A Singapore debate stirs New York University

A New York University alumni friend of mine told me about a controversy brewing at his alma mater. It stems from a larger controversy, far away on the small island nation of Singapore. Dr. Thio Li-Ann, law professor at the National University of Singapore, has been appointed as a visiting scholar on human rights to NYU’s law school beginning this fall.

But Thio’s track-record on human rights is in question. She was nominated by a parliamentary committee in 2007 to act as one of nine unelected members of parliament in Singapore. During her term, parliament debated and upheld section 377a of Singapore’s constitution, a holdover from British colonialism that was first enacted in the 1800s to criminalize gay sex. While many Singaporean politicians, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, conceded that there was little desire to enforce the law, they argued that Singaporeans do not want to symbolically accept homosexuality by repealing it.

Thio was among the most vehement parliamentarians against the repeal of 377a; in one statement she equated gay sex with “shoving a straw up your nose to drink.”

Among the strongest opponents to Thio’s appointment is a student group, NYU OUTLaw, which says that her “intolerant, reprehensible words raise serious questions about Dr. Thio’s fitness to teach a course on human rights.” They are calling for greater dialogue and a strong condemnation of Thio’s stance on homosexuality from NYU Law’s dean.

In Singapore’s media, the debate is largely about what Thio says is “moral imperialism” and freedom of thought. She told Today that “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, free conscience, free thought — that is a cardinal principle for every academic community.” The Straits Times highlighted comments made on the progressive Singaporean blog, The Online Citizen, which you can read in full on their website.

If nothing else, the controversy has brought important debates back to the pages of Singapore’s mainstream media. It is an ironic turn of events that a former member of parliament in Singapore is calling on NYU to uphold her freedom to engage in critical debate; Human Rights Watch says that Singapore suppresses political opposition with defamation suits. As Singapore’s politics collides with students at NYU, it is clear that free speech and human rights are global conversations.