BY RYAN KUEH
Pink Dot has once again reignited the fire of liberty and progressiveness in Singapore. This year is different, different from the previous calls of progress. It has been marked by media debacles, and with the growing Repeal 377A movement, the LGBTQ+ community has gained tremendous publicity and support, met with an equal amount of retaliation.
This year, The Straits Times was called out for editing any mention of Lee Hsien Yang and his family out of its Pink Dot article. DJ Joshua Simon and Singapore Polytechnic had a disagreement, stemming from the LGBTQ+ related content in a speech that Simon was due to give at the polytechnic. At the same time, Reverend Nina Khong, senior pastor of Faith Community Baptist Church, made several aggressive comments towards the LGBTQ+ community on Facebook.
Let me share my two cents on the issue — how I feel this could be better advocated for by the masses and why Singapore should repeal Section 377A, a law criminalizing sex between consenting male adults, on the basis of staying true to her political philosophy.
The first point I would like to raise is that Singapore is a secular society. A secular society is defined by Merriam-Webster as a society which has an “indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.”
Yet, in response to the call to repeal 377A, numerous religious leaders and organizations have been vocal in their opposition against the repeal, with the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association (Pergas), the Head of the Catholic Church Archbishop William Goh, and the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) rejecting the idea of repeal.
The NCCS went a step further and commented “that the homosexual lifestyle is not only harmful for individuals, but also for families and society as a whole.” Rev. Khong commented “What’s immoral remains immoral. Doesn’t matter who did it.”
Imagine if a religious party vocalized similarly derogatory remarks towards a different religious group. Would there be harsh repercussions? Would it spark public outrage? Would this constitute inciting hatred?
The disagreements between Singapore Polytechnic (SP) and Simon also highlighted systemic insensitivity towards this community, with the SP spokesman statingthat the organizing committee found Simon’s speech “inspirational but assessed that certain parts relating to his sexuality might be inappropriate, for the target audience.”
If the same comments were made towards a speaker drawing inspiration from a religious context, would they have been tolerated? Would the speech have been allowed instead?
As a secular society, the Singapore Government has no obligation to adopt any religious moral dogma. Yet, Section 377A, which was introduced in the Singapore Penal Code in 1938, descended from British legal doctrine that was heavily influenced by the Church, including the 1885 Labouchere Amendment and a 1553 anti-sodomy law. It would be fair to assume that Section 377A was enacted with a substratum of piousness and having such a bill contradicts Singapore’s political philosophy as a secular state.
As a secular state, Singapore has had to forgo certain religious beliefs and practices to promote a greater utilitarian benefit of harmony. For instance, Muslim women are not allowed to wear the tudung in schools or in frontline public service roles.
The goal is to not impose a single religious view on others. Morality should not be defined by religious beliefs, but instead should be defined as what all Singaporeans define it as.
The law can and should have influences from religion, especially with a majority of Singaporeans being devout. Slightly over 80% of Singaporeans are religious, with the largest proportion of Singaporeans identifying as Buddhist/Taoist (43.2%) and Christian (18.8%), according to the results of the 2015 General Household Survey. About 18.5% of respondents indicated they have no religion.
Laws should not, however, retain and contain influences from religious backgrounds without proper explanation regarding its relevance to the greater population. In my opinion, Section 377A is such a law.
Singapore should consider whether it is right to suppress a minority’s right to practice their lifestyle, simply to appease the majority’s moral preferences. The Singapore Constitution is about upholding the rights of the minority, rather than simply subjecting such fundamental rights to the will of the masses.
It is also worth noting that a local Buddhist leader, Lim Phang Hong, has publicly supported the repeal of Section 377A. This shows that there are religious Singaporeans who support the LGBTQ+ community, in addition to non-religious Singaporeans (18.5%) whose views on the repeal of Section 377A are not affected by religious beliefs.
Turning towards a more pragmatic side of the debate, the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) released a working paper in May 2019, titled “Religion, Morality and Conservatism in Singapore.” It highlighted public disagreement against LGBTQ+ rights, with almost half of the respondents (48.5%) indicating gay marriage as “always wrong,” supporting the Singapore Government’s stance that the public is not ready for repeal.
However, a decision on repeal should be made on the pretext of progress led by the government. The same IPS paper also questioned the morality of gambling, where 55.6% of respondents indicate that gambling is “always wrong.” Gambling till this date is still less well-received than homosexuality but going against the majority’s wants has never stopped the Singapore Government from taking the first step forward, as evident in the decision to establish the two integrated resorts (IR) in Sentosa and Marina Bay.
Our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had rejected the idea of establishing casinos in Singapore on multiple occasions, but eventually changed his attitude once he was convinced on how the IRs would benefit Singapore’s economic development. Since then, Singapore has benefited more than it has lost from the IRs, as the ill-effects of problem gambling have not really been evident in Singapore.
Repealing Section 377A is about the decriminalization of sodomy, the restoration of basic rights, and the willingness to show that Singapore is not afraid of progress. So why can’t we take the same step forward with 377A?
My final point pertains to a core part of the Singapore Narrative, the ethos of our nation, which has always been to construct a harmonious, multiracial and multicultural society. We place a huge importance in the acceptance of each other’s differences, be it social background, skin colour or belief. “Regardless of race, language or religion.” Violence erupted during the 1964 race riots, and that has been the turning point towards a more cohesive future.
Our founding fathers used enormous resources and thorough planning to ensure we foster a common identity, a sense of community, and a sense of belonging to each other — all these a construct we call Racial Harmony.
We have gone so far as to introduce the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, a law that allows the government to take action on those who incite hatred between religious groups, and which has arguably promoted tolerance and even understanding amongst citizens.
This multicultural ethos should include the LGBTQ+ community. We share the same ideals, say the same pledge, and serve the same nation. We stay in the same HDB blocks, we go to the same schools, and we eat breakfast at the same hawker centres.
This group is equally Singaporean as every one of us, and they deserve to be treated with the same dignity, have the same liberties, and have an equal representation in this country. Singapore, as a collective group of different people, should expand our idea of harmony and include this group as well.
Section 377A has been a source of discomfort and disagreement between Singaporeans in recent times. But it is in these times we require clairvoyance from our leaders. Our elected representatives have always acted in the best interest of Singapore but having an insipid attitude towards this and “letting the public decide” is in nobody’s best interest.
The best way forward with regards to Section 377A is for this country can stay true to her ethos, to remember how much we have achieved through harmony, and to welcome the LGBTQ+ community with open arms. Singapore can and is #ready4repeal.
Ryan Kueh is currently pursuing Liberal Arts at Yale-NUS College, and has a strong interest in social issues and political education.
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Image Source: Pink Dot SG