Australian National University academics are outraged at a decision by university management to bestow an honorary Doctorate of Laws on former prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew in Canberra next Wednesday.
Mr Lee and his wife are due in Australia on Monday as part of a tour of the region where they will meet with Australian political and business leaders.
But the decision to honour Mr Lee has incensed university staff, students and human rights advocates who accuse him of running an authoritarian regime in Singapore over the past four decades in which he has quashed any political opposition.
ANU chancellor Allan Hawke alerted staff to Mr Lee's visit when he invited them to the ceremony due to take place in the Great Hall of University House at 11am next Wednesday via an internal email.
He said "the ceremony is a special occasion to honour Mr Lee's achievements and further the university's relationship with Singapore".A number of academics contacted by The Canberra Times expressed their shock at the move, which they say was taken without any wider consultation and would embarrass the university.
Director of the ANU's Centre for International Governance and Justice Hilary Charlesworth said her concern had been so strong that she and senior staff had written to vice-chancellor Ian Chubb in protest, while several other academics chose to air their anger at university management on their personal blogs.
"Any human rights lawyer would be really concerned by this. Frankly, I am baffled, I do not understand why they have done it," Professor Charlesworth said.
Another senior academic, who asked not to be named, said, "Since when does an institution which prides itself on openness and speaking truth to power give honorary degrees to those who have overseen authoritarian regimes which restrict democratic expression and academic freedom and implement the death penalty?"
Dr Hawke said the academics were entitled to their views and he would always be happy to hear their opinions.
While he was aware of Mr Lee's controversial reputation, he believed "the good outweighs the bad" in terms of Mr Lee's contribution to Asia, support of Australia in the region and strong involvement in APEC.
Australia's relationship with Singapore was severely strained throughout last year when the Singaporean Government now headed by Mr Lee's son Lee Hsien Loong carried out the execution in December of 25-year-old Melbourne man Van Tuong Nguyen after finding him guilty of drug trafficking.
This was despite the personal appeals of both Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.
Mr Lee still maintains a strong political presence as "Minister Mentor" at age 83.
High-profile QC Stuart Littlemore said the ANU's decision was "seriously inappropriate".
"You have to wonder what their motives are and whether they are to strengthen revenue prospects for the ANU which could only be described as a terrible sellout."
Mr Littlemore is a staunch critic of Singapore's legal system, having attended a number of defamation trials as an observer for the International Commission of Jurists.
He has also recently been banned from entering the country to represent Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party, Chee Soon Juan, against defamation claims made by Mr Lee.
Mr Littlemore has written to Professor Chubb this week, saying "I can't understand why the ANU should wish to ingratiate itself with the anti-democratic Lee regime ... The university's decision brings shame upon it."
Mr Chee has also condemned the decision in a letter to Professor Chubb, saying "do you not think that the award of this honorary degree to Lee Kuan Yew mocks the memory of Nguyen and the others who were hanged by the Singapore Government?"
"The irony, nay, hypocrisy of conferring this award, and of the Doctor of Laws to boot, boggles the mind and rankles the soul."
Professor Chubb defended the decision yesterday, saying it merely reflected the close ties the ANU had with Singapore and the National University of Singapore in particular. "We have staff exchanges, split degrees, secondments, student exchanges, and significant interaction at a number of levels. The ANU and NUS are both represented in the Association of Pacific Rim Universities and in the International Alliance of Research Universities." Mr Lee's visit coincides with a presidents' meeting of the alliance in Canberra next week. Professor Chubb said the ANU catered for about 200 undergraduate and postgraduate Singaporean students each year.
In 1994, the University of Melbourne bestowed an honorary Doctorate of Laws upon Mr Lee. The university was also forced to defend the decision at the time.
Source: The Canberra Times