withdrew her invitation from New York University [NYU]. The renowned university with an endowment larger and more buoyant that Harvard's, and charging the highest tuition in the US, had offered her a year's visiting lectureship on human rights at its prestigious law school. And here begins the tale.
In Singapore Dr. Thio has a sorry reputation as a bigot and a unprincipled political operator. She is a born again Christian who got religion at Oxford. She comes from the evangelical wing of Singapore's Anglican community. In the well of parliament during a debate on the relaxation of buggery among consenting adults. This draconian law is a holdover from the days of British role; it was amended to permit anal sex between man and woman, but denied man and man the same right.
MP Thio in the well of parliament waxed eloquent and flowery on the spread of homosexuality in Singapore, coupling it with the decline of manners, morals, and civilisation. She denounced anal sex between consenting men as drinking with a straw up one's nose. Well such utterances might raise the hackles of Singapore's gays, but it is standard fare in Singapore's politics. Sharp and brittle, it is not out of the ordinary.
Dr. Thio is a respected scholar, who in her own right, has written on constitutional issues in Singapore. She doesn't write about homosexuality, as NYU stated. NYU however remained oblivious of her rantings against gays in parliament.
What made the ruling People's Action Party [PAP] very nervous was the putch Mme. Thio's mother and her band of evangelical Christians carried out in AWARE, Singapore's equivalent of NOW in the US. She and her band of believers took over Singapore's women's organisation through stealthful means. Now, AWARE is an umbrella organisation which has put out standards of teaching tolerance and diversity; its manual apparently calls for an understanding, humane approach to human sexuality which is an anathema to Thio and her band of angels. Their tactics caused such an exchange of e mails, much protests, and a stirring among a docile population, which sent up red flags to the PAP, which has the ruled the city state for last 45 years without interruption. What Thio and her angels did was taboo in the Singapore environment. It was the imposition of one brand's thoughts and message on all Singapore. Now Singapore, albeit majority Chinese, is a delicate balancing act of races and religions. The PAP makes jolly well sure that neutrality is respected; it has no desire to see in its midst a replay of the open wound of racial riots in neighbouring Malaysia. Thus, what Thio & co. tried to do, but failed, for they were immediately voted out of office in AWARE, was to tip the balance towards Christian evanglicals who brand what they touch with an iron of intolerance.
In the denouement of the AWARE crisis, Dr. Thio remained silent. On a matter of human rights, she refrained from defending them; human rights which she was going to lecture on at the NYU law faculty.
And here is where the NYU invitation to Thio Li ann was manna from heaven! Thio Li ann's hateful speech resounded long and loud in Singapore. Her name was never out of the public's mouth. It attracted more attention owing to her mum Thio Su Meen's undemocratic means of taking over AWARE, in order to silence its humane approach to respect the rights of others.
This is the context which escaped NYU's ken. Nor did it bargain for the international blogsphere and a rush of commentary and e mails to NYU gays and straights about who and what Thio Li ann is.
Hardly had the university announced her courses, a din of protests arose, letters sent to the university's administration, alumni notified. Such a quick response was snowballing into a sorry critique of the university and damanging its reputation. By damaging its reputation, doesn't translate into having an unpopular lecturer on staff, it boils down to drying up contributions to NYU's endowment. In brief, it means the old do re me; it signifies getting a hit in the bank book.
NYU took swift action withdrawing, according to a press release, and an article in 'the New York Times'; bolsters by a lack of enrolment and enthusiasm for Dr. Thio's approach to human rights, NYU had to wipe egg off its face. For her part, Thio Li ann decided to turn down NYU's offer.
And where does that leave the PAP? It no longer has much to fear from Dr. Thio. She stands disgraced; she tarred with the brush of bigotry. She has the stigma of professional shame to live with. One thing is sure: she won't sit in parliament after the next general election, and she will have to forebear martyr like the whispers of her colleagues at NUS and the enemies she has made.She will not receive any invitation to lecture at any major American or European university of note. She will no doubt find solace in her religion and her church.