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Lee’s legacy – weak, populist leadership

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The Lee Hsien Loong Government has been terrible in providing leadership on the gay issue.

Its pussyfooting stance on the anti-gay sex law, for example, is laughable if it also did not have serious consequences. Yet, Lee’s Government either seems oblivious to them, ensconced as it is in its ivory tower; or it just plain does not care about the confusion such a position has resulted in.

Mr Lee himself gave – pardon the language – a lame-assed excuse of a reason in 2013 for the retention of Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises sex between two men, whether in public or in private, consenting or not.

“Why is that law on the books?” Lee said at a gathering organised by the Institute of Policy Studies. “Because it’s always been there and I think we just leave it.”

But that is not all.

In 2007, the same Lee Government declared that while it is retaining Section 377A, it will not “proactively enforce” it.

It is a clear cop-out position, a cowardly stance based on the political consideration of votes.

To repeal the law would, the Government feels, lose it the conservative vote.

But such a position causes confusion, which has resulted in even its own police force, and the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC), being ignorant of the Government’s position.

In 2010, for example, the police arrested, detained and charged Mr Tan Eng Hong with Section 377A for engaging in public sex with another male.

The public prosecutor later reduced the charge to one under Section 294 (engaging in an obscene act in public) after Mr Tan’s lawyer challenged the charge.

But the damage had been done – Mr Tan’s arrest and prosecution showed that the Government could and indeed would still enforce Section 377A, in spite of the Government’s own promise that it would not “proactively enforce” it.

The fact that the law is on the statute books means that the Government – or any future government – could and even would enforce it, leaving gay people at the mercy of blatant discrimination by the state - Section 377A only applies to gay males, and not to female ones.

Mr Tan has brought a constitutional challenge in the courts which is currently being heard, after a 3-year battle, in the Court of Appeal.

This confused position of the Lee Government is a result of a lack of courage and conviction to protect the rights of a minority.

In short, there is no principled stance to protect what is guaranteed under the Constitution and even international conventions such as the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which Singapore has signed.

Singapore’s statement to the UN CEDAW committee had declared that “the principle of equality before the law is enshrined in the Constitution... regardless of gender, sexual orientation and gender identity."

The latest sorry saga of the National Library Board (NLB) removing and destroying two children’s books could also be seen as a result of this untenable anti-gay position by the Government.

The NLB, in explaining its actions, cited the positions of the Government on “family values” as a defence for removing and destroying the two books which had touched on alternative family structures.

Indeed, the Minister of Communications and Information, Yaacob Ibrahim, later came out publicly to lend support to the NLB’s decision, claiming “community norms” dictate such actions.

Mr Yaacob perhaps did not realise that he had lent support to a dangerous idea – that as long as one is not of the majority, or belong to “community norms’, one could be destroyed or obliterated, or at least ideas which do not conform to such vague “community norms” can and in fact ought to be destroyed.

Playwright Alfian Sa’at said it best – the Lee Hsien Loong Government’s pussyfooting on certain issue is an attempt at trying to appease all sides, and in the process treating what should be principled positions as something to be sold to the highest bidder – the “community norms” or the supposed majority “conservative” segments of society which will hand over their votes as long as the Government pacifies them with what they want, nevermind the rights of others.

In short, what Mr Philip Yeo, former chairman of A*Star, once cautioned: “My greatest fear now,” Mr Yeo said in 2011, following the results of the general election in May that year, “is that the government is terrified of the people.”

And this “terror” which the Government feels is perhaps best witnessed by the many weak positions the Government has taken, designed no doubt for appeasing the majority.

“I worry that the state, in seeing itself as some arbiter between supposedly ideologically-opposed groups, feels the need to dispense packets of appeasement to either side,” Mr Sa’at posted on his Facebook page on Tuesday.

“Is this what now passes for 'governance' in Singapore?” Mr Sa’at asked, perhaps echoing the question many have on their minds.

He said he did not feel that this 'balancing act' was the way to go.

“The state should govern from principles,” he said.

Mr Sa’at then explained why in the area of secularism and freedom of information, for example, taking principled positions would benefit not only the Government in terms of consistency in governance, but also would hold society together – that certain principles are sacrosanct and will not be trampled on to appease the majority or whatever is the purported “community norms” of the day.

“These fickle vacillations, the mixed signals, and the policy swerves and U-turns are turning out to be the hallmarks of the Lee Hsien Loong premiership,” Mr Sa’at said.

“This government must know that principles like multiracialism, equal opportunity..., secularism and constitutional freedoms are non-negotiable and what hold this nation together.”

To justify actions based on majoritarian rule, as indeed Mr Yaacob did, is not only pathetic leadership based on selfish interests, and a weak cop-out on contentious issues, it is also a dangerous path to take.

In the end, society will continue to fray if the Government continues to bury its head in the sand while various groups take positions based on the confused leadership of the Lee Hsien Loong Government.

The fact that the Government supports the removal and the physical destruction of children’s books clearly shows how lost it has become in providing clear and steadfast leadership.

It is time to lead based on principles enshrined in the Constitution, and not on whichever way the wind blows.