Real reason for ASEF’s pullout of conference

Roshan Jason

An ongoing human rights seminar in Kuala Lumpur came close to being abandoned when the funder withdrew sponsorship at the last minute citing “political reasons”, said the International Federation of Liberal Youth (IFLRY), which is organising the event.

IFLRY president Emil Kirjas said the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), based in Singapore, had apparently objected to the inclusion of the Young Democrats of Singapore (YDS) as participants, although this was not explicitly stated in its letter of withdrawal dated May 28.

The five-day seminar, Advocating Human Rights: Position of Youth in Society, began on Monday. It has brought together youth organisations from 20 countries and is hosted by Gerakan Youth.

Kirjas said IFLRY had almost cancelled the seminar but felt the setback “should not derail an important event for youths worldwide”, and managed to locate internal funds and alternate sponsors instead.

He also claimed that IFLRY had fulfilled all the requirements of the sponsorship contract signed last December, but that ASEF has disputed this.

“They are using this as an excuse to avoid officially stating the real reasons why they have pulled out,” he alleged.

“We plan to meet the ASEF representative after the seminar for clarification, and may also consider legal action for breach of contract.”

Anti-government stance?

Elaborating on the situation, Kirjas said ASEF was to have provided a S$20,000 grant under its ‘people to people exchange programme’, but subsequent correspondence indicated the foundations reservations on the inclusion of the YDS.

ASEF is said to have singled out YDS – a component of the Singapore Democratic Party – as being anti-government and was therefore concerned that its views would create a negative impression of the Singapore government at the seminar.

However, IFLRY executive director Alessandra Pala said: “I explained to ASEF repeatedly that criticising governments is not part of our programme, but that country reports would be presented on the human rights situation from the personal viewpoint of participants.”

“ASEF’ claimed at the end of April that we had not furnished them with the full programme, full list of organisations invited and full list of participants.

“I had given them all they wanted and was close to submitting the full participants list (as registration was still open) when they contacted me three weeks before the seminar to unofficially inform me of their intention to pull out. They indicated disapproval of certain organisations that were to participate.”

A week later, on June 1, IFLRY received the official letter of withdrawal.

Varied ideological interests

Kirjas also refuted ASEFs apprehension that the seminar would be “mono political”, saying that the participants do not represent only one political ideology.

“ASEF knew this very well as we had sent them our organisation profile, list of contact organisations and the objectives of the seminar,” he said.

Invitations had been sent to some 90 member-organisations of IFLRY, as well as to socialist, conservative, democratic and communist youth groups.

“How can ASEF claim that the seminar would be mono political when we have invited the All China Youth Federation (communist), the International Young Democrats Union (conservative ) and Parti Gerakan Malaysia?” he asked.

“If ASEF had waited for the final list of participants to be sent, it would have seen that there would be balance in representation.”

Kirjas also expressed surprise that the “European part” of ASEF had consented to the pullout, and questioned if this would become a trend in sponsorship.

“The attitude of European organisations in protecting their interests in Asia is something we have tackle back home,” said the Macedonian national.

He said letters of complaint have been sent to members of the European Parliament, the European Commision and the European Youth Forum on the loss of funding from ASEF, in the hope that these bodies will act on the matter.

IFLRYs stated goal is to facilitate contacts and exchange of ideas between member organisations to encourage interest in, and knowledge of, international politics through dialogue.

Non-partisan activities

In a emailed reply today to malaysiakinis inquiry, ASEF public affairs director Albrecht Rothacher said the foundation is bound by its statute “not to support events of a partisan nature which are exclusive to members of one political group and which mainly deal with issues of party political co-operation”.

“For reasons of equity, we would actually have to do this for all other political camps: socialists, communists, Christian-democrats, conservatives, nationals (and others) as well,” he said.

“Such partisan support is out of bounds for us as it was rightly not wanted by the founding fathers of ASEF nor by the current leaders of the member-states.

“The programme and the participants of the meeting in question were unknown to us for a long time. Once their exclusive partisan nature became clear, ASEF had no choice and to our regret, we had to cancel the financial support envisaged.”

Rothacher said ASEF has since come under considerable political pressure to reconsider, but that the foundations guidelines are clear.

ASEF, an international foundation funded by taxpayers money from 25 member-states, supports exchanges among the peoples of Asia and Europe “on political issues and between politicians from all political camps” through non-partisan debate, networking and capacity building activities.

Rothacher added that the foundation had previously supported such activities organised by young liberal politicians and that it would do so again in the future, provided these meet the set criteria.

However Rothacher made no reference to the participation of YDS as being a reason for the financial pullout.

Singapore Democrats: Readers should ask the following questions: Why did ASEF single out YD’s participation when youth organisations from 20 other countries were involved? Did it have anything to do with the fact that its headquarters is in Singapore? What role did the Singapore Government play in all of this?

Most important, what is the PAP afraid of?

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