Tuesday, 30 October 2007

The great tragedy of Section 377A

That is the title I wish ST had used, for my piece last Friday 26 October. They had asked me to write something for them, on "take-aways" from the entire debate. I agreed to do so, on a few conditions:

- 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.


guapochino said...

Hear hear! Mr Siew, you will go down in Singapore history as one of the most rational, level-headed, not-afraid-to-speak-his-mind, principled MPs (or NMPs) we've ever had. You have stood up and been counted when so many others have compromised/stayed silent/not exercised their rights as a citizen. May you continue to shine the light for all of us.

Kelvin. said...

Mr Siew,
It is indeed sad that to remove a silly law is so hard for the vast majority of the MP and PM. They want the discrimination to remain. I am a straight man with wife and chidren. But I support the repeal because I believe in equality and not discrimination. I know a few gay people thro my work and social circle. They are not what the majority think they are. They live, work and behave just like us except with a difference sexual preference. To me I think they are born like that and can't help themselves to be attracted to the same sex. I do not know why there is so much hatred Ms Thio and the others have against gay. They must have no gay friend and therefore they are prejudice and biased. In the future when they look back they will be ashamed of themslves for doing what they do today to the minority who are also fellow citizen like us, the heterosexual majority. Anyway, Mr Siew you are a good and brave man to speak up for the minority. I hope you will not lose the fire in you to fight for the citizen for other issue in future. All the best to you.

Kris said...

"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."

Yes, you did indeed! And I believe many are proud of you for not having sunk to the opposition's level.

Thanks again for the great work done on the Petition, and all the best for the other causes that you intend to pursue and champion!

Siew Kum Hong said...

To guapochino, kelvin and kris: All of you are too kind. Thank you.

rage-boy said...

Coming from a family there 3 out of 4 kids are gay, it was heartening to hear your speech. my family would like to thank you for presenting the petition and standing up for us minorities. :)

Aaron said...

I truly admire your willingness to present the petition out of principle. I consider myself a principled person but I don't think I'm any where near your standards. You are a tough act to emulate, but I will aspire towards your standards.

If there is anything that our Parliament lacks, it's MPs who are willing to deal with matters of principles rather than bread and butter issues. I'm glad that you brought this dimension into our legislature.

Mr. White said...

Unknowingly, the lie that one cannot change, or choose his lifestyle has been perpetuated by the erroneous assumption that gays are a group of people.

Many people who have homosexual tendencies and urges have lived normal AND happy lives. Now with your taking up this "leadership", gays are led to believe that they should live their lives as "gay".

ahblabla said...

Personally, I have not heard of you before this whole 377A issue, but I am very impressed with yourself and deeply respect you and the way you have handled the petition, the debate, and the aftermath.

*salute and hats off to you*

Xtrocious said...

Dear Mr White...

I think those people you are refering to are bisexuals i.e. those with preferences for both sexes...

However, in any spectrum, there are always the two extremes i.e. strictly heterosexual or homosexual in this case...

Have you not considered them?

Back to Mr Siew, kudos for a job well done.

Like the song goes, it only takes a spark to get the fire going...

Unknown said...

Although it is quite unfortunate to see that the Law faculty members (including alumni like you) are divided with strong conviction on the 377A issue, your rationale approach in handling this matter compared to members whom have blinded by subjective conviction, is highly commendable. I am glad that you have been able to stay as objective and neutral in regards to this issue since its beginning, and not falling into the unintentional trap of the media to sensationalize this issue that may contribute to the actual materialization of an “imaginary polarization among the general public”.

I have seen both the video recording of your speech and Prof. Thio, and I admire both of you in making your speech with conviction. Prof. Thio’s concern for the general public image of Singapore and its possible negative externalities on society caused by the repeal is not entirely without sense; and is in fact a valid concern coming from the angle that homosexuals, being free from the commitment of marriage and child birth, may be encouraged to take sex between men more causally after the repeal, which may in turn leads to the negative externalities as mentioned by Prof. Thio: hedonistic exploration/ experimentation of gay sex by heterosexuals, spreading of STDs and so on.

Nonetheless, Prof. Thio’s strong desire to win the debate has overwhelmed her rationality to such an extent that she has submitted herself in engaging techniques of mockery and moral assassination on homosexuals (i.e. muddle-up homosexuals with paedophiles, and men who practice bestialities and incest), which are senseless generalization that disregards the existence of homosexuals whom uphold morality and denounce promiscuity, paedophiles and other extreme hedonistic practices as much as herself. Also, it is a pity that she has failed to recognize the humiliation that homosexual citizens already suffered under the inactive law by being coined as “criminals”. Without elevating the pain already suffered by homosexuals, the technique that she has used to win the hearts of the MPs and NMPs, whom thump their seats, has further added salt to their wounds.

Nevertheless, I hope you continue to show respect to Prof Thio as a teacher of NUS Law Faculty, and a colleague in Parliament. She may have overdone it to win her debate but she does not seem like a unkind person. Just probably, she is not aware of how much the homosexuals have suffered, and why they suffered.

Although the motion you proposed, along with the petition, has failed, I am deeply consoled that you have not counteract your opponents with subjective irrationality and anger, as illustrated by many of them, and certainly some of the pro-repeal gang as well. This-calmness and objectivity- is your virtue and strength that you should cherish.

Continue to keep your calm and coolness; we need you to stay as a Jedi to safeguard our Republic, not only on this matter but others as well.

May the force be with you!

Yours sincerely,

Tessa Wong said...

cheers :)

Siew Kum Hong said...

To rage-boy: It was my privilege to have been part of this :)

To aaron, ahblabla, xtrocious and guan: Thank you, you are all too kind.

To mr. white: I don't think I am any sort of "leader" for the gay community. And let's not kid ourselves -- with or without 377A, there will still be a social stigma against gays. Gays still have the choice of outing themselves or staying in the closet. But repeal will take the law out of the equation, and leave it to society to decide what sort of societal norms it wishes to apply to gays. It does not need the law -- or to undermine the law -- to do that.

To tessa: If you are the Tessa -- then thank you :)

Unknown said...

Dear Mr. Siew,
as great and honoured as the late Harvey Bernard Milk was to the Gay and Lesbian people of San Francisco and California, we, minority Singaporean Gay and Lesbian people can finally and proudly mention your name with equal appreciation and honour for making a difference. No change is going to come easy especially in repealing a section of a written law anywhere in the world. Perhaps, we, the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, our families, friends, and supporters have a lot more work and preparation to do before we try repealing 377A again. But one of the most important thing is that we have a voice in our Parliament. We will continue to look up to you in our constant struggle as Gays, Lesbian, and Bisexual citizens of Singapore to be liberated from any form of discrimination and oppression in both government and society.

barrie said...

Hello Mr Siew,

Personally, I feel that this S377A issue has been over hyped. Pro-gays have been saying that S377A discriminates gays because it criminalizes sex between two males. Let’s get real. With or without S377A in place, gays are still privately having sex, without interference from the law enforces.

My question then is – what discrimination are gays talking about?

I have written an article on the issue of S377A too. Below is that article. Take note of the comments of pro-gays who keep avoiding my main point, ie what discrimination have gays suffered with S377A in place?

Section 377A and Gay Relations – The Social Perspective

PS - May you and your family have Happy and Propspoerous New Year.

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