The New Paper - Gay Divide in Society (Saturday, 5 May 2007)

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Gay Divide in Society - The Gray Divide

It's ok to be gay, but not ok to lie about it?

May 05, 2007

THE best man for the job deserves the chance to do it, whether he sleeps with a man or a woman.

That is a straightforward approach, and shareholders are nothing but straightforward when it comes to their investments.

I invest, you deliver.

Yet, on Tuesday, British Petroleum CEO Lord John Browne, 59, stepped down after 41 years at the petrol giant.

He was head for 12 years.

In that time, he took the company into the ranks of Fortune 10 and determined that BP had a mission to go 'Beyond Petroleum'.

But he also had sex with a young man whom he met through a male escort agency's website.

One might think - most people have sex, what is the big deal? Why resign?

But what if each time you look at the CEO of this company, you think of him having sex?


What if your image is that of him trawling gay online dating sites, picking up young men?

If your own bedroom romps were made public, you would not feel like standing in front of 97,000 people (BP's staff strength) and speaking of 'energy for heat and light'.

Gay or straight, you wouldn't feel right leading, motivating, inspiring the team.

Lord Browne's decision is an all-too-human response, less the result of public pressure than private embarrassment.

And the debate should be less about gay issues than the role of media in reporting on private life.

To underscore the point from the shareholders' perspective, and their profit priority, let's move away from sex.

Take the case of Mr Hsieh Fu Hua, the CEO of SGX. Here there is no taint of lying, scandal or any sort of cover up, only a possible conflict of interest that had been declared to the board from the very onset. Still, there is some talk that he may leave when his contract ends in 2009.

Shareholders are saying that there is no need for him to leave.

At an extraordinary general meeting on Wednesday, one shareholder said: 'Mr Hsieh, I want you to know that we are all behind you.

'Please keep up the good work that you have done!' and the 70 or so shareholders gathered there applauded.

It's ok, we love you, as long as you perform! A purely utilitarian argument.

Chairman JY Pillay wisely said that when Mr Hsieh's contract ends, future boards could decide to persuade him to stay.

But the argument changes when we speak of political appointments. And it is here that we may differ from more liberal Western countries.

In Britain, MrMichael Portillo was defence minister in the 1990s - and was open about his gay past. In Singapore, we have some way to go before electing a Singaporean Portillo to succeed Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean.

A political leader stands for a set of values which, by and large, reflects that which his society lives by.

In politics, it is not mere profit maximisation. It is what his idea of what a good life is.

Even in Britain, Mr Portillo did not get his party's leaders support in his bid to lead the Conservative Party and hence the Prime Ministership in 2001. Rather bluntly, they said they wanted someone 'more normal'.


How do we say what is 'normal'?

We tend to start from the smallest digit of society - the family. In a way, it is easy - as a mother, I can say that I love my sons, whatever colour they choose to embrace. As a Methodist, I stand against homosexuality.

These are the two immovables - in between are many shades, possibly of pink.

Moving up, let's go through the various groups in society - grassroots, schools, workplaces and so on. Does it matter if your Residents' Committee chairman, or your colleague, or your fellow-volunteer is gay? Not really.

Let's move even further up - into the civil service.

Does it matter that a permanent secretary is gay? For me, not really.

So between the family and the ballot box, there is a wide range of social spaces where one's sexual orientation does not matter.

But the buck stops at the ballot box.

Does it matter if an MP is gay?

If a man is gay, hides this fact, and is exposed when he stands for election, he will surely be repulsed as a craven liar.

But if a man is gay, openly so, and stands for election, some may applaud in public for his courage, but vote against him in private.

Indeed, when you engage in open debate, in the realm of logic and cold-blooded analysis, you may concede the point that a gay minister or MP is as good as a straight one.

But when it comes to the ballot box, where you have no need to justify your decision to anyone other than yourself, things may be different.

This does not end as a moral argument, although, turning on family and personal values, it may have begun as one.

It ends as an argument in political process.

If you have decided to respect each man's vote and let his values count as much as the next, then you are bound by the decision spawned by the one-man, one-vote process.

You do not then dispute the quality of this decision.

For some, this represents the tyranny of the majority; for others, the triumph of democracy.