The Singapore government’s apparent reluctance to repeal homophobic legislation such as Section 377A of the Penal Code emboldens the policing of LGBT people in the country by other members of the society, said Singaporean playwright Joel Tan.
His statement came after a CCTV footage of a man ripping a small Pride flag off the counter of a food outlet surfaced on social media, sparking shock and outrage among many commenters.
Grain bowl restaurant SMOL Singapore on Monday (18 January) took to Facebook to share the footage of the incident, which took place at its Lau Pa Sat outlet in the afternoon the same day.
According to SMOL, the man had asked the staff member what the flag represents, to which the staff member replied that it is a sign of support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
The man then momentarily left the counter in a disgruntled manner before walking back and angrily telling the SMOL staff that “not everybody supports LGBT” and questioning them how they could display the Pride flag at a “public food court”.
He then ripped the flag off the counter and had forcefully flung it against one of the staff members. The man had allegedly told the staff: “You are the kind of people who are destroying Singapore! Go to hell!”
In a Facebook post on Tuesday (19 January), Mr Tan said that by stating that Section 377A — a provision with colonial origins that criminalises consensual sexual relations between adult men — is not enforced in Singapore, the implied message conveyed by the Government is that “enforcement becomes the job and passionate past time of ordinary citizens”.
“And then people get away thinking, ah at least no one is going to jail for being gay, as if going to jail is literally the only bad and traumatic thing that could happen to a queer person (spoiler: it’s not),” he said.
The Government’s decision to take a step back with regard to such issues, said Mr Tan, births “a demographic of citizen-enforcers whose qualifications include mainly being disgusted”.
“An amateur police force” such as the citizen-enforcers, he said, “is far worse”, as they are “given a lot more leeway because they’re not bound by processes of accountability”.
“And this police force is given power precisely by such state admissions as “this is a moral issue” or “there will be push back.
“The only thing this police force does not have is access to carceral justice. This would be their ultimate fantasy,” he said.
For the people Mr Tan branded as “citizen-enforcers”, the existence of LGBT people in public is “a menace” and “an indication that something is going very wrong in their world, because it’s always been their world”.
“Which is maybe why a middle aged man finds he must make a scene, must rid his world of rainbow symbols, must register his discontent. Obviously this is all speculation, and who really knows about the man? Is he unwell, is he deeply troubled? I don’t know. Does he have children, is he kind to them? I don’t know,” he said, likely addressing commenters who attempt to understand the motivations behind the man’s public outburst.
“One flawed individual may have a horribly sad story that leads him to become baddie of the day, but he’s only one stick in a bundle of sticks that makes up the fascist vanguard,” said Mr Tan.
“More importantly: what has been whispered into his ear, by whom, and for what purposes? Here is one purpose, and I’ll say it again: they do not want us to exist, they wish we did not exist.
“Anyway, one man is just one man, he will either be claimed or brought to some minor justice. The people who should take the blame are the Singapore government,” he concluded.
While it has yet to be revealed what had prompted the man to initiate the abusive actions seen in the footage, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in March last year had announced new amendments to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act which protect LGBT persons against religiously-motivated violence.
In a Facebook post regarding the matter, Mr Shanmugam said: “Everyone should feel safe in Singapore. We will not tolerate any threats made to physical safety.”
“No one should threaten someone because they were LGBTQ; and likewise, no one should threaten someone else, because of religious affiliation,” he added.
Mr Shanmugam in June last year topped NGO Sayoni’s Rainbow Scorecard for his engagement with LGBT groups.
However, activists have criticised Mr Shanmugam and other top leaders in government for a seeming lack of urgency in enacting laws that guarantee legal and social protections for LGBT people such as housing and marriage rights.
Beyond the question of repealing Section 377A, LGBT people in Singapore continue to grapple with the lack of concrete social and legal protections in areas such as housing and having legally recognised family units.
For example, the High Court last year rejected a bid for a man to name his same-sex partner as the guardian for his son and daughter, despite the fact that the children are raised as part of the family unit formed by the man and his partner.
Journalist Kirsten Han opined that the praise handed to Mr Shanmugam by certain segments of Singapore society regarding LGBT issues serve as “a slap in the face to people” such as a trans woman she previously interviewed, who — together with her wife — lost their home after their marriage was declared void on the grounds of her gender transition.
The trans woman and her wife were also denied the BTO flat they had paid a deposit for as a result of the voided marriage.
“It is a slap in the face to people like her when politicians from the very party in power are feted for supporting trans people, while she’d been put through hell,” said Han.
Civil rights activist and social worker Jolovan Wham –- among others –- argued that People’s Action Party (PAP) politicians such as Mr Shanmugam need “to be held to a higher standard” as they have greater power “to change things” with regards to LGBT rights in Singapore with a smaller risk to themselves than those in alternative parties.
“The consequences of someone like Shanmugam or TCJ [Tan Chuan-Jin] making LGBT affirmative statements is significantly different from opposition party figures like Paul Tambyah or Kenneth Jeyaretnam. We cannot assume a level political playing field in evaluating their position on LGBT issues,” said Mr Wham.