Singaporean playwright Joel Tan took to Facebook on Monday (8 September) to relate an encounter he had with Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Teo Chee Hean who was on a door-to-door visit in his constituency.

Mr Teo was apparently handing out leaflets about an estate upgrading that the town council was about to embark on.

“He came with a massive entourage of town council people who made sure the whole block knew of the divine visitation,” described Mr Tan.

When Mr Teo arrived at Mr Tan’s household, the politician started to talk about topiary and walk-ways, and asked why the family hadn’t participated in a poll about improvement they wanted to see at the void deck.

That’s when Mr Tan’s father pushed in front of him and said, “well my son has something to say to you.”

Mr Tan said in his post, “I just want you to imagine from hereon, both [Teo Chee Hean] and his entire entourage standing by looking very irritated, because, sis, I had things to say, and it was not about topiary.”

On social inequalities highlighted by Parti Liyani case

Leading with a disclaimer that the dialogue he reproduced in the post is not entirely verbatim, Mr Tan said he believed this to “very much have been the ‘cut and thrust’ of our exchange”.

Mr Tan said he begun by first asking the politician if he had received the playwright’s email about the Parti Liyani case—the case of an Indonesian domestic worker being convicted on four charges of theft, but was later acquitted.

Mr Teo responded that he had not, and asked what the email was about. After hearing out Mr Tan’s concerns regarding the case, Mr Teo apparently said that the case has been resolved in Court.

Mr Tan followed up with, “yah but the case reveals some really disturbing structural inequalities in our society and I was hoping as my representative you might ask questions about it in parliament,” to which Mr Teo responded that it was a matter for the Attorney General’s Chamber.

Mr Tan then recounts the conversation in the form of a dialogue. He asked the politician if the case “suggest there was something questionable about aspects of the initial prosecution since it was based on problematic police work.

Mr Teo replied, “Okay, I’ll read your email, but I won’t act on it, ‘cuz like I said, it’s a matter for the courts, and anyway we’ve already had a conversation haven’t we?”

On the issue of Alfian Sa’at and Tan Wu Meng

The conversation then turned to fellow playwright Alfian Sa’at and People’s Action Party MP Tan Wu Meng. Earlier in June, the MP published an article on the PAP website condemning opposition politician Pritam Singh of the Worker’s Party for supporting Mr Sa’at as a “loving critic” of Singapore.

In his conversation with Mr Teo, Mr Tan made known that he was friends with Mr Sa’at and also highlighted another email he had sent to his MP, this time about Mr Tan Wu Meng.

Mr Teo then announced his disappointed at the way Mr Sa’at expresses things, prompting Mr Tan to share that he is disappointed with MP Tan Wu Meng.

The conversation, as recounted by Mr Tan, goes as follows:

TCH: Yah, I mean, (looking conspiratorially and knowingly at my dad for support), he is (lowers voice) very pro-Dr. M you know?

[Tan]: Actually no, stop, that’s not true. He’s also written very critically about Dr. M, and has written in a very nuanced way about Malaysia. Anyway don’t you think it’s very juvenile to equate being pro-Malaysia with being anti-Singapore, as Tan Wu Meng did?

TCH: Well, Alfian also recently wanted to revert to celebrating August 31st as our national day, I mean, what does that say?

[Tan]: If you took the time to read his writing, you’d probably see he has a very nuanced view of history and national identity.

Mr Tan then went on to say that he thought the MP’s article was “disappointing” and that he had only “cherry picked” what was useful to him.

Mr Teo, instead of addressing that, simply countered by asking if the playwright agrees that MP Tan Wu Meng has the freedom to express his views, just as Mr Sa’at does.

Mr Tan replied, “Yes, but also the power dynamic in this instance was so imbalanced, don’t you think? Especially if you think about Alfian’s right to reply in defense. And what does it mean to you that the article was uploaded on the PAP website?”

Instead of answering, the politician switched gears and asked again if he was good friends with Alfian Sa’at, before asking what plays Mr Tan has written.

Mr Tan then said he wrote a play called Tango in 2016 which was about gay rights, to which the politican said, “Well I have to say I’m personally actually very comfortable with gay people.”

America’s influence on the fight for gay rights in SG and keeping a law that is not enforced

This led to Mr Tan bringing up Section 377A in the Penal Code which criminalises sex between men. He asked the politician, “So do you not think keeping 377a on the books sends a discriminatory message out to the public that affects policy in media, healthcare, education and…?”

The conversation, recounted Mr Tan, went:

TCH: Well I think we have to take things slowly, and not push too hard. (looking again at my dad, conspiratorially) I mean, as someone with white hair, sir, you’ll know change must come slowly and at a pace that suits everyone, if not there will be a lot of conflict. Because, you know, if one side pushes too hard, it will invite a push-back, as we have seen–

[Tan]: Yah, but actually the main push comes from very well-organized conservative religious sectors of our society–

TCH: –let me finish. If one side pushes too hard for change, no one will be happy. I think we have to be very careful about these culture wars.

As before, the conversation branched out again. This time to the topic of cultural wars which Mr Tan noted, “Actually since you brought up culture wars, that’s a term that comes from a certain sector of US right wing politics. And (pointing to the cross on our door), I was raised in the Christian evangelical tradition, and came from a church that’s very anti-gay, so I speak with some expertise when I say that the conservative Christian pushback against gay rights in Singapore draws a lot of its ammo from rightwing American rhetoric.”

Mr Teo agreed and said that the same is true for people on the other side of the argument.

This prompted Mr Tan to ask if the politician is saying that being gay is an “American phenomenon”.

Mr Teo replied, “No, I mean the way gay people ask for rights is influenced by America.”

Mr Tan then asked, “So the Singapore way of asking for rights is to be happy with keeping a law on the books that criminalises gay sex?”

At this point, Mr Teo disagreed, and again reiterated his earlier argument that change cannot be made too quickly. He also noted that there hasn’t been public prosecutions of gay men in a while.

This led to Mr Tan’s question that keeping a law that isn’t enforced makes a “mockery” of the law. The politician simply said that this is his view and the view of his colleagues.

It was at this point that Mr Tan’s father stepped in again to say, “well, yes, we can all agree to disagree. Joel is very passionate about these things.”

Before leaving, the minister asked Mr Tan if he wanted to help him in the town council’s endeavour. The playwright said, “No, not at all. But maybe you can get round to replying my email. I told a lot of people to write in to their MPs as well.”

Mr Teo said that he would read the emails, before asking his constituent to help spread awareness about dengue.

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