Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Why I Speak Up

While I was away two weeks ago, I wrote something for TODAY. Although it was previously greenlighted, it seems that this will not be published. I've drawn my own conclusions in light of recent events (more details available at Yawning Bread). So I'm publishing it here. The letter referred to, together with the article I was responding to, have been archived at Yawning Bread.

I've also noticed that I tend to write (or at least, want to write) more and have more ideas whenever I travel out of Singapore. I'm not completely sure why.

Why I Speak Up

Two Sundays ago, I was a panelist at a forum entitled “Peculiar Legislation: 377A – Symbol or Statute?” It was organized by theatre company W!ld Rice, in conjunction with their gay play Happy Endings: Asian Boys Vol. 3.

I watched the play a few days later, and was intrigued by the Sylvia character. She was a straight woman who was dumped by her first boyfriend (who turned out to be gay) and grew up to be a tough-as-nails gay activist. I wondered about the motivations behind this character.

At the forum, I spoke out against Section 377A of the Penal Code, the provision that criminalizes private, consensual sex between adult homosexual men. It wasn’t the first time, and as on prior occasions, inevitably people asked if I am gay.

Many in Singapore seem to believe that all, or at least most, of those who oppose Section 377A are gay. I don’t understand that. Why do we automatically assume that only those who suffer under this law will criticize it? Are we really so averse to fighting on behalf of others, especially those who are different from us?

I am not poor, but I write and speak about helping the low-income. I am not a woman, but I will speak up against the proposal to allow husbands to continue raping their wives except in limited circumstances. Similarly, I am not gay, but I will write and speak against Section 377A.

I do it because of an innate sense of injustice. I really do it for myself, not for gays. If I have the opportunity to articulate my views but do not, then I would have let myself down.

It’s just like how white Americans were involved in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and how, as the recent film Amazing Grace showed, a white Englishman led the fight to abolish slavery in the 18th Century. If one observes or encounters unfairness, should one not speak up against it, regardless of whether one is personally affected?

This is not an article to argue for the repeal of Section 377A. Much has been written each way, and I have expressed my detailed views elsewhere. Instead, I wish to see more Singaporeans to speak up and take action against wrongs that they see. Indeed, if a reader strongly feels that homosexuality should be criminal, then he or she should certainly express their views.

But by the same token, those who disagree with Section 377A should also speak up. They owe it to themselves, as self-respecting, thinking citizens, to make their views known. This is especially so if their view, like mine, is that Section 377A is fundamentally wrong and unfair, in criminalizing private consensual acts between adults that does not objectively harm anyone else.

That’s because the debate is then ultimately about Singapore society’s approach to human rights and civil liberties. Isn’t that important enough to galvanise one into action? And isn’t it especially crucial for straight persons to speak up in this debate, given how the continued existence of Section 377A stigmatizes homosexuality and makes it difficult for gays to publicly defend themselves?

In a way, I am coming full circle with this article. I owe my appointment as a Nominated Member of Parliament to my writing for this newspaper, and I started writing this paper only because of a letter I wrote in 2003 responding to an article in a local newspaper on this issue. TODAY’s then-editor read it, and invited me to write for TODAY.

I had circulated the letter widely over two days, asking fellow straight persons to sign the letter. It was never published despite having 32 signatories. But I’ll end with some words from it that, to me, still ring very true today.

"Very few people are willing to publicly adopt a stance that may be interpreted as being pro-gay. The fear is that you will be seen as being gay, because only gays will speak out in support of the rights of gay people.

"All the signatories to this letter are straight. ...

"We urge all gays in Singapore to take heart from our letter, to know that there are a lot more people out there who support their personal rights and freedoms, than is apparent from an examination of the views espoused in the mass media.

"We also urge other straight persons to take any and every opportunity they may have to voice their own opinions, to prevent a misleading picture of public opinion from being painted."


Millionaire_Minister said...

I have never been a gay nor having the tendency to be like a gay. I am not a gay and I will never be a gay. However, I fully agree with you, Mr Siew, that even if we are not part of a certain group of people, we can and should also speak up for them for the sake of fairness and justice. Otherwise, if things continue to be brushed aside because of selfish personal interest or for the protection of some eminent figure or organization, then it is a very sad state of affairs for humanity and for Singapore, as an aspiring young nation that champions for every BEST and OUTSTANDING.

As I see it and strongly believe, to made it a CRIMINAL offensive just because of individual preference for a particular way of life, that does not CRIMINALLY interfere nor affect the society in general, is not only unfair, unjust and against the constitutional rights of a minority group amongst our civilized society but also irrational and CRIMINAL. For example, if we are against some key leaders or MPs who are enjoying extra-marital affairs while still married with children, should we also enact a law to criminalize them as a result of their acts and passed it in Parliament? Such behaviour and way of life clearly shows a bad example to and would directly influence our society, is it not?

If intelligent and conscientious people continue to keep quiet while watching injustice goes by, by the days, then I strongly believe one day Singaporeans would be in for a very BIG SHOCK! Therefore, I fully support your stand and I strongly urge all those who are capable and still have a conscience to stand up for the rights of others.

Tat Yang said...

"If one observes or encounters unfairness, should one not speak up against it, regardless of whether one is personally affected?"

unfortunately, I do not think that people in Singapore, perhaps particularly the youths of Singapore, are predisposed to speaking up for others even when they think there is something unfair going on. Speaking from my personal experience with other Singaporeans, it seems that the ones who have it good are not concerned with the plight of others less fortunate. I'm not sure what encourages or instills this behaviour but it's certainly real and it's certainly sad.

"That’s because the debate is then ultimately about Singapore society’s approach to human rights and civil liberties. Isn’t that important enough to galvanise one into action?"

again, I feel that Singaporeans do not care enough about human rights or civil liberties and that this stems from our lack of awareness of such issues. In my experience, we do not really realise the impact civil liberties (or lack thereof) can have on our quality of life. Our society has taught us that as long as we live comfortably, human rights or civil liberties are not important, especially when it's not our lives that are being affected, but those of others.

You mentioned the American civil rights movement in the 1960s and the example of an White Englishman fighting to abolish slavery. I dare say that few Singaporeans are even aware of these historical events, and perhaps this is why we are reluctant to raise our voice for others. The concept is almost a foreign one.

You are right in that the issue is ultimately about our society's approach to human rights and civil liberties, but since we are apathetic to such issues, it is too much to expect this to galvanise us into any action at all. Furthermore, we live in a milieu that disdains speaking up in general. My opinion is that before we can expect people to speak up about social issues concerning human rights, there has to be a greater awareness of their importance in the first place.

le radical galoisien said...

The logic is this: if civil rights can be so arbitrarily denied to any group the government desires, even if the group does not include us, how can WE be sure of our civil rights?

Miak said...

i just realised from yangfa who you are!

thanks for standing up for us, and speaking out against injustice.


lisiepeasie said...

I totally agree that heterosexuals have to speak up against injustice, even if it doesn't affect us directly. If we don't, there is the inherent danger of being classified into that "conservative majority" group which may not be a majority at all.

To use Martin Niemoller's poem liberally, if they go for another group's civil liberties and we don't speak up, soon our civil liberties will be at stake too.

But I have a problem with a statement that you made - "Indeed, if a reader strongly feels that homosexuality should be criminal, then he or she should certainly express their views."

The problem with that is that a lot of people who have spoken up against 377a either have bigoted and illogical views (ie. Nicholas Lazarus) or use religion and dogma as a basis for their aversion(just about every other person on ST online forum).

How do we balance a person's right to speak and lobby their views to the government against denying a minority group their basis civil liberties? :(

Siew Kum Hong said...

To millionaire_minister and le radical galoisien: Exactly.

To miak: :)

To tat yang: That simply makes it more important to speak up and set an example, no? I started shooting my mouth off on the Net over 10 years ago, and I've since gone on to write about it and am now fortunate to be in Parliament. Hopefully I have showed that independent, reasoned thought can count for something.

To lisiepeasie: Principle and consistency demand that line. The problem is not that bigoted and illogical views have been articulated, or that views have been overtly or covertly based on religion and dogma. The problem would be if the bigotry and lack of logic are not highlighted or rebutted. Or if the speaker's agendas or personal vested interests are not disclosed or exposed. Or if the views stated are not probed and tested.

I don't think it is about balancing people's right to speak against denying a minority group's fundamental liberties. Everyone should have a right to speak, subject to basic qualifications such as no harm to third parties, etc. Nobody should have their fundamental liberties denied. Unfortunately, on this issue, anti-s.377A views are not receiving the same amount of coverage/airing in the mainstream media (for whatever reason), and gays continue to be unjustifiably discriminated against.

That's what we have to strive to correct. I'm not bothered about gay-bashers doing their thing. In fact, some of them may have done more harm than good for their cause. And to my mind, that in itself says a lot about where these people are coming from.

SpitxFire said...

Kudos to you for being one of the few vocal Singaporeans willing to speak against injustice.

I agree that we need to fight to protect others so that there will not be a day when we are left to fight for ourselves, with no one left to help us in our fight.

On a final note, this poem exactly describes the possible future we may face if we don't stand up for others; especially for the recent Odex fiasco, where Odex invaded our privacy and took money from people using means that may not be legal.

"First they came..."
- Pastor Martin Niemller (1892 - 1984)

When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak up for me.

Nicholas & Ian said...

Thank you Mr Siew

You continue to be an inspiration to all those who believe that we should not stay silence in the face of injustice despite the oncoming of persecution. As a young Singapore student studying overseas you give me hope that I might return to a better Singapore where I on longer need to live in fear of who I am.

Nicholas Deroose

The Pariah said...

I remember a line from one of the "Dirty Harry" movies with Clint Eastwood smirking: "Opinions are like ass holes. Everybody has one."

Question: Do Singaporeans have opinions?
Answer: Mostly yes.

Do they express it?
Mostly no unless it hits their own pocket.

If you ask me (and even if you don't ask me), I'd say that it is partly fear of imaginary shadows, partly learned helplessness, partly lethargy, partly selfishness and a little bit cultural.

As a society, I reckon that over the years we have become more dumb. Vocally dumb. Interlectually dumb.

Indeed, the driving motivation to speak up when you think, feel or sense that something is not right should be instinctive to us human beings.

I run an anti-en-bloc blog and have been submitting papers to MinLaw not just because I'm a very real potential victim being in D9 but also because I see this law as truly unjust.

When I tell fellow anti-enbloc'cers that I was equally passionate about the HDB Lift Upgrading Program (giving grief to numerous ministeries and stat boards), people ask "why"?

Huh? One would have thought that being victims or potential victims of an en bloc onslaught, these people of all people should and would appreciate the need to Stand Up For What Is Right.

Well, Kum Hong, your parents have brought you up well. Just keep squawking. So will I.

The Pariah residing in my cyber-home at:

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Fatboy Joe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fatboy Joe said...

I have to admit that I am basically a lazy and selfish person. I do not think that I am in anyway more righteous than anyone. I occasionally catch myself not offering my help to my own friends and relatives when I see them in need.

I am truly trying my best to be a better person.

However I suspect that it might take something significantly more inspiring to move me to champion for something as foreign to me like helping homosexual men find legality in having sex with each other.

This is my most honest comment that I can offer.