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 Although it was previously greenlighted, it seems that this will not be published.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 The letter referred to, together with the article I was responding to, have been archived at Yawning Bread.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."