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377A debate and the rewriting of pluralism

The STRAITS TIMES
by Janadas Devan
I CONFESS: I found the parliamentary debate on Section 377A of the Penal Code exceedingly depressing. It is no fun at all finding oneself holding a view – I believe the provision is odious and should be scrapped – with so little support.

Of the 82 PAP MPs, only 3-1/2 expressed views that resembled mine – Mr Charles Chong, Mr Hri Kumar and Mr Baey Yam Keng. The half was Ms Indranee Rajah, who suggested 377A might be scrapped at some point, only not in this century. Her citation of how long it took to end slavery suggested we might have to wait roughly 2,500 years.

Of the nine NMPs, only one, Mr Siew Kum Hong, who presented the citizens’ petition calling for the repeal of 377A, stood up for homosexuals. And among the three opposition MPs, none did.

My depression was infinitely deepened when I read NMP Thio Li-Ann’s parliamentary phillipic – entitled Two Tribes Go To (Culture) War – as well as her Insight article yesterday. She was brilliant, incisive, learned, witty and civil. The ‘moral conservative majority’ has found a formidable warrior – notice that ‘War’; and my side – the immoral liberal minority? – was left looking stupid, speechless, confused, sour-faced and uncivil.

Consider how she tore to shreds so many of our cherished beliefs. The idiots that we are, we had believed ‘pluralism’ meant, among other things, ‘autonomy and retention of identity for individual bodies’, a ‘society in which the members of minority groups maintain their independent cultural traditions’, ‘a system that recognises more than one ultimate principle or kind of being’, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it.

But we were wrong. ‘Democratic pluralism,’ Prof Thio wrote incisively yesterday, ‘welcomes every view in public discussion, but does not commit the intellectual fallacy of saying every view is right. The goal is to ascertain the right view for the circumstances.’ That means that under certain circumstances – to be determined by whatever passes for the majority at any moment, I suppose – pluralism can insist on a singular ‘ultimate principle or kind of being’.

We silly fellows had also misunderstood the nature of secularism. We had thought it meant separation of religion from the state, politics and public policy. We were wrong. As Prof Thio explained trenchantly in her ‘culture war’ speech: ‘Religious views are part of our common morality. We separate ‘religion’ from ‘politics’ but not ‘religion’ from ‘public policy’ (emphasis mine).

I never knew that! I had always assumed that it was necessary to separate religion from politics as well as public policy, for it was impossible to separate public policy from politics, and both from the state. But it turns out my assumption was baseless.

Jawaharlal Nehru, a Brahmin who insisted on untouchability being banned in the Indian Constitution despite the opposition of many caste Hindus, simply did not understand a thing about secularism. Bishop Desmond Tutu, a Methodist who insisted that discrimination against homosexuals be prohibited in the South African Constitution, was similarly clueless. And all those Enlightenment chaps in powdered wigs who insisted on the separation of church and state in the United States – in part, because there was no ‘common morality’ among religions – well, silly fellows, they knew nothing.

Yes, I must admit, Prof Thio demolished my side with astonishing ease. First, her big guns – pluralism is not plural; secularism can be religiously informed – left us limbless. Then, equally impressively, the cultural warrior sliced and diced us with her rapier wit and uncommon civility. We were finally left with our torsos tossed into ideological ditches and our heads stuck on cultural pikes.

‘To say a law is archaic is merely chronological snobbery,’ she thundered, referring to 377A. That sent me reeling. So original! So conclusive! So brilliant!

‘Chronological snobbery’ was first coined by Owen Barfield and C.S. Lewis, two eminent British popular theologians. It first appeared in print, I think, in Lewis’ moving spiritual autobiography, Surprised By Joy. Lewis and Barfield coined it to stigmatise modern ‘intellectual fashions’ that they thought consigned unfairly religious faith to a seemingly unregenerate past.

Prof Thio, a most learned person, must have known of the origin of this phrase in theological controversy, and she brilliantly extended it to the law. And if one linked this extension to the profound truths she uncovered about public policy in a secular state, one would see how her stigmatisation of ‘chronological snobbery’ can be extended further still. All those in favour of teaching ‘intelligent design’ alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution in schools, raise your hands. Done! Education Ministry, please take note.

Then there was her wit, deployed so civilly. Anal sex is like ‘shoving a straw up your nose to drink’, she said. A colleague of mine googled that and discovered it was an often cited image in American anti-gay pamphlets. To top that, she said 377A must be kept on the books so we can say ‘Majullah Singapura’, not ‘Mundur Singapura’. If you did not get the joke, here is a clue: Mundur means ‘backward’ in Malay, and ‘backward’ here alludes to that ‘straw’ and another orifice. See? Now, isn’t that funny?

Oh, I cried when I read that. Imagine that: The moral conservative majority makes better vulgar jokes than the immoral liberal minority – and in Parliament too. If the immoral minority cannot beat the moral majority even in this department, we are really and truly kaput.

What sent me into shock was the discovery that Singapore is actually the US. I am referring to Prof Thio’s sources of inspiration. Google ‘culture war’ and you will discover them.

The term was made famous by Mr Patrick Buchanan, a right-wing conservative (many would say zealot) who challenged former president George H.W. Bush, a moderate, for the Republican presidential nomination in 1992. At the Republican convention that year, Mr Buchanan alarmed many Americans by declaring: ‘There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.’

Once one understands the milieu from which this statement issues, one would understand the origins of Prof Thio’s profound understanding of pluralism and secularism. It does not derive from the Enlightenment or from contemporary Europe or Asia. It derives from the American religious right. It is they who insist pluralism cannot ultimately be plural; it is they who demand public policy be informed by religious beliefs.

And all but a few thumped their seats when Prof Thio finished her speech? They must have missed the radical – yes, radical and extreme – nature of her claims. One person who did not, I think, was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. My colleague Chua Mui Hoong reported he did not thump his seat.

That lifted my depression somewhat. I did not like one bit the upshot of the Prime Minister’s speech – that 377A will stay because the majority, especially Christians and Muslims, are opposed to its scrubbing. But I was proud of what he had to say, and how he said it.

There are ‘limits’, he said, for homosexuals in Singapore. But there would be limits too, in how religious beliefs are applied in the policing of homosexuals. Section 377A will not be applied ‘proactively’, he said – meaning, it will be inoperative.

Mr Stuart Koe, chief executive of gay Asian portal Fridae.com, was wrong to liken 377A to a gun being put to the heads of homosexuals and not pulling the trigger. There is a gun, it remains symbolically loaded, but it has been laid down.

For that – a small victory – we have to thank old-fashioned pluralism, not Prof Thio’s radical rewriting of it. Some of us – our children, our friends, our siblings – have different sexual orientations, so let’s give them space.

For the rest – well, we will have to wait, but hopefully, not for 2,500 years.

janadas@sph.com.sg

Gay community looks ahead as it signals a new focus


By Li Xueying

THE dialogue has been started, and it will continue.

While disappointed that Section 377A – which criminialises sex between men – has not been repealed after two days of parliamentary debate, Singapore’s gay community is determined to keep the conversation going.

As media company executive Stuart Koe put it: ‘We’ve started a dialogue which we don’t intend to stop.’

His group, which collected 2,341 signatures for a petition to Parliament to repeal the law, also issued a statement On Wednesday: ‘The beginning of the end of the discrimination of one group of Singaporeans has begun and there is no turning back.’

Reaction from the gay community a day after the end of the Parliament debate, also indicate a new focus.

For now, petitions and active lobbying are not on the table, said six gay activists interviewed on Wednesday.

Instead, they will look towards heightening the visibility of the gay community through efforts such as volunteer work, support groups and events like IndigNation which hosts, for instance, arts exhibitions and poetry readings.

This will help Singaporeans understand gays better, and be more comfortable among them, they said.

Said former teacher Dominic Chua, who runs a support group for gay teachers: ‘What makes this so divisive is that many of those who are against gays, do not have gay friends, and do not understand them.’

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who joined the parliamentary debate on Tuesday, said Singapore had to maintain a balance between upholding a stable society with traditional, heterosexual family values and giving gays space to live their lives.

He also cautioned that ‘as a matter of reality, the more gay activists push this agenda, the stronger will be the push-back from conservative forces in our society’.

Mr Koe said on Wednesday: ‘We’re taking that to heart. I don’t think we’re going to be knocking our heads against the wall this way.

‘Rather, to foster understanding, we will work with the community to be more visible such as through volunteer work, so they are comfortable with us.’

Added Mr Kelvin Wong, who heads a support group for Buddhist gays: ‘We will move on. We will do what we have been doing – IndigNation, the support groups, increase our visibility and get people to understand us.’

But, academic Russell Heng said, the gay community must be given its right to ‘try to change minds’ and educate Singaporeans on gay issues.

‘I expect the Government to be fair and not obstruct those organisations that might invite me to speak, while my opponents have every right to spread their anti-gay message.’

As for whether the debate polarises society, Mr Chua said: ‘It is, if the debate is one-sided and couched in uncivil terms. Otherwise, genuine dialogue is a sign of a mature society.’

Even as the gay community look upon that as a silver lining, groups that opposed repealing 377A applauded the Government’s decision.

In a statement, Muslim organisation Pergas said that whatever the reason for homosexuality, ‘Islam clearly states that Man can assert his power of reasoning over his negative desires if he so wishes’.

Executive director Martin Tan, 30, who co-organised a counter-petition to keep the law, said: ‘The feedback we got supporting the retention of 377A has been overwhelming, and I’m sure most Singaporeans are happy with the decision.’

Overall, the gay activists interviewed hailed the two days of debate as a ‘milestone’. A community, hitherto ‘kept in the shadows’, had been heard, they said.

Ms Eileena Lee, who runs a resource centre on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues, added: ‘As a gay woman, I felt affirmed and acknowledged, especially with the Prime Minister’s speech.”

Why we should leave Section 377A alone: PM Lee Hsien Loong

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke in Parliament on Section 377A, which criminalises gay sex. Here are edited excerpts from his remarks

‘Mr Speaker Sir, this parliamentary debate is on the amendments to the Penal Code, but the hottest debate is on one section which is not being amended – Section 377A.

Both Mr Siew Kum Hong and Professor Thio Li-Ann quoted me with approval in their speeches yesterday so I think I should state my position, and the Government’s position on this matter.

Because of the review of the Penal Code and the amendments, I think the gay community and the activists have staged a push to get the Government to open this subject and to abolish Section 377A.

They have written an open letter to me as PM. They’ve also petitioned Parliament on this issue on the grounds of constitutional validity and the constitutional argument was made by Mr Siew Kum Hong yesterday in Parliament.

I don’t have to go into the details. It was rebutted very cogently by Indranee Rajah and very passionately by Prof Thio Li-Ann.

They are not my legal adviser. I take my legal advice from the Attorney-General and his advice to the Government is quite clear: The continued retention of Section 377A would not be a contravention of the Constitution.

The Government has not taken this matter lightly. We had a long discussion among the ministers; we had an extensive public consultation on the Penal Code amendments; and we decided, on this issue, to leave things be.So let me today focus on the policy issue – what we want the law to be – and explain our thinking, our considerations, why we came to this conclusion.

I would ask these questions: What is our attitude towards homosexuality? ‘Our’ meaning the Government’s attitude and Singaporeans’ attitude, too; and how should these attitudes and these values be reflected in our legislation.

Many Members have said this, but it’s true and it’s worth saying again: Singapore is basically a conservative society. The family is the basic building block of this society. It has been so and by policy, we have reinforced this, and we want to keep it so.

And by family in Singapore we mean one man, one woman marrying, having children and bringing up children within that framework of a stable family unit.

And if you look at the way our Housing Board flats are, our neighbourhoods, our new towns, that’s by and large the way Singaporeans live. It’s not so in other countries, particularly in the West anymore, but it is here.

I acknowledge that not everybody fits into this mould. Some are single, some have more colourful lifestyles, some are gay. But a heterosexual, stable family is a social norm. It’s what we teach in schools. It’s what parents want to see, want their children to see as their children grow up, to set their expectations and encourage them to develop in this direction.

And I think the vast majority of Singaporeans want to keep it this way, want to keep our society like this, and so does the Government.

But at the same time, we should recognise that homosexuals are part of our society. They are our kith and kin.

This is not just in Singapore, this is so in every society, in every period of history, back to prehistoric times – or at least as long as there have been records, biblical times and probably before.

What makes a person gay or homosexual? Well, partly it could be the social environment.

If we look at ancient Greece and Romans, it was quite normal for men to have homosexual relationships – an older man with a young boy. And it doesn’t mean that that’s all they do. They have wives, they have children, but socially that’s the practice. So I think the social environment has something to do with it. But there is growing scientific evidence that sexual orientation is something which is substantially inborn. I know some will strongly disagree with this, but the evidence is accumulating.You can read the arguments and the debates on the Internet.

And just to take one provocative fact: Homosexual behaviour is not observed only amongst human beings, but amongst many species of mammals.

So, so too in Singapore. There is a small percentage of people, both male and female, who have homosexual orientations and they include people ‘who are often responsible, invaluable and highly respected contributing members of society’. I quote from the open letter which the petitioners have written to me.

And it is true. They include people who are responsible, invaluable, highly respected contributing members of society. And I would add that among them are some of our friends, our relatives, our colleagues, our brothers and sisters, or some of our children.

They too must have a place in this society and they too are entitled to their private lives. We shouldn’t make it harder than it already is for them to grow up and to live in a society where they are different from most Singaporeans.

And we also don’t want them to leave Singapore to go to more congenial places to live.

But homosexuals should not set the tone for Singapore society.

Nor do we consider homosexuals a minority in the sense that we consider, say, Malays and Indians as minorities, with minority rights protected under the law – languages taught in schools, culture celebrated by all races, representation guaranteed in Parliament through GRCs and so on. And this is the point which Ms Indranee Rajah made yesterday in a different way.

This is the way Singapore society is today. This is the way the majority of Singaporeans want it to be.

So we should strive to maintain a balance: to uphold a stable society with traditional heterosexual family values, but with space for homosexuals to live their lives and to contribute to the society.

We’ve gradually been making progress towards achieving a closer approximation to this balance over the years. I don’t think we will ever get the perfect balance, but I think that we have a better arrangement now than was the case 10 or 20 years ago.

Homosexuals work in all sectors, all over the economy; in the public sector as well, and in the civil service as well. They are free to lead their lives, free to pursue their social activities.

But there are restraints and we do not approve of them actively promoting their lifestyle to others or setting the tone for mainstream society.

They live their lives, that’s their personal life, it’s their space. But the tone of the overall society, I think it remains conventional, it remains straight and we want it to remain so.

So, for example, the recent case of Mr Otto Fong, who is a teacher in Raffles Institution. He’s gay, he’s a good teacher by all accounts. He put up a blog which described his own sexual inclinations and explained how he was gay. And he circulated it to his colleagues and it became public.

So, (the) Ministry of Education looked at this, the school spoke to the teacher. The teacher understood that this was beyond the limit, because what you live is your own thing. But what you disseminate comes very close to promoting a lifestyle. So spoke to him, he took down his blog, he posted an explanation, he apologised for what he had done and he continues teaching in RI today.

So there is space, there are limits.

De facto, gays have a lot of space in Singapore. Gay groups hold public discussions, they publish websites, I’ve visited some of them. There are films, plays on gay themes. In fact sometimes people ask ‘Why are there so many? Aren’t there other subjects in the world?’ But since we have allowed it the last few years, maybe this is a letting off of pressure. Eventually, we will find a better balance.

There are gay bars and clubs. They exist. We know where they are. Everybody knows where they are. They don’t have to go underground. We don’t harass gays. The Government does not act as moral policeman. And we don’t proactively enforce Section 377A on them.

But this doesn’t mean that we have reached a broad social consensus that this is a happy state of affairs, because there are still very different views among Singaporeans on whether homosexuality is acceptable or morally right. And we heard these views aired in Parliament over these last two days…

Some are convinced, passionately so, that homosexuality is an abomination, to quote Prof Thio Li-Ann’s words yesterday. Others, probably many more, are uncomfortable with homosexuals, more so with public display of homosexual behaviour. Yet others are more tolerant and accepting.

There’s a range of views.There’s also a range of degrees to which people are seized with this issue. Many people are not that seized with this issue. And speaking candidly, I think the people who are very seized with this issue are a minority. And (for) the majority of Singaporeans, well, it is something which they are aware of, but it’s not at the top of their consciousness – including I would say, among them, a significant number of gays themselves.

Also I would say amongst the Chinese-speaking community in Singapore. Chinese-speaking Singaporeans, they are not as strongly engaged either for removing 377A or against removing 377A. Their attitude is live and let live.

And so even in this debate, these two days, you will have noticed there have been very few speeches made in Parliament in Mandarin on this subject. I know Mr Baey Yam Keng made one this afternoon, but Mr Low Thia Khiang did not. And it reflects the focus of the Chinese-speaking ground and their mindsets. So for the majority of Singaporeans, the attitude is a pragmatic one – we live and let live.

The current legal position in Singapore reflects these social norms and attitudes, as Miss Indranee Rajah and Mr Hri Kumar explained yesterday.

It is not legally neat and tidy. Mr Hri Kumar gave a very professional explanation of how untidy it is. But it is a practical arrangement that has evolved out of our historical circumstances.We are not starting from a blank slate, trying to design an ideal arrangement. Neither are we proposing new laws against homosexuality.

We have what we have inherited and what we have adapted to our circumstances. And as Mr Hri Kumar pointed out, we inherited Section 377A from the British – imported from the English Victorian law, from the period of Queen Victoria in the 19th century, via the Indian Penal Code, via by the Straits Settlement Penal Code into Spore law.

Asian societies don’t have such laws: not in Japan, not in China, not in Taiwan.

But it’s part of our landscape. We have retained it over the years. So the question is, what do we want to do about it now? Do we want to do anything about it now?

If we retain it, we are not enforcing it proactively. Nobody has argued for it to be enforced very vigorously in this House.

If we abolish it, we may be sending the wrong signal that our stance has changed and the rules have shifted.

But because of the Penal Code amendments, Section 337A has become a symbolic issue – the point for both opponents and proponents to tussle around.

The gay activists want it removed. Those who are against gay values and lifestyle argue strongly to retain it. And both sides have mobilised to campaign for their causes.

There was a petition to remove Section 377A. It accumulated a couple of thousand signatures and was presented in this House. Therefore there was a counter-petition to retain it which collected 15,000 signatures, at least according to the newspapers I haven’t counted the signatures – 16,000, 15560 signatures. Probably gone up since last we started speaking.

Also with an open letter to me. And the ministers and I, we have received many e-mails and letters on this subject. And I have received e-mails too in my mailbox. Very well written, all following a certain model answer style. So it’s a very well organised campaign.

And not only writing letters but people, constituents have visited MPs at Meet-the-People Sessions to see the MP, not because there’s anything they want done, but to congratulate the MP on what a good Government this is that we are keeping Section 377A, and ‘please stay a good Government and please don’t change it’.

So I don’t doubt the depth of the sentiments and the breadth of the support. But it’s also a very well organised pressure campaign.

But I’m not surprised that this issue is still contentious because even in the West, even when they have liberalised, homosexuality still remains a very contentious issue.

They decriminalised homosexual acts decades ago, in the 1960s, ’70s. And they have gone a long way towards accepting gays in society. They not only have gays in prominent places – if you want to have a complete Cabinet or a complete line-up when you go for elections, you must have some on your list so that you’re seen to have been inclusive. Certainly so in Europe. Also true in America.

But still, the issue is bitterly disputed. So in America, there are fierce debates over gay rights and same-sex marriages. And the conservatives in America are pushing back. President George Bush has been calling for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and not between a man and a man or a woman and a woman. This is in America.

So the issue is still joint.

Even within the churches, it’s a hot subject. The Anglican Church, Church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, he had liberal views on gay issues. He became the Archbishop. He’s moderated his views because he has to reflect the church as a whole.

And even within the church – the church in England, the church in America – have a very serious disagreement with the Anglican churches in Asia and in Africa, who almost split away on this issue of ordination of gay people as bishops.

And they’ve patched up and compromised recently in America. And the Archbishop of Canterbury, who’s head of the church, had to plead with the community to come to some understanding so that they maintain the Anglican communion.

So this is not an issue where we can reach happy consensus.

And abolishing Section 377A, were we to do this, is not going to end the argument in Singapore.

Among the conservative Singaporeans, the deep concerns over the moral values of society will remain.

And among the gay rights activists, abolition isn’t going to give them what they want because what they want is not just to be free from Section 377A, but more space and full acceptance by other Singaporeans. And they said so.

So supposing we move on 377A, I think the gay activists will push for more, following the examples of other avant garde countries in

Europe and America – to change what is taught in the schools, to advocate same-sex marriages and parenting, to ask for ‘exactly the same rights as a straight man or woman’. This is quoting from the open letter which the petitioners wrote to me.

And when it comes to these issues, the majority of Singaporeans will strenuously oppose these follow-up moves by the gay campaigners. And many who are not anti-gay will be against this agenda. And I think for good reason.

Therefore, we’ve decided to keep the status quo on Section 377A. It’s better to accept the legal untidiness and the ambiguity. It works, don’t disturb it.

Mr Stuart Koe, who is one of the petitioners, was interviewed yesterday and he said he wanted the Government to remove the ambiguity and clarify matters.

He said the current situation is like having a ‘gun put to your head and not pulling the trigger. Either put the gun down, or pull the trigger’.

First of all, I don’t think it’s like that. Secondly, I don’t think it’s wise to try to force the issue. If you try and force the issue and settle the matter definitively one way or the other, we are never going to reach an agreement within Singapore society.

People on both sides hold strong views. People who are presently willing to live and let live will get polarised and no views will change because many of the people who oppose it do so on very deeply held religious convictions, particularly the Christians and the Muslims; and those who propose it on the other side, they also want this as a matter of deeply felt fundamental principle.

So discussion and debate is not going to bring them closer together. And instead of forging a consensus, we will divide and polarise our society.

I should therefore say that as a matter of reality, that the more gay activists push this agenda, the stronger will be the push-back from conservative forces in our society, as we are beginning to see already in this debate and over the last few weeks and months. And the result will be counter-productive because it’s going to lead to less space for the gay community in Singapore. So it’s better to let the situation evolve gradually.

We are a completely open society. Members have talked about it, the Internet, travel, full exposure. We cannot be impervious to what’s happening elsewhere. As attitudes around the world change, this will influence the attitudes of Singaporeans.

As events, developments around the world happen, we must watch carefully and decide what we do about it.

When it comes to issues like the economy, technology, education, we’d better stay ahead of the game… moving and adapt faster than others; ahead of the curve, leading the pack.

And when necessary in such issues, we will move even if the issue is unpopular or controversial. So we are moving on CPF changes; we are moving on so many economic restructuring changes, we move on integrated resorts. It’s a difficult subject. Not everybody supports the Government, but we decide this is right, we move.

On moral values, on issues of moral values, with consequences to the wider society, first we should also decide what is right for ourselves.

But secondly, before we are carried away by what other societies do. I think it’s wiser for us to observe the impact of radical departures from traditional norms on early movers. These are changes which have very long lead times before the impact works through, before you see whether it’s wise, unwise, is this positive? Does it help you to adapt better? Does it lead to a more successful, happier, more harmonious society? So we will let others take the lead. We will stay one step behind the frontline of change; watch how things work out elsewhere before we make any irrevocable moves.

We were right to uphold the family unit when Western countries went for experimental lifestyles in the 1960s – the hippies, free love, all the rage. We tried to keep it out. It was easier then. All you had was LPs and 45 RPM records, not this Cable Vision and the Internet and travel today.

But I’m glad we did that because today, if you look at Western Europe, where marriage as an institution is dead, families have broken down, the majority of children are born out of wedlock and live in families where the father and the mother are not the husband and wife living together, bringing them up. And we’ve kept the way we are. I think that has been right.

I think we have also been right to adapt, to accommodate homosexuals in our society, but not to allow or encourage activists to champion gay rights (as) they do in the West.

So I suggest, Mr Speaker, and I suggest to the Members of the House, we keep this balance, leave Section 377A alone. I think there is space in Singapore and room for us to live harmoniously and practically all as Singapore citizens together.’

PM Lee: Why Singapore must 'leave Section 377A alone'

By Imelda Saad, Correspondent

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday weighed in on the two-day parliamentary debate over Section 377A, which criminalises sex between men.

Stating his own position and the Govermment’s position, Mr Lee explained why the status quo must remain, despite the ‘legal untidiness and ambiguity’.

Quoting Stuart Koe from Fridae.com, an initiator of the Repeal 377A petition who called on the Government to either ‘put the gun down’ or ‘pull the trigger’, Mr Lee pointed out it will be ‘unwise’ to do so.

‘If we force the issue and settle the matter definitively one way or the other, we will never reach an agreement… Instead of forging a consensus, we will divide and polarise our society’, he explained.

Mr Lee pointed out that many who oppose homosexuality, do so in deeply held religious convictions, especially Christians and Muslims.

Abolition of Section 377A, he pointed out, will not give gay rights activists what they really want – more space and full acceptance by Singaporeans.

The more gay activists push their agenda, he said, the stronger will be the push back from conservative forces in society.

Mr Lee pointed to the current wave of support shown by those who want to keep Section 377A. ‘The result will be counterproductive, as it will lead to less space for homosexuals in Singapore,’ he said.

The Prime Minister also believes that if Section 377A was repealed, ‘gay activists will push for more’ – for example, changing what is taught in schools, advocating same-sex marriages and parenting.

Stressing yet again that Singapore is still a conservative society that values the conventional family unit, Mr Lee said what’s needed is to ‘strike a balance’.

‘We will stay one step behind the frontline of change… Watch how things work out elsewhere, before making any irrevocable moves.

‘We were right to uphold the family unit when Western countries went for experimental lifestyles in the 1960s. We are right to accomodate homosexuals in our society, but not to encourage activists to champion gay rights the way they do in the West.’

His bottomline: ‘Let us keep this balance and leave S377A alone.’

Repeal377A Press Conference

Presented at the repeal377A press conference on Monday 22 Oct @ The Arts House

What we are presenting today – a parliamentary petition with over 2300 validated signatures collected in 3 days, an online open letter to the Prime Minister with over 8200 signatures collected in just over a week, and a video which has been ranked one of the top 100 most viewed News & Political videos on Youtube, is the result of an informal group of like-minded individuals, most of whom didn’t even know one another when the process was started.

The organic creation and development of the group is led by a common aim to urge for the repeal of section 377A, because of a common belief that it is inherently unjust and actively discriminates against a Singaporean minority because of their sexual orientation.

From the time we started this petition, we knew it would not be a numbers game. We represent a minority – a sexual minority. This is a group that has been oppressed and stigmatized against, in the law and through innumerable discriminatory policies. Despite advances in society, many still bear the brunt of their neighbors, friends, and family’s disapproval and intolerance. It’s no wonder many gays and lesbians are hesitant to put their names down on something which may mark them as criminals! Since they were born – homosexuals in Singapore have had the specter of 377A hanging over their heads, or as some have alluded, had a gun held to their heads – you’re not technically a criminal, but anything you do as one will make you one.

We expected to achieve a couple of thousand online signatories and 500 signatures for the petition – which would already have been a landmark achievement. Since this is a very informal effort, we did not have the benefit of an established “flock” to go to. But the response from the community at large not only surprised us, it completely overwhelmed us. We have collected over 8000 signatures for the open letter, and will be submitting 2319 signatures for the petition.

The show of support, the messages of hope and love would have moved any cynic to tears.

          An 18-year-old student asked for an extension of petition signatories’ deadline so that she could gather more signatures from her school mates. She came in with 70 signatures.

          2 separate individuals, with no connection to each other and with no promoting, went out to collect 150 signatures EACH for the petition.

          Tan Bee Bee, 63, mother of 2 heterosexual sons, went out of her way to collect signatures from her “conservative peers”. She believed that she needed to do it “for a healthy attitude towards life”. She collected 5 signatures.

          Various individuals who went everywhere with petition forms in their back pockets during the 3 days we had to collect signatures for the parliamentary petition.

          A Singaporean mother of two children drove over from JB having collected another two names to add to hers and her husband’s … giving the reasons that 1. Nobody would ask to lead a gay life by choice. 2. Hypocrisy to leave the law on the statute books as a threat to gay people 3. Straight people should support any action that protects vulnerable people from bullying bigots.

And above all – this is our message. The law is here to protect minorities. In Singapore today, religious and racial minorities enjoy freedom from discrimination and persecution because of the rule of law. We live in harmony because we recognize and respect the diversity within our society. Without this, Singapore would not be what it is.

Minister Mentor, Senior Minister and Prime Minister have all acknowledged that homosexuality is natural. Yet we have a law that criminalizes nature. Gay citizens should not be branded criminals by a vestigial law. They should not be subjected to the hate, vitriol and intolerance that has been directed at them by society.

To repeal 377 for heterosexuals, but not 377A for homosexuals is disingenuous and sets a precedent for discrimination. We are taking one step forwards, but two steps back.

Repealing 377A can be an educational tool, a way for our leadership to indicate to the rest of society that it is not alright to discriminate. Even as we respect each individual’s rights to their opinions and morals, this is a private matter and not how we conduct society. In the larger secular society, we need to be mutually respectful of our differences if we are to live harmoniously. If majority rule were practiced, blacks in the US would still be sitting at the back of public buses, and it racial and religious discrimination would be rampant in Singapore.

Singapore, in its relentless march towards progress for our nation, must not leave behind the hundreds of thousands of homosexual Singaporeans who have contributed to our nation building. We are as much a part of the social fabric here as anyone else.

'Prayer' to change a sex law

On Monday, Parliament will hear a ‘prayer’ – legal parlance for a request – for a petition to repeal a law banning sex between men. What does such active lobbying of lawmakers by an interest group herald for the future? LYDIA LIM and KEITH LIN find out

NOMINATED Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong is still two days away from presenting a citizens’ petition to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code.

But his decision to do so has already sparked heated debate in some quarters.

First came two missives to this newspaper’s Forum page from critics of the move.

One of them, by Ms Jenica Chua Chor Ping, argued that Mr Siew had overstepped his boundaries as an NMP by agreeing to act as the ‘proxy representative of the homosexual interest group’.

Next came three letters from supporters.

Among them was Mr Ooi Jian Yuan who said that Mr Siew, as a ‘straight man’, should be applauded for his willingness to represent the gay community’s views in the face of opposition.

At issue is a planned amendment to the Penal Code, set to take place in Parliament next week.

When passed, the amendment will repeal Section 377 which governs oral and anal sex between men and women, but leave Section 377A intact.

That means the same acts between men will remain a crime.

Gay activists who initiated the parliamentary petition have argued that the amendment discriminates against homosexual men, even though the Constitution provides for every citizen to be afforded equal protection before the law.

Mr Siew agrees and tells Insight: ‘So, as a responsible parliamentarian, I agreed to present the petition to Parliament.

‘The Standing Orders of Parliament provide for this mechanism; it must be there for people to use.’

It could well mark the first attempt by a local interest group to use formal parliamentary procedures to change a law.

Some interest groups such as the Nature Society had previously lobbied the Government through such means as letters and public petitions with varying degrees of success.

Various other interests, from industry groups to ethnic communities, try to influence lawmakers through consultative and feedback mechanisms, often behind closed doors.

But the gay community has more often than not been rebuffed when they appealed quietly for change.

One example is how activists were twice rejected when they applied in 1996 and again last year to register a group known as People Like Us, to raise awareness of gay issues.

Given their history, it should not come as a surprise that some activists now feel they have few options left than to adopt a more confrontational stance and lobby Parliament directly.

A Parliamentary Petition is unlike other forms of feedback in that its treatment is governed by Standing Orders.

The Public Petitions Committee, comprising seven MPs and chaired by Speaker Abdullah Tarmugi, must meet to consider the petition, after which it will submit a report to Parliament.

As interest groups become increasingly sophisticated in navigating the law-making maze to canvass their causes, what are the implications for Singapore’s political landscape?

High-profile campaign

ONE obvious impact is that the questioning of the Government’s stand on 377A has gone from low-key lobbying to high-profile campaign.

In their bid to repeal 377A, the gay activists also approached stage actress Pam Oei of Dim Sum Dollies fame to shoot a video.

She agreed because she views 377A as an ‘archaic law’.

The 90-second clip features other celebrities she roped in, including Tan Kheng Hua, Mark Richmond and Kumar, rapping ‘repeal 377A’. It is now on video-sharing website YouTube.

Legal experts are also joining the debate, at least on the Internet.

Last week, National University of Singapore law professor Michael Hor contributed a piece to website theonlinecitizen in his personal capacity.

He argued that recent statements by the highest officials in the land suggest that the Government no longer believes the sort of activity governed by 377A is harmful.

This is further corroborated by its repeated assurances that 377A will not be enforced.

‘Employment of the criminal law to prohibit activity which the Government does not really think ought to be prohibited, on the sole basis that ‘the majority’ wants it to be prohibited, is fraught with danger,’ Prof Hor said.

‘The moral force of the criminal law is blunted if there are crimes which are, the Government assures the public, never to be enforced, and its ‘perpetrators’ never brought to court and punished,’ he added.

These arguments are not new. In April, the Law Society raised similar objections to 377A, in its 55-page response to the Home Affairs Ministry’s proposed changes to the Penal Code.

The society said the ministry’s stand on not being proactive in enforcing that section ‘runs the risk of bringing the law into disrepute’.

But while the society’s call to scrap the mandatory death penalty for crimes such as murder and drug trafficking has now faded from public consciousness, 377A remains a live issue precisely because of the efforts of gay lobbyists.

The conservatives have launched a counter response in the form of an online petition at the keep377A.com website that went live on Thursday.

Behind it are four ‘concerned individuals’, including Mr Martin Tan, 30, executive director of a non-profit group.

Calling themselves The Majority, they cited a recent Nanyang Technological University survey which found that 70 per cent of Singaporeans hold negative attitudes towards lesbians and gay men.

In their open letter to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, which has garnered over 2,000 signatures in just 24 hours, the four supported the Government’s decision to keep 377A.

Its repeal, they argued, would ‘force homosexuality on a conservative population that is not ready for homosexuality’.

They also warned that changes to gay sex laws would lead to further erosion of family values through calls for an education system that teaches acceptance of the gay lifestyle under the banner of ‘tolerance’ and the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex unions.

General practitioner Alan Chin, 49, a father of two, welcomes the initiative.

‘It is important to show to the Government that a sizeable majority wants to keep 377A,’ he tells Insight.

What next?

ON THURSDAY, the organisers of the repeal 377A campaign reported that 2,519 people had signed the Parliamentary Petition.

Mr Stuart Koe, chief executive of gay Asian portal Fridae.com and one of its two main signatories, said supporters included gay and straight Singaporeans and permanent residents.

‘It sends a clear signal that the community sees this as an important issue that needs to be addressed,’ he adds.

Yet a repeal of 377A seems highly unlikely at this stage.

After all, the Penal Code review that resulted in the amendment Bill now before Parliament took three years.

It included consultations with the public, the majority of whom wanted 377A retained, according to the Home Affairs Ministry.

Come Monday, after Mr Siew presents the petition to Parliament, the ball will land in the court of the MPs on the Public Petitions Committee.

At least one member, Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Baey Yam Keng, has previously declared his personal support for the scrapping of 377A.

But Marine Parade GRC MP Lim Biow Chuan, also on the committee, is opposed to it. Yet both acknowledge the right of activists – whether gay or otherwise – to petition Parliament for change.

Tampines GRC MP Irene Ng, another committee member, agrees.

But she worries about a possible backlash.

Right now, she says, the majority have been restrained in not calling for the law to be enforced rigorously.

‘This live-and-let-live attitude has given gays a lot of room to live their lives as they want to,’ she says.

But if the gay lobby takes it ‘too far to push loudly for repealing 377A, it may find itself being confronted with a public backlash, which will be unfortunate’.

Bishop Robert Solomon, president of the National Council of Churches in Singapore, agrees that strong lobbying to scrap 377A ‘will not be helpful or seen favourably by many’.

Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Hri Kumar says that unlike the equally heated debate over casinos, which subsided after the Government’s decision to go ahead with two integrated resorts, there will be no finality to the disagreement over gay rights.

Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Indranee Rajah believes if the Petitions Committee rejects the repeal call, the issue will crop up again.

‘The Government’s stand is that the majority of society is not yet ready for a change in the law. I expect that there will come a day when that will change because young people, apart from those who are religious, are likely to be more open to alternative lifestyles,’ she says.

Mr Siew, the NMP, has declared his intention to file a motion for Parliament to debate the report that the Public Petitions Committee is due to submit.

So even if the Penal Code (Amendment) Bill passes as expected next week, the campaigners against 377A are not about to let their cause die quietly.

Whether their efforts will win them more supporters, or provoke a conservative backlash, remains to be seen.

Experience elsewhere has shown that societies do not necessarily move in a straight line from conservative to liberal as they develop. In between, expect more twists and turns.

The question is whether as a society, Singapore will handle the debate with maturity and mutual respect for all.



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