Let’s think about the timeline of events:
6 Sept – India repeals Section 377, a colonial-era law that criminalised consensual adult gay sex.
6-8 Sept – Singapore’s veteran diplomat Tommy Koh says he “would encourage our gay community to bring a class action to challenge the constitutionality of Section 377A”. IPS Director and (more relevantly) Chief of Government Communications Janadas Devan calls 377A a “bad law”. Minister of Law K Shanmugam says “(we) really should be careful about criminalising people’s lifestyles, sexual attitudes”, adding that “public opinion is often relevant” when it comes to public policy-making.
8 Sept 2 pm – The “Please Keep Penal Code 377A in Singapore” petition is started by a “Paul P.”, an “ordinary Singaporean family man”.
9 Sept – Minister of Law K Shanmugam announces proposed changes to Singapore’s Penal Code. The Ministries invite the public to submit feedback between 10-30 Sept, with changes expected to be tabled in Parliament in November 2018. (The media points out that 377A is part of the Penal Code but no changes have been proposed in this review.)
9 Sept evening – The “Ready for Repeal” petition is started by 23 people. (There were 2 other repeal petitions that came up before this)
As of 11 Sept 10am: The “Please Keep Penal Code 377A in Singapore” petition has around 89,000 signatures, and the “Ready for Repeal” petition has over 25,000 signatures.
So what do you make of this?
On the surface, these “personal capacity” comments from our leaders seem like a show of solidarity to the LGBTQ community. They signal openness to those who want 377A repealed. But coming just a day before the same Ministry announces the Penal Code review, this also creates a siege mentality & sense of urgency for those who want to keep 377A.
By 30 Sept, most likely the “Keep” signatures will far outnumber the “Repeal” signatures, and the government can easily keep 377A while showing that they “listened to the people”.
Meanwhile, at best both sides are preoccupied with this issue; at worst, there’s more anger, hate speech, and sense of threat between both camps. The LGBTQ community – already a vulnerable community – may face more and more vitriol and threats as the days go by, if the barrage of terrible comments on the “Keep” petition are any indication.
This is the problem when you leave a minority rights issue to numbers, without preparing the ground for at least some civil debate or openness to a societal shift. When you call for “public opinion” in the climate of media policies that censor any reference to healthy gay relationships, and in the culture shaped by sexuality education policies that link homosexuality to crime, that pressure school counsellors and teachers to report gay kids to their parents.
What is happening is not even an official referendum that commits to obeying the majority, but offhanded, casual remarks that our leaders want “public opinion”, seemingly without much concern for real consequences for real lives. All this done on an unequal playing field and in a country unused to any sort of civil debate.
Of course, we still have to speak up. I can understand how both camps are compelled to speak up, on the basis of their personal convictions. But as we speak up, perhaps we can do so with some humanity and integrity, and also think about what else got crowded out in this chaos.