After the Dot – a push for political influence, or a better Singapore?

By Howard Lee

Pink Dot 2014 came and went without much of a hassle, although some have anticipated that there might be those against the LGBT movement who would make their presence felt at Hong Lim Park last Saturday and created problems.

The organisers reported 26,000 attendees at the event. Whether you believe in the figure or not, it is evident that the number has grown over the years. However, supporters of the LGBT cause are not the only one racking up the figures. The Wear White campaign also clocked in on a high, with a substantive group of Muslim believers supporting the movement and Senior Pastor Lawrence Khong leading the charge for the Christian community.

Both sides of the for-against-LGBT debate clearly have had their fill of demonstrations, but we would be naive to believe that things will merely go back to normal and homosexuals will fade from the public eye until Pink Dot 2015.

If nothing else, we would have detected a certain up-tempo in the debate, not just in the amount of noise made, but also the the type of noise made. The LGBT debate has become a lot more political. We need to recognise why this is so and be ready to openly discuss this as a society, so that it can go beyond its current rhetoric.

For a start, Khong has issued what amounts to an open challenge to the government to take a firm stand on the LGBT community. Khong did the wrong thing by deliberately saying that “Pink Dot’s agenda goes against our national interests.” This is an unhealthy conversation to have, because his grouse with Pink Dot is an issue of religious morality. His action can only be seen as an affront to Singapore’s position as a secular state.

This unfortunately also puts religious influence in the state in a bad light. We are now accustomed to religion being seen as a conservative force, rather than a developmental one. The gay agenda cannot be the end-all of religion. The limelight that this issue has thrust the religious groups into can only be detrimental to the greater works that these groups have done to help Singapore society.

As to be expected, the response from the government to this challenge has been complete silence, and we need not expect anything else by the usual non-committal, sit-on-the-fence position – keep religion out of it, keep discussions civil, we have no plans to remove Section 377A but will not enforce it actively. Everyone is happy, let’s keep the economy humming along. But at the base of it, this is not a workable solution, especially not for the longer-term good of the nation.

Meanwhile, the LGBT movement here currently holds no such religious matter. If anything, the corporate support for Pink Dot Singapore is lending it weight as an economic force. In that way, the numbers at Hong Lim Park is actually less significant than the amount of money poured into the event.

Will this translate into economic pressure on the government to give in to the LGBT community? It depends. Companies, for all their support for the LGBT community, do know the economic benefits of investing in Singapore. What they would be concerned about is the ability to gain the best talents regardless of sexual orientation, and any act that appears to threaten those options would only lead to them supporting the LGBT community even more.

It is also fair to assume that there are supporters of the LGBT community who are well-placed in society to influence political leaders in less public terms. From Pink Dot, we can easily see that the artistic community supports the movement. What is less visible are the many business leaders who are sympathetic of the LGBT movement, whether they themselves are gay or not.

But none of this actually does anything for citizens, who are caught up, mostly unwillingly, in the debate. We need to be concerned about how the LGBT debate affects citizens beyond the extremes of religious morality and economic prudence. If won by either side on those terms, the LGBT debate would only serve to marginalise the government and the parties involved, pushing them away from the people.

There are more pertinent aspects of the debate that cannot be affirmed with just a repeal of the law to make some happy, or the support of religious inclinations that pacifies others. What concerns citizens are the many related sub-topics that affect our daily lives.

If Pink Dot supporters and the religious leaders choose to stick to their rhetoric, one side might someday win the debate, and very likely to the detriment and anguish of the loser. Yet they would have won nary a single heart among the people. If anything, seeking a win would only further alienate them from the people. They will always be seen as sexual delinquents or religious outcasts – take your pick, because very few would bother.

How, then, can the different interest groups reach a more stable state where what they win is not just an argument, but the right to be counted as one with the people? By addressing these sub-topics related to the debate, as it applies more holistically to our society.

For one, having laws that the government claims will not be enforced is problematic, and not just to the gays. This allows the government full discretion to apply or not apply any law it deems socially sensitive. That is not law. That is cherry-picking on laws. It does nobody any good to have such ambiguity.

For another, a debate on what is in the interest of the nation based on a moral issue is hardly appropriate. Who then defines this morality? The ones who shout the loudest, the ones with the most friends in Parliament, or the ones who command the most in economic dollar? There are plenty of other issues that have such moral groundings that need to be debated – abortion, poverty, racial and religious tensions, human rights, forced labour, to name but a few. Should such issues be decided upon by one government or one group, or would it be more appropriate to work out the necessary platforms and procedures where concerned citizens can make their views heard?

And most importantly, the issue of discrimination. Drawing up, taking up and shouting support for sides does nothing to help those on the other side. Doing so would only gain momentary support, and at times it is only a matter of political or economic convenience that determines which side wins, and a matter of time before the axe falls back the other way.

Policy influence in social issues, without resolving those issues, create majorities versus minorities. What we actually need to work on are policies that disrupt discrimination. We need policies that give rights to all as citizens, beyond the vote they cast at every election. We need policies that allow those discriminated against to take action and fend for themselves, regardless of their beliefs, race, age, gender, or sexual orientation.

Possible? Not unless the people on both sides of the LGBT debate can take the rhetoric down a notch, look at broader policy issues beyond their own and immediate interests, and make themselves relevant to the people.

No, we do not want to infringe on your freedom to love. We also do not want to infringe on your right to express your religious beliefs. At the end of the day, what you get makes no difference to the people. And if you haven’t noticed it yet, that is precisely the problem.