Decision means group can no longer accept funding from foreign sources
By Cassandra Chew
HUMAN rights advocacy group Maruah has become the fourth organisation here to be gazetted as a political association.
That means the three-year-old group, led by former Nominated MP Braema Mathi, will no longer be able to accept donations from foreign sources.
Ms Mathi, Maruah's president, said the group is surprised and disappointed at the move as it has been careful not to politicise human rights, and did not admit members of political parties.
Maruah applied to register as a society in March this year. In its negotiations with the Registry of Societies (ROS), there was 'no hint' of plans to have it gazetted as a political association, she said.
Explaining the Government's decision, the Registry of Political Donations, which is part of the Elections Department, said that 'given Maruah's objectives and activities, there is a need to ensure that Maruah does not become used by foreigners to interfere in our internal affairs'.
'As such, the Prime Minister has decided to gazette Maruah as a political association under the Political Donations Act to prohibit Maruah from receiving funding from foreign sources,' it said in an e-mailed reply.
Maruah can continue to receive financial support from Singaporeans and Singapore-controlled companies, it added.
Maruah was formed in 2007 to help set up the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). It promotes human rights here and in the region.
Two weeks ago, it submitted a report on Singapore to the United Nations calling for a review of the mandatory death penalty and the law on preventive detention without trial.
As a political association, Maruah now comes under the Political Donations Act, which came into effect in 2001.
It prohibits political parties, political associations and election candidates from accepting donations from impermissible or foreign sources. The prime minister can declare an organisation as a political association so long as its objects or activities relate wholly or mainly to politics in Singapore.
The three other political associations are Singaporeans For Democracy, Think Centre and Open Singapore Centre.
Ms Mathi said that in Maruah's view, 'working on human rights may have political implications, but human rights work is not politics'.
'Human rights are universal and inalienable, and should not be hijacked by politics,' she added.
[In a way, the Singapore Govt seems to agree - human rights work should not be hijacked by foreign politics/ foreign activists with political objective, or used to pressure the govt to bend to their view of what is right. Ms Mathi tries to draw a distinction without a difference when she agrees that human rights have political implications, but work on it is not political.]
She also expressed concern that the few local groups willing to work with Maruah would now be deterred by the political association tag.
On foreign funds, she said Maruah's Constitution, which ROS approved, includes 'sufficiently strong caveats and checks and balances' to address any potential concerns about its work being hijacked by foreign interests.
She stressed that the group has been open about its sources of funds, which are disclosed on its website.
The website's accounts page shows that foreign donors sponsored six of its 13 events in the last three years. They included the British High Commission, the Royal Danish Embassy and German political foundation Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.
Travel costs for meetings on the AICHR and some events to promote human rights here are also paid for by the Working Group on Asean Human Rights mechanism based in the Philippines, said Ms Mathi.
Other events were paid for by Maruah members, who are volunteers, and Singapore sponsors, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Youth Council.
Ms Mathi said the ban on receiving foreign funds will slow Maruah's growth and hurt its plans to professionalise by hiring paid staff and setting up an office.
[The law and the implementation in this case serves the objective of the govt as intended. In any case, if the organisation is set up with money from foreigners presumably with their own agenda, then the risk of them using the funded organisation as leverage or lobbyists against govt policies is inherent and maybe even inevitable. It would very difficult to tell your sponsor no, if they ask for a "slight" amendment to an event's focus or objective.]
She expressed disappointment that even as some ministers encouraged Singaporeans to stand up for how they want their society to develop, some who do are 'pinned back' by decisions such as the one to gazette Maruah as a political association.
Mr Jolovan Wham, 31, executive director of Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), is not surprised by the decision as 'human rights is a sensitive issue in Singapore'. But Home will continue to work with Maruah as long as they share similar goals, he said.
[I think the moment Singaporeans can only stand up for themselves with foreign money is the moment when Singaporeans are being told to stand-up for the foreigner's agenda. Home grown means home grown.]