The Online Citizen

Religion’s place in parliament and politics

Religion’s place in parliament and politics
February 18
10:36 2014

By Lee Wei Fen

In 1966, a year after independence, Muslim organisations had to make unprecedented applications for a permit to hold a parade in celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, an annual procession that usually went unimpeded. For the first time, the procession was cancelled, because the relevant police permissions were not given. Instead, quiet celebrations, including the feeding of school children and religious lectures at the Sultan Mosque, were held.

The Singapore state has never had any qualms in urging and recommending minority religious communities to compromise, tolerate, and even change their traditional practices to suit Singapore’s plural and modern society. Mosques have been constantly urged to use Islam as a means of peace and progress to support inter-racial harmony, and even have centrally-issued sermons, not at all common outside of Singapore.

Hindu temples too, have been urged to merge across religious and cultural traditions to save space in land-starved Singapore, and have been frequently called upon to compromise and tone-down religious processions such as Thaipusam, for the sake of social harmony.

It is this knowledge of the Singapore state’s relationship with minority religion and religious institutions, that makes the recent attention to the Health Promotion Board’s FAQ on sexuality highly disturbing.

Not only has the same call for acquiescence not been extended to the Christian community leaders who have been exceedingly vocal and almost inflammatory about the issue, a Christian community leader who holds political authority on behalf of a constituency larger than the Church has also made strong remarks against the HPB FAQ – remarks that have gone unchecked, and that have been raised again in Parliament on Feb 17.

Mr. Lim Biow Chuan is the MP for Mountbatten and also a leader and occasional preacher in his church. By using his position as MP to articulate opinions on the FAQ that are coloured by religious beliefs, and without completely declaring all the hats he wears in making these comments, Lim has been oddly more activist for his religious constituency than his political one. Reflexivity is important in the degree to which a reader assesses the relevance of a response, and Lim’s response may be easily misconstrued as representing his constituency. Worse still, given the still nascent public consciousness of the divides between government, parliament, and party, his opinions may be taken to represent an official attitude, when he might very well just be representing his church.

Conflating “Asian Values” with religious conservatism

Similarly, Tampines GRC MP Mr. Baey Yam Keng’s comment that the HPB FAQ’s answers lacked a dimension that takes into account “Asian values of family” appears conflated with religious values of conservatism. The murky term “Asian values” have been questioned and challenged, time and again, as to what it really stands for, given the heterogeneity of Asian societies. In this context, it is particularly suspect, as the contentious law 377a was put in place by a British colonial government influenced by Christian law. Ironically, Asian societies have been found to be much more sexually permissive in pre-colonial times, and this example alone makes Baey suspect of using the “Asian values” argument to legitimise religious conservatism.

Outside of larger battles for gay marriage or even the ongoing 377a controversy, it is disappointing that people with political authority such as Lim and Baey, alongside community leaders like Lawrence Khong, would attack the HPB FAQ website for merely being objective in the face of religious conservatism. That neutrality can be perceived as a “concession” of objectivity is precisely because attitudes towards LGBT issues are so highly coloured with ill-informed prejudice – that some might actually deem scientific objectivity a concession.

These careless accusations deny the LGBT community what little space it has amongst our society, tears bridges they have been trying to build with their families down, and ultimately denies them a chance of holding their heads up high as equal and fairly-treated Singaporeans – a privilege which many of us take for granted. If this is bigotry masquerading as religious right, I firmly believe it should have no place in parliament or politics.

The contemporary society that we live in today is not just multi-racial and multi-religious, but multi-sexual too. It is high time to acknowledge that our society consists, not insignificantly, of members of the LGBT community, and that religious institutions should be treated even-handedly when called upon to promote acceptance and tolerance.

The Singapore government has always claimed to be a visionary one; headstrong in its agenda for the sort of society it envisions us to be, and prioritising harmony. In an increasingly plural society, strong leadership and discernment will be more sorely needed than ever. The courage to take a right and fair stance about the HPB FAQ, as well as a call to religious leaders for compromise and tolerance, will be a good and necessary first step towards the reinforcement of secular politics.

Lee Wei Fen is a writer and researcher of South Asian religions, histories and cultures. She recently completed her graduate studies with the National University of Singapore. 

  • Andrew Leung

    HPB should remove the FAQs. Please create a LGBT website and give more facts.

  • secondclasscitizensofsingapore

    Debate in Parliament (23rd October, 2007)
    Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tanjong Pagar):

    Mr Speaker, Sir, I rise in support of the Bill.

    After more than two decades, the overhaul of the Penal Code is necessary and timely. The updated Code will enable us to deal more effectively with the shifts in the nature and operation of crimes, fulfil our new requirements for social stability and national security,
    and empower us to keep up with new lifestyles, attitudes and aspirations. New laws and penalties have been introduced to deal with crimes which have emerged. Technological advances and globalisation necessitate such sweeping changes. The issues covered are indeed wide-ranging.

    The section that has attracted the most number of opinions, most heated public debate, with two online petitions and one Public Petition to Parliament is, in fact, one that has been retained – section 377A which probably has become the most known piece of legislation in recent Singapore history.

    Let us look at this issue in a hypothetical scenario. Singapore was never a British colony and we did not inherit section 377A. Today’s debate then becomes one of justifying the introduction of a new piece of legislation which states that, “It is an offence for any male person, who in public or private, commits an act of gross indecency with another male person.”.

    The rationale will be that since Singapore is a generally conservative society, we should single out and criminalise all sexual activities between two men while accepting that the same activity of anal and oral sex between a heterosexual couple and sexual activity between two women need not be offences.

    By doing so, we will be aligning our law with most countries in Africa and Middle East. In this hypothetical scenario, perhaps some countries like India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Malaysia will also introduce similar Acts, as what their current position is. Other former British colonies which have since repealed the 19th century law, such as Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong, will most likely not think it is necessary to now criminalise man-to-man sex.

    While almost all western countries do not have similar laws, we will argue that it is not relevant for us to take reference from them. However, we are also choosing not to benchmark Singapore against countries like China, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines which do not have laws that criminalise male homosexual activity.

    According to various points raised by the public, by not criminalising gay sex, it will lead to an increase in homosexual activity, both in public and private. There will also be more male paedophiles eyeing young boys, blatant public solicitation and more AIDS patients.

    The fact that in 2006, of all the new AIDS cases in Singapore, homosexual transmission constitutes only 26% does not seem to register clearly with the public.

    We also know that there are already laws and there will be stronger laws against prostitution, sexual abuse, exploitation of minors and public indecency. Maybe that is why we will propose that section 377A need not and will not be proactively enforced.

    Can the Senior Minister of State give examples of situations where specific enforcement of only section 377A may be needed? Yesterday, he mentioned previous convictions under section 377A, but it seems to me that they could also have been prosecuted under other sections. With no proactive enforcement, should anyone be a good citizen and report private gay sexual activities to the police or will they be simply ignored? Will there be ramifications of this legislation? If someone rents his apartment to a gay couple, will he be charged as an abetting accomplice to a crime under section V of the Penal Code? Besides valid immigration and employment papers, should landlords now ask for confirmation of their tenant’s sexual orientation?

    With a punishment by up to two years of imprisonment, we are deeming that such activities are of similar severity as causing death by negligent act in section 304A(b), and wrongfully confining any person for three or more days in section 345, and assault or use of criminal force to a person with intent to outrage modesty in section 354(1).

    Our justification will also be supported by various surveys, including a NTU study published in September 2007 which saw that 68.6% of respondents in Singapore were negative towards sex between two men or two women. However, it is also interesting to note that some countries choose not to reflect such social non-acceptance in legislation.

    Based on the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2003, 93% in Indonesia and 84% in Vietnam say that homosexuality should not be accepted by society, but these countries have no equivalent of section 377A.

    I assume most Singaporeans do not have many gay acquaintances. We are likely to gather our knowledge and form our opinions of the homosexual world from media reports. I believe certain stereotypes of homosexuals in people’s minds will include effeminate men, like Boy George, men who prey on young boys, eg, Christopher Neil, flamboyant men who seem to lead decadent lifestyles, like Elton John, and AIDS patients, like Paddy Chew.

    I do know quite a number of homosexual men and women. However, the majority, if not all of them, do not fall into any of those abovementioned stereotype categories. Well, they include some very talented and creative people – a common impression of gays which many have said is totally unfounded. These are the directors, actors, hairstylists and designers. But I also know many gay men who are just your average men on the street, making a living as lawyers, lecturers, engineers, accountants, bankers, teachers and civil servants.

    I know they have different sexual practices from me, and I have treated them just as any other person. Now, I am reminded that perhaps I should see them as criminals who should spend time behind bars. Perhaps, the thousands of audience who paid as much as $400 to watch Sir Ian McKellen, better known as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, playing King Lear, in July, might think twice now as he is an openly gay man and hence should object to allowing a criminal on the stage of our Esplanade.

    There are negative and positive steps a country can do to discourage and encourage certain behaviours. For example, we do not want to condone smoking and drinking. These acts are not criminal under the law, although we have made tobacco and alcohol less accessible and a lot more expensive. We want to promote marriage and procreation. Hence, singles do not enjoy certain tax and housing benefits, but they are not

    We may be utterly surprised, disappointed, embarrassed, disgusted and angry with our friends, our colleagues and our relatives if we find out they are gay. I will be saddened if my son is gay, because I realise I will not have any grandchildren by him. I may choose to disown him, but now we are saying that he should be jailed.

    Sir, I will now continue my speech in Mandarin.

    (In Mandarin): [For vernacular speech, please refer to Appendix A *. ] As the Chinese saying goes, 不孝有三,无后为大(Bu Xiao You San, Wu Hou Wei Da)which means, “There are three unfilial acts, the greatest is not to have a son.” This is an important concept in a traditional and oriental society like ours. Parents are hoping that their sons will have wives and their daughters will be married, and the children also understand that it is an obligation for them to get married and have children. Nevertheless many people choose to marry late, not to get married, or not to have children, and for some it remains solely a personal choice. There are many reasons, but one reason is that they are homosexuals.

    I have some homosexual friends and most of them do not want to make public the fact about their sexual inclination, because Singapore is after all a more conservative society. They will only confide with their close friends, colleagues and siblings. More often than not, parents are the last to know. Especially for those who are male homosexuals, the gays, they will not be able to have children and they do not know how to live up to their parents’ expectations. A friend of mine did not have the courage to tell his parents. And only after his father had passed away that he disclosed his secret at his father’s coffin. Even now the mother does not know about it.

    When parents find out that their children do not like the opposite sex, their immediate reaction is that of shock, sadness, shame, anger or remorse, and they try to find out what has gone wrong – why their children had become homosexuals. Some of the parents chose to run away from reality and one of my friend’s mother had gone to the temple to pray, she came back with a charm mixed with water, with the hope that after drinking it, it will cure the son. They do not know what to do and some of them even chase their son out of the house, but if they were to take time to think it through calmly, I do not believe that they will charge their son in court and send him to prison for two years.

    I have a friend who is the only child in the family. His mother still could not fully accept the fact that her son does not have any interest in the opposite sex. She was more worried that her son may be sentenced to jail being a homosexual. However, she is the person that knows him best, she knows that her son is very filial and obedient; he is a law-abiding citizen and a successful professional. Also, she has known the “boyfriend” of her son for many years and knows they do not have a promiscuous lifestyle.

    As parents, we are often the best judges of our children’s character. Having a different sexual orientation from the others does not mean that they have committed a heinous crime and therefore should be criminalised.

    (In English): Back to my hypothetical scenario, we will also say that we introduce section 377A as a symbol that the society is conservative and that we do not want to go down a slippery slope to see public display of affection between men, the fight for gay rights and gay marriages. For seven years, I have lived in London, a city that legalised consensual homosexual sex 40 years ago in 1967. I am hence surprised to recollect my time there and I have not ever seen any such behaviour or intimacy between two men in public whilst I was there. Perhaps I have not been to the right places, but I have not indeed seen anyone before my eyes.

    Perhaps we are afraid that the slope will be more slippery in Singapore. After all, we have a track record of taking a more progressive stance in some areas, such as stem cell research and digital rights, leading the way, so to speak. We take into account the change of times and lifestyles. For example, section 376E on sexual grooming of minors is farsighted nip in the bud. Times have changed and our attitudes towards different crimes and their punishments have evolved as well.

    Should the law reflect the general or popular opinion or should it set up a framework to steer the way of thinking and behaviour of its citizens, residents and visitors? It is clear that we have chosen to take the former approach in this case.

    I do recognise that in today’s situation, there is already an existing Act, and the debate is whether it should be retained or repealed and not whether we should introduce a new Act. We have inherited section 377A from the British. It is easier and, as the Senior Minister of State said, more practical to maintain the status quo than to change it. Because of the extensive and, some may say, polarised debate, we may not be ready to repeal the Act now. However, whether the perceived majority holding the status quo view has enough knowledge and understanding of the subject matter to make an informed opinion, is another question. I suspect a significant segment of our society does not really care and some are just uncomfortable with this topic and choose the convenient way to stick with the status quo without knowing what the Act exactly is and does.

    Last week, a resident came to my meet-the-people session and said that she is happy that the Government is retaining section 377A. I asked her, “Do you know what section 377A is about?” She said, “I don’t know.”

    I am happy to note that both the proposition and the opposition have spoken publicly and rationally. Hopefully, the Government will provide the environment to encourage the continuation of such dialogue so that the society at large can achieve a better understanding of the matter. I want to especially encourage voices from institutions, like the Law Society, so that this discussion will not be driven to periphery. Hopefully, the discussion will be ongoing and not just during the next review of the Penal Code. Hopefully, the review will happen earlier rather than another 23 years later. Hopefully, we will move with and not play catching up with the pace of change around the world that is affecting people’s lives.

    Sir, with that, I support the Bill.

  • secondclasscitizensofsingapore

    Debate in Parliament (23rd October, 2007)
    Mr Lim Biow Chuan:

    Mr Speaker, Sir, I rise in support of the amendment Bill on the Penal Code.

    According to the 2006 Annual Report of the Subordinate Courts, the Courts dealt with about 62,500 criminal-related cases last year. Although the figure cited include cases from MOM, MPA, NPB and NS cases, a large bulk of these cases involve people being charged in court for criminal offences or breach of the Penal Code.

    The Penal Code was last reviewed in 1984. It is timely for a comprehensive review of the Act 23 years later. I wish to applaud the Ministry of Home Affairs for its receptiveness to the feedback given after the public consultation exercise. And I understand that quite a number of sections were amended after taking into account the views of the members of the public. Sir, there are various amendments to the Penal Code and I would just like to touch on a few areas which I am concerned with.

    Section 298 – offences relating to religion or race

    Section 298 has been amended by inserting the word “or racial” after the word “religious”. A new section 298A has also been introduced to make it an offence for any person to promote enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race and doing of acts prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony.

    Sir, Singapore is a multi-racial and multi-religious society. We take great pains to preserve the racial and religious harmony amongst the different races and religions in this country. Any insensitive or inconsiderate action by a small minority can easily result in racial riots as Singapore had experienced in the Maria Hertogh riots and in the 1969 racial riots.

    I support the changes to these sections as the intent of the change is to preserve the social fabric of the country and to penalise persons who deliberately wound the religious and racial feelings of others.

    Sexual offences

    Next, Sir, sexual offences. I support the Government’s move to protect minors and persons with mental disability from being victims of sexual offences. It is indeed important to send the message that the young and the vulnerable should be protected from sexual predators.

    [Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Matthias Yao Chih) in the Chair]

    I also support the new sections (sections 376B and 376C) which would make it an offence for a person to pay for the sexual services of a minor who is under 18 years of age. It is important for the Government to recognise that there is the possibility of young impressionable persons who are prepared to sell their sexual services just to earn some extra income. For some of them, they are simply immature or vulnerable. For others, they may need money but do not know where to turn to for financial help. And there may be others who may have succumbed to the craving for the ownership of luxury material goods.

    We should not allow such young and impressionable persons to be exploited by sexual predators. Nor should we allow these sexual predators to exploit other young and vulnerable persons from other countries who, for whatever reasons, and I suspect in this case mostly poverty, are compelled to trade their sexual services for commercial consideration. It would be hypocritical of us to enact laws to protect the young in Singapore and turn a blind eye to sexual predators in Singapore going overseas to our neighbouring countries to seek such gratification.

    I support the changes made and the introduction of sections 376A to 376G of the Penal Code.

    Amendments to the penalties

    Sir, I applaud the Government’s move to give the courts greater flexibility and discretion in sentencing. Many times, the hands of judges are tied because of the minimum sentences imposed by legislation. There are also times when the courts may feel that a higher fine should be imposed in lieu of imprisonment but the Penal Code had imposed a cap on the offence.

    Sir, I am of the view that the judges are in a better position to determine at their discretion what would be appropriate sentences. This is better than having Parliament fixed a mandatory sentence thereby taking away such discretion.

    However, I would like to seek the Minister’s affirmation that by amending the range of penalties prescribed, the intention of Parliament is not for the judges to automatically increase the punishment nor should the courts interpret the setting of a higher limit to mean that the crime has become more serious.

    In the textbook Sentencing Practice in the Subordinate Courts (second edition) written by judicial officers, the authors stated that judges do look at the maximum and minimum sentences imposed by Parliament for an indication of the gravity of the offence.

    However, Sir, in this current set of amendments which are not specific to any particular offence, the intention of Parliament surely must be simply to allow the courts to have greater sentencing options to mete out appropriate sentences. Heavier penalties should thus be imposed by the courts only where there are aggravating factors and there should not be a rise in the punishment across the board for all offences simply because of this amendment.

    Sir, I also urge the Government to consider removing the mandatory death penalty and to allow the courts to have the discretion not to impose capital punishment if there are exceptional mitigating factors whereby the death penalty should not be imposed. Currently, this discretion is held by the Attorney-

    General’s Chambers where the Public Prosecutor decides whether to frame a charge which carries the death penalty. There is no reason, Sir, why someone of high standing or prominence like a High Court Judge cannot make the judgment call whether the death penalty should be imposed. Let a High Court Judge, as opposed to a jury, decide whether the mitigating factors are such that the accused person deserves a reprieve from the death penalty.

    Intent of amendments

    Sir, I also urge the Minister to state clearly the purpose for each amendment to the Penal Code. The courts have often referred to Parliamentary debates when trying to understand the purpose of a particular legislation. I urge the Minister to ensure that the prosecuting officers also understand the purpose of legislation. Anecdotal evidence from the criminal bar, ie, criminal lawyers, suggests that, sometimes, police prosecutors are too keen to seek a conviction simply to close a case. Sometimes, the police prosecutors levy so many multiple charges against an accused person which makes it difficult for any accused person to defend himself. In the process, there would be accused persons who would feel so pressurised by the many charges and simply throw in the towel for fear of incurring huge legal costs or for fear of having a heavier sentence imposed. Do we want to secure such a conviction because an accused person feels pressured to plead guilty?

    I accept that most of the time, the police are justified in their actions in charging an accused person. But I urge the Minister to remind the police or the prosecution that every conviction of an accused person carries huge repercussions for that person. He or she ends up with a criminal record and this would have an adverse repercussion on his or her future for the rest of their lives. The police should thus consider the purpose of Parliament each time a charge is framed. They should consider whether charging a person would achieve the purpose of legislation. I know this is not easy. But, when in doubt, the police can always seek the advice of the Deputy Public Prosecutors.

    Section 377A

    Finally, Sir, on the issue of section 377A, I wish to state my support for the Government’s position of retaining section 377A of the Penal Code. I had originally not intended to speak on this topic. But in view of the Petition presented by Nominated MP Mr Siew Kum Hong, I feel that I should state that not all MPs agree with Mr Siew’s arguments. I do not agree, Sir, that the role of the criminal law is only to punish those who have caused harm to others. If that is the case, as my fellow MPs had said yesterday, why do we have laws on attempted suicide? Why do we have laws prohibiting the sale of obscene materials? Why do we have laws against incest? Should we be bothered whether a father decides to sleep with his adult daughter in the privacy of their own home? Why do we bother to make it an offence for someone to have sex with animals? This is in section 377B. In fact, with this current amendment Bill, Sir, we have just introduced a new offence of necrophilia, which is this abhorrent act of engaging in sex with a corpse. Does this offence harm society? Does it make Singapore unsafe or less secure?

    Sir, the basic position of Parliament should be that we make laws to reflect the public morality of our times. In this situation, Sir, I agree with the views of Ms Indranee Rajah. I support the Government’s stand because I do not agree with the practice of homosexuality. This is not just my personal view but also the views of many of my residents when I sought their opinion. With the greatest respect to the Prime Minister, I must state that I do not think that there is conclusive evidence that homosexual behaviour is inborn. The jury is out on this issue, and different scientists would have different views on the matter.

    Let me state unequivocally, Sir, that I am not anti-gay. The fact that I disagree with the practice of homosexuality does not mean that I despise homosexuals. In fact, like the hon. Member, Mr Baey Yam Keng, I have friends who are gay, and my approach to them is simply that “I do not agree with your lifestyle. But I would respect you for who you are. So if you are a decent chap, an honest and hardworking person, your sexual orientation or preference does not affect the way I see you. I would treat and respect you as another fellow citizen.” And I do not believe that any Member in this House would turn away a person who comes to him during a meet-the-people session seeking financial help simply on the ground that this person is a homosexual. I believe that the majority of Singaporeans do not condemn a homosexual or a gay simply because of his lifestyle. Nor do they wish to criminalise a homosexual. However, as my fellow MP, Mr Christopher de Souza, said, the messaging or signpost is important. As MPs, we have to send the message that Singapore is a conservative society whereby the family unit is still seen as the basic structure of society. I believe, Sir, we have not accused gays of being criminals, nor do I know of any petition to enforce section 377A.

    Sir, in conclusion, I would like to state that I support the amendment Bill on the Penal Code.

  • history says

    Millennia ago, figures of a certain group preaches women to be the inferior sex.
    Century ago, skin colour alone gave them a decreed right to slavery.

    In decades time, the same group will look back and be ashamed of their own dogma and actions on sexuality.

  • dazzleworth

    It’s not easy to understand LGBT dynamics in Singapore, but I would like to share my observation. You must understand that with the law over the past many decades in favour of protecting Woman with to the point of shifting the burden of prove to the men(the accused), when it comes to sex crimes against women.

    Given this situation, we can comprehend why some males might take refuge in the “I’m gay” argument as a form of defence against such case targeted at them.

    Meanwhile, the hetrosexual majority, the group supposedly targeted by those laws, will see the repeal of 377A as a loophole that could be “exploited” by the gay community to be free of the “danger” of such sexist laws. Which is why the feel that gay people have unfair advantages over their straight counterparts. It’ll do no justice especially if the [hetrosexual] community have seen one of their kind going to prison and caned because of some “outrage of modesty” cases.

    This is evident at the anger directed at AWARE over the Purple Light Army saga.

    And it does not help that only man are made to serve the draft!

    • wut?

      It’s always amazing to see how some fantastical links can be made which defies all logic and reason. I would have thought only the hallucinatory or schizophrenic would be able to connect two totally irrelevant issues, but I expect nothing less from subscribers of supernatural and creationism.

      • dazzleworth

        Because you need to think out of the box to really see things in such a context, something many Singaporeans fail to do.

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  • Dennis Velco

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