The universality of justice

Photo: Australian Human Rights Commission

Photo: Australian Human Rights Commission

The following is a version of a speech (i.e. minus the random ad-libs, and plus a bit more clarity) I gave at the closing ceremony of the NUS Global Citizen Conference on 20 July 2018.

As a journalist I often feel like I’m always dealing with bad news. But today I received some good news while making my way from work to this conference: Will Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American graduate from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and who contributed an essay to New Naratif, will be released and deported from Vietnam.

Will was arrested in Ho Chi Minh City in June, where he’d joined thousands of Vietnamese in a large-scale demonstration against two controversial bills. He was charged with "disturbance of public order", and could have been jailed for up to seven years. It’s a relief he will now be going home instead.

After Will’s arrest last month, a smear campaign on social media accused him of being a foreign agent inciting the Vietnamese people to protest. It's a common tactic used by oppressive governments against foreigners.

But Will wasn’t there because he was a trouble-making foreigner, nor did the Vietnamese need anyone to tell them how to feel about the bills. The Vietnamese people were more than capable of deciding what they wanted to do, and they turned out in droves, not only in Ho Chi Minh City, but across the country. Will was there with them because, despite holding an American passport, there's a part of him that's still very much invested in Vietnam.

"I can’t stress how enormous of an achievement this is for the Vietnamese people,” he tweeted that day. “The communist government is allowing people to assemble peacefully and the people are exercising their civic duty to protest injustice.”

Sometimes the things we care about transcend passports, flags, borders.

Over the past few days, you've all been part of a conference to explore identity and global citizenship in an "increasingly integrated and interconnected world", to be exposed to cultures and challenges in communities other than your own, in parts of the world that are different from the comfortable environment we inhabit in Singapore.

You've looked at a variety of aspects: Public Health, Mental Wellness, Environment, Economy and the Cyber Sphere.

Since I'm the last speaker of the day, I'm going to make the most of this captive audience to introduce one more: politics. But it's not really an introduction, because this is something that runs through every issue, every theme you've already discussed.

I'm not talking about party or partisan politics; I'm not interested in which political party any of you support. I'm talking about politics in the sense of the political that's present in all our lives. I'm talking about social justice, human rights, and solidarity for one another's causes.

Different countries, communities and societies have different contexts. There are different experiences, different issues and practices that people have to confront in different ways. Yet there are things that are, that should be, universal.

People want to be able to love and care for others, be they parents, children or partners. People want to live with dignity, with the power to exercise agency and make their own choices. People want to be able to express themselves without fear, and feel like they are being heard and respected as human beings.

I'm not making these up; they're all in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

When we recognise that we share these rights and desires, regardless of nationality, we discover a great potential for solidarity and learning—for people in one place to provide support to people in another. And through this, we see that there are things to unite us, beyond the constructed nation-states that often make us focus on what's foreign rather than what's familiar.

This is one of the reasons why my colleagues and I decided to start New Naratif, a platform for Southeast Asian journalism, research, art and community-building. We wanted to go beyond the often arbitrary borders drawn between one country and another, and to tell stories about Southeast Asia that help people in this region learn more about one another and recognise parallels in our challenges and triumphs.

So we began publishing articles; reported features and research papers from across the region, as well as comics. We've looked at the drawing of electoral boundaries in Malaysia and the issue of gerrymandering—a problem not unique to Malaysia. We've looked at press freedom issues in Myanmar, Cambodia, across Southeast Asia. We've looked at coal power plants in Vietnam, some of which have been funded by Singaporean banks.

We’ve published these stories not only in English, but also Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Malaysia, Vietnamese and Mandarin.

We also started organising offline democracy classrooms; sessions where Singaporeans (and anyone else who cares to engage in conversation) sit down and discuss current affairs and issues of importance. We wanted to get people used to exchanging their views and ideas, face to face, in good faith, without fear.

In April this year, we were told by the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) that we would not be allowed to register in Singapore. We were told that we were clearly political in nature because we published "articles critical of politics in regional countries", because we organised democracy classrooms, because our parent company's objectives are to “promote the universal values of democracy, freedom of the media, and freedom of inquiry, information and expression”. This, it would appear, is an issue in Singapore.

ACRA then pointed to a grant we’d received from a foundation closely associated with Open Society Foundations, founded by the billionaire George Soros. Because of this, they argued that it would be contrary to Singapore's national interests to allow New Naratif to register, because it would allow "Singaporeans to lend themselves to being used by foreigners to pursue a political activity in Singapore".

(So now I’m to understand that the publication that I edit is officially against the national interest, which is weird to me; I mean, I edit in my pyjamas. It’s hardly black ops.)

I've never met Soros, but I doubt he'll be much affected by the Singaporean authorities' allegations—it's far from the first time politicians have said such things about him. Viktor Orban in Hungary ran an anti-Semitic, anti-Soros campaign during the last election. In a recent piece in The New York Times, Thomas Carothers, who has served on Open Society Foundation advisory boards, said, "Strongman leaders want to de-universalise human rights and civil liberties. It is much harder for Orban to say that he rejects the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is much easier to say, 'I push back against this intrusive man sitting in New York.' Soros is a very convenient bogeyman."

Sometimes we want to be cosmopolites, eager to trade, travel and participate in an integrated and interconnected world. Other times, we suddenly become insular, whispering about "foreign influence".

Of course, there is such a thing as foreign interference and collusion, regardless of whether Trump calls it "fake news" or not. Countries shouldn't be allowed to meddle in other countries’ elections.

Yet we cannot pretend that some political issues—like climate change, LGBTQ equality, immigration and fundamental freedoms—are not based on universal rights, trends and concerns. Nor can we be blind to the powerful utilising the narrative of "fighting foreign influence" to stifle civil society organising and grassroots mobilisation. If you clamp down on foreign funding in a context where there is effectively no local funding, if you discredit a movement, you can suppress civil society and community organising.

Tomorrow, Singaporeans and PRs will gather in Hong Lim Park dressed in pink to support the freedom to love—but only after they've passed through barricades where they're required to go through ID checks to prove they're not "foreign". It's an absurdity in a reality where Singaporeans have foreign relatives, partners, friends.

The government says the ID checks, and the restriction on MNCs like Google or Facebook supporting Pink Dot, are so that domestic politics can remain domestic affairs. The assumption appears to be that the presence of foreign support is equivalent to a movement being foreign-led. It's an assumption that Singaporeans don't know what we want for ourselves, or how to take action for our own causes. It's an insulting assumption.

What Pink Dot wants is political. But it's also universal. People want to be able to love who they love, and not be penalised for it. People want to be more than tolerated; they want more than assurances that a law that criminalises them will not be enforced. They want to be accepted by their families, their peers, their society. They want to be able to talk about their issues openly, not told that they cannot speak at events because of "regulations", as has happened to the Inter-University LGBT Network just yesterday. This cause for equality and recognition is one that recognises neither nationality nor state lines.

Sometimes the things we care about transcend passports, flags, borders.

As we navigate this increasingly integrated and interconnected world, we need to be able to evaluate ideas and causes for their merits, and not solely their origins. We need to hold the powerful to account wherever they are in the world, and not let them cherry pick when they want globalisation and when they want insularity.

When we look at the environment, the economy and the cyber sphere, we need to look at more than just innovation and start-ups and social enterprises, important though they all are. We need to look out for justice.

When we talk about migrant workers, for instance, we shouldn't advocate for better treatment because we feel sympathy, because we think about their less developed home countries and feel pity. We shouldn't think about Them, and Us, and what We can do for Them.

Instead, we should be demanding better protections and conditions for migrant workers because it's a universal human right to be treated with dignity and respect. Because all workers have a right to safe and fair employment. Because countries that don't respect the rights of migrant workers... basically don't respect the rights of workers, full stop.

The more integrated and connected the world gets, the more we cannot ignore the universality of social justice and human rights. We live in a time where it's possible and easy and convenient to be informed and aware of these things, so there’s no excuse.

And so we should use these opportunities, not to make ourselves feel better or smug about being "global citizens"; it’s a big privilege to even be a global citizen, by the way. Not everyone has the same access to language skills, or even the ability to afford a passport. Some, like the Rohingya, aren’t allowed to be citizens at all.

So those of us who are lucky enough to have these opportunities should use them to build bridges and connections, and to stand up for people like Will Nguyen, or causes like Pink Dot, because things like freedom of assembly, of speech and expression, of association and of love cannot just be domestic concerns. They can only be universal ones.

Kirsten Han