When saying “traditional, conservative society” doesn’t cut it anymore

By Joel Tan

The spotlight is once again on the fight for gay rights in Singapore- it is an increasingly emotional war of words and like all wars, is inherently fruitless.

I say fruitless because, after 22 years since the last review of the penal code and despite claims of greater liberalisation and open-mindedness, our laws, with revisions to the penal code earlier this week, still preserve section 377(A) which makes any sexual act between two men an act of “gross indecency”, against the order of nature and thus against the law.

Even casual followers of the gay issue in Singapore will know that this law is not actively enforced anymore- a policy of non-aggression on the part of our government, which may occur to some as an olive branch, or token of appeasement.

Indeed, there are gay people who live their lives completely disinterested in the debate over their human rights, simply because the law is there but has no effect on whether or not they can have sex with anyone they want. Section 377(A) therefore does not pose any immediate and critical threat to the gay community, but is this a fair reason to gloss over its non-repeal?

Of course not.

An ethical and logical gaffe

Section 377(A) is an ethical and logical gaffe like no other, and its non-repeal simply doubles the stupidity of it all. For a constitution that protects the equality of all parties before the law, and that upholds the equality of all citizens, Section 377(A) simply does not connect.

The reviews to the penal code have repealed the criminality of anal sex between a consenting man and woman, but not between two men.

Logically and ethically speaking, there is simply no basis for this. If the penal code, as a certain Yvonne Lee once wrote, is designed to protect people from harm- and in this case, ‘harm’ is understood as AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases- then it would suggest that, in the eyes of the law, a woman’s anus is cleaner than a man’s. By that token, consensual anal sex between a man and woman is more right in the eyes of the law than the same between two consenting men. One is more right than the other, but for no really solid reasons.

It is completely and unabashedly discriminatory.

The idea that homosexual relationships are any less right than heterosexual ones stems from Section 377’s roots in colonial history, which dates to Victorian ideals of the late 1800s. We can tell from the language used, particularly in “against the order of nature”, that there is a certain Christian sensibility behind section 377, a modesty and prudishness that forever aims to impose its views about what constitutes normalcy on those beyond Church doors.

Having been inherited by the Singapore Penal Code in 1955, the Christian sensibility set in our secular state eventually evolved into what is known today as the voice of the staunchly conservative majority.

A polite interest

In fact, the reason given for the retention of section 377(A) was that, despite an “emotional and divided” debate over the issue, it was found that the majority voice spoke against a repeal, and that it was Parliament’s duty to respect the views of more conservative Singaporeans. The gay issue is thus left to evolve on its own, which, really, is not saying much because there is only so much the gay community can do without some tangible support from the government, at least in the form of something beyond polite interest.

It is a polite interest simply because every time the issue crops up, the gay situation is quickly written off as something that has to develop on its own, and something that a majority of Singaporeans are not comfortable with. “Our society is still a traditional and conservative Asian society, and we must respect the fact that not everyone is ready to accept the homosexual lifestyle”. It is a line you can peg, like some relentless party whip, to almost any politician who chooses to speak on the matter. The story ends there, almost for sure, it is the final word.

The “conservative majority”?

The problem with this is that closing the matter there is not being fair to a growing section of society that is asking the government for a little more discussion on the matter, or at least more empirical information. We are told the government is a transparent one, and yet it gets away with claims like “a majority of Singaporeans spoke against repealing section 377(A)” without presenting any statistics.

In fact, since the conservative majority is used as a trump over the gay activists at every juncture of the debate, it is only right for the government to disclose how it arrived at the conclusion that a majority of our population is, indeed, conservative. And even then, there are questions we could ask.

How does the government define conservatism? Does the government take into consideration whether or not conservatism is really just a herd-like religiosity? Did the government derive its results from actual surveys and polls, or did it simply take someone’s word for it? Was the possible difference in values and beliefs held by different generations of Singaporeans taken into account when deciding the general prudishness of our society, or was the sample group taken only from more “mature” Singaporeans?

These are all important qualifiers to consider, and could affect the nature and focus of the debate over gay rights. And yet, the government simply tells us the black and white, and expects us to sit quiet in the wake of silly things like the non-repeal of Section 377(A).

Questions, open debate

This makes it clear that the government is really not as open to debate the issue as it claims, and seems to want to avoid it as much as possible. As a result, it has left a thorny mess in its wake.

For example, the government will not be seen endorsing a homosexual “lifestyle”, the first step of which is to legalise gay sex – yet it does not criminalise lesbian sex, so we really wonder what the government is trying to tell us. That homosexuality is an exclusively male issue? Or that a conservative society has problems with male homosexuals, but not female homosexuals? Or that two women technically cannot have sex?

It would be far more consistent, and less sexist, to criminalise lesbian sex too, because then the government would be more evenly homophobic. Even then, I am not saying that is a good thing.

For a debate that the government described as emotional and divided, we really seem to be hearing only one side of the story- the winning side. The disappointing thing is that it is the same old excuse again, no elaborations, and perfectly ad verbatim. I think that the efforts of gay activists and other Singaporeans, gay and straight, who wrote in to lend their views on the matter deserve more respect than a lazy parroting of the party line.

If the gay community is to be left with this final, discriminatory blow to the head, then it is only fair that they know, very precisely, why. I have always maintained that the government forgets, in its dealings with the gay issue, that it is playing around with the feelings, rights and lives of actual people- no truly compassionate government would dismiss an entire sector of society without batting an eyelid and offering an apologetic explanation.

The Singapore Government, therefore, needs a lesson in karma.

About the author: Joel is a new writer on the TOC team. He “is currently a national serviceman awaiting release and the start of the rest of his life.” Joel also writes on his personal blog, The Daily Backtrack, here.

Main picture from Funkygrad.

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