ST Insight: "Prayer" to change a sex law (Oct 20)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

by Lydia Lim & Keith Lin
Insight, Oct 20, 2007

On Monday, Parliament will hear a 'prayer' - legal parlance for a request - for a petition to repeal a law banning sex between men. What does such active lobbying of lawmakers by an interest group herald for the future? LYDIA LIM and KEITH LIN find out.

Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong is still two days away from presenting a citizens' petition to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code.

But his decision to do so has already sparked heated debate in some quarters.

First came two missives to this newspaper's Forum page from critics of the move.

One of them, by Ms Jenica Chua Chor Ping, argued that Mr Siew had overstepped his boundaries as an NMP by agreeing to act as the 'proxy representative of the homosexual interest group'.

Next came three letters from supporters.

Among them was Mr Ooi Jian Yuan who said that Mr Siew, as a 'straight man', should be applauded for his willingness to represent the gay community's views in the face of opposition.

At issue is a planned amendment to the Penal Code, set to take place in Parliament next week.

When passed, the amendment will repeal Section 377 which governs oral and anal sex between men and women, but leave Section 377A intact.

That means the same acts between men will remain a crime.

Gay activists who initiated the parliamentary petition have argued that the amendment discriminates against homosexual men, even though the Constitution provides for every citizen to be afforded equal protection before the law.

Mr Siew agrees and tells Insight: 'So, as a responsible parliamentarian, I agreed to present the petition to Parliament.

'The Standing Orders of Parliament provide for this mechanism; it must be there for people to use.'

It could well mark the first attempt by a local interest group to use formal parliamentary procedures to change a law.

Some interest groups such as the Nature Society had previously lobbied the Government through such means as letters and public petitions with varying degrees of success.

Various other interests, from industry groups to ethnic communities, try to influence lawmakers through consultative and feedback mechanisms, often behind closed doors.

But the gay community has more often than not been rebuffed when they appealed quietly for change.

One example is how activists were twice rejected when they applied in 1996 and again last year to register a group known as People Like Us, to raise awareness of gay issues.

Given their history, it should not come as a surprise that some activists now feel they have few options left than to adopt a more confrontational stance and lobby Parliament directly.

A Parliamentary Petition is unlike other forms of feedback in that its treatment is governed by Standing Orders.

The Public Petitions Committee, comprising seven MPs and chaired by Speaker Abdullah Tarmugi, must meet to consider the petition, after which it will submit a report to Parliament.

As interest groups become increasingly sophisticated in navigating the law-making maze to canvass their causes, what are the implications for Singapore's political landscape?

High-profile campaign

One obvious impact is that the questioning of the Government's stand on 377A has gone from low-key lobbying to high-profile campaign.

In their bid to repeal 377A, the gay activists also approached stage actress Pam Oei of Dim Sum Dollies fame to shoot a video.

She agreed because she views 377A as an 'archaic law'.

The 90-second clip features other celebrities she roped in, including Tan Kheng Hua, Mark Richmond and Kumar, rapping 'repeal 377A'. It is now on video-sharing website YouTube.

Legal experts are also joining the debate, at least on the Internet.

Last week, National University of Singapore law professor Michael Hor contributed a piece to website theonlinecitizen in his personal capacity.

He argued that recent statements by the highest officials in the land suggest that the Government no longer believes the sort of activity governed by 377A is harmful.

This is further corroborated by its repeated assurances that 377A will not be enforced.

'Employment of the criminal law to prohibit activity which the Government does not really think ought to be prohibited, on the sole basis that 'the majority' wants it to be prohibited, is fraught with danger,' Prof Hor said.

'The moral force of the criminal law is blunted if there are crimes which are, the Government assures the public, never to be enforced, and its 'perpetrators' never brought to court and punished,' he added.

These arguments are not new. In April, the Law Society raised similar objections to 377A, in its 55-page response to the Home Affairs Ministry's proposed changes to the Penal Code.

The society said the ministry's stand on not being proactive in enforcing that section 'runs the risk of bringing the law into disrepute'.

But while the society's call to scrap the mandatory death penalty for crimes such as murder and drug trafficking has now faded from public consciousness, 377A remains a live issue precisely because of the efforts of gay lobbyists.

The conservatives have launched a counter response in the form of an online petition at the website that went live on Thursday.

Behind it are four 'concerned individuals', including Mr Martin Tan, 30, executive director of a non-profit group.

Calling themselves The Majority, they cited a recent Nanyang Technological University survey which found that 70 per cent of Singaporeans hold negative attitudes towards lesbians and gay men.

In their open letter to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, which has garnered over 2,000 signatures in just 24 hours, the four supported the Government's decision to keep 377A.

Its repeal, they argued, would 'force homosexuality on a conservative population that is not ready for homosexuality'.

They also warned that changes to gay sex laws would lead to further erosion of family values through calls for an education system that teaches acceptance of the gay lifestyle under the banner of 'tolerance' and the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex unions.

General practitioner Alan Chin, 49, a father of two, welcomes the initiative.

'It is important to show to the Government that a sizeable majority wants to keep 377A,' he tells Insight.

What next?

On Thursday, the organisers of the repeal 377A campaign reported that 2,519 people had signed the Parliamentary Petition.

Mr Stuart Koe, chief executive of gay Asian portal and one of its two main signatories, said supporters included gay and straight Singaporeans and permanent residents.

'It sends a clear signal that the community sees this as an important issue that needs to be addressed,' he adds.

Yet a repeal of 377A seems highly unlikely at this stage.

After all, the Penal Code review that resulted in the amendment Bill now before Parliament took three years.

It included consultations with the public, the majority of whom wanted 377A retained, according to the Home Affairs Ministry.

Come Monday, after Mr Siew presents the petition to Parliament, the ball will land in the court of the MPs on the Public Petitions Committee.

At least one member, Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Baey Yam Keng, has previously declared his personal support for the scrapping of 377A.

But Marine Parade GRC MP Lim Biow Chuan, also on the committee, is opposed to it. Yet both acknowledge the right of activists - whether gay or otherwise - to petition Parliament for change.

Tampines GRC MP Irene Ng, another committee member, agrees.

But she worries about a possible backlash.

Right now, she says, the majority have been restrained in not calling for the law to be enforced rigorously.

'This live-and-let-live attitude has given gays a lot of room to live their lives as they want to,' she says.

But if the gay lobby takes it 'too far to push loudly for repealing 377A, it may find itself being confronted with a public backlash, which will be unfortunate'.

Bishop Robert Solomon, president of the National Council of Churches in Singapore, agrees that strong lobbying to scrap 377A 'will not be helpful or seen favourably by many'.

Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Hri Kumar says that unlike the equally heated debate over casinos, which subsided after the Government's decision to go ahead with two integrated resorts, there will be no finality to the disagreement over gay rights.

Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Indranee Rajah believes if the Petitions Committee rejects the repeal call, the issue will crop up again.

'The Government's stand is that the majority of society is not yet ready for a change in the law. I expect that there will come a day when that will change because young people, apart from those who are religious, are likely to be more open to alternative lifestyles,' she says.

Mr Siew, the NMP, has declared his intention to file a motion for Parliament to debate the report that the Public Petitions Committee is due to submit.

So even if the Penal Code (Amendment) Bill passes as expected next week, the campaigners against 377A are not about to let their cause die quietly.

Whether their efforts will win them more supporters, or provoke a conservative backlash, remains to be seen.

Experience elsewhere has shown that societies do not necessarily move in a straight line from conservative to liberal as they develop. In between, expect more twists and turns.

The question is whether as a society, Singapore will handle the debate with maturity and mutual respect for all.