- that there be only grammatical/formatting edits to what I submit
- that I have final approval
- that it not become a "me vs her" thing between myself and Thio Li-Ann, and that they convey this to her
ST agreed to the above, and suggested a couple of topics:
"What united nation? In the light of the 377A debate, is consensus possible, and if not what do we do about it"
"The lessons on engagement I've learnt from this debate"
I wasn't really interested in spending 800 words to explore either topic, mainly because I did not want it to be a "me vs her" thing. I felt that the media had tried to play up that angle a bit too much. While we disagree (and I guess we disagree very strongly), I have no wish to let it become a personal thing -- the only people to benefit from that would be the media.
So I deliberately chose not to proceed along those lines, as it would invariably have involved criticising or rebutting Thio's speech. I did not want to do that, because to me, our speeches speak, and have to speak, for themselves. There was no need for me to extend it further outside Parliament. As it turns out, many others, such as Janadas Devan and innumerous bloggers, have taken it upon themselves to do so anyway.
In any case, my "take-aways" from the entire experience were not really about all this stuff about "consensus" and "engagement". We (i.e. those who supported repeal) engaged with society and with Parliament, and we did so according to the rules, in a manner that I felt was highly principled and civil.
That was enough for me. That was the mark of democracy at work. We took the high road, and we came through with our heads held high. We didn't succeed in repealing Section 377A, but I think we succeeded in many other aspects. As Alex Au so astutely explains, there is a lot for repeal supporters to celebrate.
So I did not want to play ST's game. Instead, my real "take-aways" were about understanding gay people better, about what Section 377A really meant to so many of them and their families, and about the humbling effect of so many people -- all strangers -- showing so much support for such a difficult cause. How ironic, that my stand purely on principle, without really having been exposed to these aspects directly, had led to this as well.
That's why I wrote this piece the way I did. It was easy to write, because I wrote from the heart. And just like my speech, it speaks for itself. The truth always does.
Straits Times Insight, 26 October 2007
My speech on Monday will probably be the speech of my career. I put my all into it, because I believe passionately in what I said.
That night, my overwhelming emotion was relief that it was over. But the relief was accompanied with sorrow, because it continues for so many others. That is the great tragedy of Section 377A.
I sat in Parliament on Tuesday, listening to the Prime Minister explain why Section 377A would be retained. Even though I continue to believe that Section 377A should be repealed, I am heartened by his speech.
The Prime Minister took pains to acknowledge the contributions of the gay community, their need for private space, and the importance of not making things unnecessarily difficult for them. It was probably as much as anyone could have asked for, short of a repeal.
His speech was fair, balanced and realistic. It will go a long way towards ensuring the debate -- which will inevitably continue -- remains on an even keel, and will hopefully temper the more extreme elements on each side.
The Prime Minister was probably right, when he said that most people were not seized of the issue. Certainly, as Mr Baey Yam Keng pointed out, many people did not really understand what it was about.
That is why it was important to have this debate. The parliamentary petition enabled the pro-repeal perspective to be put forward, for people to consider. The undecided majority can hear both sides, and make up their minds. Indeed, a friend who had previously opposed repeal told me that after reading the speeches, he had changed his mind and would actually sign the petition now.
And the petition allowed the voice of a politically disenfranchised group to be heard. In a democracy, surely that is important.
While homosexuality may not be in the mainstream (and I'm not so sure about that), it is indisputable that the pro-repeal argument is a firmly mainstream, albeit minority, view, not just one held by gays. The broad-based support for the petition demonstrated that.
For engagement to be civil, participants need to respect the common ground rules and the integrity of the process, while agreeing to disagree on the substantive issues. It is a critical part of a secular, democratic society.
Some repeal opponents have told me that they appreciated the distinction between the substance and the process. All this shows that the vast majority of Singaporeans do believe in civil engagement, even on issues of morality where consensus is difficult.
That was in stark contrast to those suggesting that the issue has polarized society. I think that the fault-lines, if any, have always existed. It was more a question of them becoming apparent.
But such statements risk being self-fulfilling prophecies. The more people harp on polarisation, the more likely it becomes. Some journalists have been particularly guilty such attempts to sensationalise the debate.
As we got closer to the Parliamentary sitting, I began declining media requests in that vein. While the media is and should be free to report stories as they deem appropriate, I was nevertheless disappointed at the apparent agenda of certain journalists.
Activists on both sides will continue to advocate their positions. And that is proper, because that is also what democracy is about.
I have been immensely humbled by the past two weeks, both by the tremendous support shown by so many, and by my increased understanding of what gays go through.
I have gay acquaintances, but I do not have gay family members or close friends. I agreed to present the petition out of principle. But as the online open letter garnered more and more signatures, as hateful comments started flying around, I understood so much better the human cost exacted by Section 377A.
I believe that as society as a whole gains greater understanding of and familiarity with gays, its views will shift. And I am glad that the Government's nuanced position allows for this possibility.
Many surveys have consistently shown young persons to be more accepting of homosexuals, and the acceptance level has increased over time. In September, the Straits Times reported that only 30% of youths surveyed felt that homosexuality was wrong.
And Straits Times journalist Tessa Wong wrote about how she was brought up in a conservative background, but realized that homosexuality was not intrinsically wrong after knowing a gay friend better. Such stories give me hope.
It is now time to move on. I have presented the petition, and Parliament has debated and passed the bill. While I disagree with the result, we live in a democracy, and that is how the democratic process works. There are other issues to raise, other goals to advance. The Government has a country to run.
Section 377A will surely resurface at some point. My hope is that all participants will remain civil, and focus on the issue at hand as a secular democracy. That will ensure that even as people disagree on their moral positions, society remains a cohesive whole. And it will demonstrate - again - that there is democracy in Singapore, and it works.