I was invited to be a panellist at a forum titled "Peculiar Legislation: 377(A) – Symbol or Statute?", organised by local theatre company W!ld Rice on Sunday. There was a fair bit of news coverage on it -- I have reproduced the TODAY article (front page, no less) below, and CNA and The Straits Times also ran stories. I understand that the forum was also covered on TV news on Sunday, although I didn't catch that since I was at a wedding dinner.
I think I probably said some things at the forum that may not have gone down well with much of the audience, and certainly not with the gay panellists. And that was my view that an argument based on civil liberties will not bring about change, and that an economic argument may be the only effective way of convincing the Government to repeal Section 377A. So I think it's important to clarify and amplify.
Firstly, during the discussion, I made it a point to emphasise that I agreed with the points on civil liberties made by the other panellists, in particular Alex Au. I have made similar points on civil liberties before, on this blog, on radio and elsewhere. In fact, that is fundamentally why I am opposed to Section 377A.
However, given that the entire audience indicated -- in response to the moderator's question -- that they believed Section 377A should be repealed, I thought that was pretty much a given, and didn't need to be repeated. The civil liberties argument is just the fundamental principle underpinning this entire issue.
But that's the principle. What about the tactics to achieve the goal of repealing Section 377A? How do we get there from here?
If I recall right, someone in the audience asked what can be done, and I responded by raising the economic argument. The TODAY article does a pretty good job of stating it. I truly do believe that a strong economic argument is the only way to get the Government to move on Section 377A in the near-future, and that an argument based purely on civil liberties will get us nowhere. After all, has it gotten us anywhere so far?
That seemed to offend Alex Au and Stuart Koe. And I understand why. Who would want to win by being demeaned, by being reduced to a digit? Sometimes the costs of a victory can outweigh the benefits.
But I wasn't there to parrot the same crowd-pleasing lines about freedom and rights and civil liberties. Like I said, I felt that was a given. And I wanted to make an observation about the political realities in Singapore, about what would work and what wouldn't. So I did.
I believe that to win the argument, one has to make a convincing economic argument. It will probably also be necessary to debunk the idea that the majority of Singaporeans want private, consensual gay sex to be criminalised, which is where I suggested the need for a survey to assess the true views of Singaporeans. I certainly at no point advocated rule by referendum, as may have been suggested. But if the Government insists that the majority of Singaporeans believe that private, consensual gay sex should be criminalised (and I am not aware of any statistically valid survey to that effect -- the TODAY survey suffered from certain flaws), then it is incumbent on the Government to prove that this is in fact the case.
In any case, sticking to a pure civil liberties argument will not lead to change. That is a cynical view of the state of affairs in Singapore, but I think it is sadly true. If the gay community understands the implications of , but decides to persist with that course because it is the right thing to do, then more power to them. That is entirely their prerogative, and the principled stand is to be respected. But they should understand that realistically, Section 377A will continue to stay with us for quite a long time more if that is to be the case.
I do believe that I will see it being repealed in my lifetime. But I am young, and probably have 40-50 years to go. I think that in the absence of the economic argument, I will see that happening later in my life rather than sooner.
Having said all that, I've been reflecting on this over the past couple of days. And I've decided that if/when the Penal Code amendments are tabled, and Section 377A is not to be repealed (as I believe will be the case), then I will not make an economic argument. This is out of respect for the sensibilities of the gay community. In any case, by that stage, the die would have been cast anyway.
On Section 377A ...
Forum on gay law well-attended, but change unlikely: MPs
Monday • July 16, 2007
THE room was packed, the panellists were passionate and the questions came fast and furious.
This was the mood yesterday as over 200 people gathered to discuss a hot issue — should homosexuality remain outlawed here?
Leading the discussion, organised by local theatre company W!ld Rice at the National Library, were an eclectic mix of five individuals: MP (Tanjong Pagar GRC) Baey Yam Keng; Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong; gay activist Alex Au; CEO of gay community website Fridae.com, Dr Stuart Koe; and Reverend Dr Yap Kim Hao, a former Methodist bishop who serves on the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) council.
Although Section 377A, which criminalises homosexual acts, may come up for debate in Parliament as part of the Penal Code changes, for two panellists at least, the prospect that it would be repealed any time soon seems highly unlikely.
Said Mr Baey: "Personally, I think the whip should be lifted for a very open debate and open expression of opinion by the MPs. And if that was so, I would vote for a repeal of the act. From my understanding of my parliamentary colleagues, my guess is that I will be in the minority."
However, Mr Siew told the audience — most of whom indicated during the forum that they wanted Section 377A repealed — that the battle was not to convince the naysayers, but those who are undecided about whether homosexuality should be decriminalised.
The NMP said change would only be possible "once you get that mass, enough people in the middle, to agree with you", but added: "I don't think we're at that point."
Mr Siew cited a heartland survey published in May by Today, in which 62.3 per cent of 300 respondents disagreed that homosexuality should be legal. "That shows that a clear majority are saying that homosexuality of people is not acceptable to them."
But even if more people were to support decriminalisation, that may not be enough.
Said Mr Baey: "From what I understand about how the Government works, I don't think the Government will be making a decision based on a survey ... The Government will want to make its own stand and position on issues like this, and for this it requires a mindset shift."
And to change mindsets, "you've got to frame it in a lingo that will convince the Government", Mr Siew suggested.
"And what's that lingo? I think we all know. It's all about growth, jobs, money. If you can make a convincing case that 377A is somehow affecting that, I think you've got a really good chance."
He acknowledged that changing the laws on homosexuality would put Malay/Muslim MPs in a difficult position with their community.
But it is not just the Muslims who feel strongly about the issue.
Reverend Dr Yap said that within the Christian faith in Singapore there was a "minority which is vocal" which strongly opposes any move to repeal the Act.
Mr Au, however, argued that the debate on Section 377A was not one of religion, but civil rights.
In response, Mr Siew pointed out: "Pitching your arguments in terms of civil rights ... will not take it very far."
His suggestion of linking the decriminalisation of homosexual acts to economic benefits drew a range of responses from the audience — as well as other panellists, including Mr Koe, who said he would feel insulted if the decision were to depend on dollars and cents.
Whatever their stand, almost everyone present agreed that such a forum would not have been possible five years ago — a sign that Singapore is now a lot more open to different points of view.
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