By Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh
I will once again not be in Singapore for this year’s Pink Dot celebration, scheduled for 5pm, June 28th at Hong Lim Park (see here).
Aside from being our biggest civil demonstration, and looking like a rather fun party, of all the illiberal policies in Singapore, nothing offends my sensibilities more than the continued criminalisation of male homosexuals.
As I mentioned at the launch of Hard Choices (see here), I strongly believe that the presence of this law is a stain on our collective moral conscience. In the same way that future generations of humans may wonder how the world took so long to get ecological sustainability right, I am certain future generations of Singaporeans will ask how a developed, democratic, aspiring global city took so long to guarantee fundamental rights to a minority group.
Of course gay rights, just like ethnic rights, women’s rights, and every other human right, is a function of the social norms of the day. But this is the 21st century: while the rest of the developed world wonders whether or not to legalise gay marriage, some Singaporeans cling onto atavistic fears, dressed in cultural relativism, about legalising homosexuals themselves.
Though I have spoken publicly about this bigotry many times and touched on it in Floating on a Malayan Breeze, this is my first article or blogpost on the matter.
I actually didn’t think it necessary to write this—since many more enlightened souls have already spoken—but two people recently convinced me to do so. But since so much has already been written in Singapore and overseas, I will limit myself to what I believe are under-explored areas on the issue. This is not meant to be a comprehensive essay.
Indeed, a good primer on Singapore’s long-standing debates on this issue is a parliamentary discussion on the Penal Code in 2007 (see here). Siew Kum Hong, then nominated MP, outlined the pro-repeal (i.e. gay rights) stance; Thio Li-ann, then nominated MP, outlined the anti-repeal (i.e. anti-gay) stance; and Indranee Rajah and Christopher De Souza, PAP politicians, outlined the government’s position, which remains consistent to this day (to be discussed below).
The official position is disingenuous
The Singapore government’s main argument against repealing S377A is for its “signalling” effect in what it considers a still conservative society.
“Therefore, the stance which the Government is taking is, in fact, an exact reflection of what Singapore society in general think, which is that if you really have to do it in private, the Government and the Police will not take a proactive enforcement policy but, at the same time, we do not want to send a message to everybody that this is correct, because we have to take into account the majority view.”
– Indranee Rajah, 2007
(“if you really have to do it in private”…gosh, why don’t you tame your raging hormones, boy!)
The majority view? But throughout our history, the government has ignored the majority view and actively sought to dictate values, whether, for example, in terms of culture in the 1960s (language policy: Mandarin over dialects), family values in the 1970s (“Stop at two”); or societal norms in the 2000s (the return of gambling).
One reason the “Singapore consensus” is so admired by many emerging-market countries and businesses is precisely because of its ability to push through unpopular policies in the name of long-term developmental goals, ethical considerations or egalitarianism.
But not gay rights. When it comes to gay rights—and some other issues, such as the death penalty—the government suddenly remembers the quaint notion of “the majority view”, and we the citizens are allowed to revel, fleetingly, in the participatory joys of a representative democracy.
But this is not real democracy. Every democracy has an obligation to protect minority rights, not succumb to majoritarianism. What if a majority of Singaporeans wanted to ban all new immigrants?
Second, even if the government did, at the expense of minority protection, want to decide this issue by popular vote, I do not believe Singaporeans have ever had the opportunity to engage in a proper national conversation on it. All mainstream media is government controlled, and probably wary of wading into the culture wars. I have never read a single editorial on gay rights. Nor watched a proper debate about it on TV.
In 2012, when Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC) refused to award a publishing grant to Floating on a Malayan Breeze because it apparently “has the potential to undermine the authority of the Singapore government”, one of the offending passages highlighted to me was this one:
“Private, consensual sex between males is punishable by up to two years in prison. Though the law is rarely enforced, its presence is a stain on the conscience of Singapore, which claims to be an inclusive, modern global city.” – p. 211
If even writers are not supposed to broach the topic in books….then who? How are Singaporeans expected to engage in a constructive debate?
I also believe that the government has never really accurately gauged public sentiment on this issue, instead relying on somewhat inaccurate surveys, and deciding by fiat.
When I say these surveys are “inaccurate”, all I mean is that they are not actually asking about the electorate’s view on the legality of homosexuality or S377A.1 Rather, they tend to ask about general perceptions towards homosexuals—perceptions that, as mentioned, have been strongly influenced by narrow reportage and a national, institutionalised history of anti-gay discrimination (as recently as the 1990s the Singapore Police engaged in odious sting operations against gays in Singapore).
For instance, the most recent one was a survey on race, language and religion conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), which showed that Singaporeans maintain conservative views on homosexuals.2
Newspaper reports, social media and everyday conversations immediately tied this finding to support for S377A. That is slightly problematic. There are many behaviours and values that people might disagree with yet do not feel should be illegal.
In the same survey, 72.5% say having a pregnancy outside marriage is wrong; 69.2% say gambling is wrong; and 56.4% say pre-marital sex is wrong. But do Singaporeans want to criminalise those activities? I suspect not.
On a related note, one curious finding from this survey is that Singaporeans are more tolerant of gay marriage than sex, and even more tolerant of gay’s adopting a child. Usually, a society first accepts gay sex before child adoption and marriage.
Why the reverse? One researcher I spoke with believes it has to do with Singaporeans’ focus on family values. I think it could also be because S377A has been drummed into us, whereas issues like gay marriage and child adoption are never even remotely discussed.
“Those answers told us more about how good Singaporeans are at responding to (political) message cues than about what they really thought,” says Alex Au, one of Singapore’s leading gay-rights advocates, who blogs at Yawning Bread. (Alex is also vice-president of Transient workers count too (TWC2), an NGO that promotes the rights of low-wage migrant workers.)
Therefore, even if Singapore decided that it wanted to suspend minority protection and decide this issue by popular vote—a very big IF—then it still has not been done in a precise way. First, we need a proper national conversation. And then, a proper referendum on “Do you believe private, consensual homosexual activity should be illegal in Singapore?”
To surmise, Singapore is a country that prides itself on
a) Government leading societal views and norms
b) Minority protection
c) Analytical rigour
When it comes to S377A, however, we seem to have temporarily suspended all three. Why?
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