TODAY: Forum on gay law well-attended, but change unlikely: MPs (16 Jul)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

On Section 377A ...

Forum on gay law well-attended, but change unlikely: MPs

Monday . July 16, 2007

Nazry Bahrawi

THE room was packed, the panellists were passionate and the questions came fast and furious.

This was the mood yesterday as over 200 people gathered to discuss a hot issue - should homosexuality remain outlawed here?

Leading the discussion, organised by local theatre company W!ld Rice at the National Library, were an eclectic mix of five individuals: MP (Tanjong Pagar GRC) Baey Yam Keng; Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong; gay activist Alex Au; CEO of gay community website, Dr Stuart Koe; and Reverend Dr Yap Kim Hao, a former Methodist bishop who serves on the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) council.

Although Section 377A, which criminalises homosexual acts, may come up for debate in Parliament as part of the Penal Code changes, for two panellists at least, the prospect that it would be repealed any time soon seems highly unlikely.

Said Mr Baey: "Personally, I think the whip should be lifted for a very open debate and open expression of opinion by the MPs. And if that was so, I would vote for a repeal of the act. From my understanding of my parliamentary colleagues, my guess is that I will be in the minority.

"However, Mr Siew told the audience - most of whom indicated during the forum that they wanted Section 377A repealed - that the battle was not to convince the naysayers, but those who are undecided about whether homosexuality should be decriminalised.

The NMP said change would only be possible "once you get that mass, enough people in the middle, to agree with you", but added: "I don't think we're at that point."

Mr Siew cited a heartland survey published in May by Today, in which 62.3 per cent of 300 respondents disagreed that homosexuality should be legal. "That shows that a clear majority are saying that homosexuality of people is not acceptable to them."

But even if more people were to support decriminalisation, that may not be enough.

Said Mr Baey: "From what I understand about how the Government works, I don't think the Government will be making a decision based on a survey ... The Government will want to make its own stand and position on issues like this, and for this it requires a mindset shift."

And to change mindsets, "you've got to frame it in a lingo that will convince the Government", Mr Siew suggested."

And what's that lingo? I think we all know. It's all about growth, jobs, money. If you can make a convincing case that 377A is somehow affecting that, I think you've got a really good chance."

He acknowledged that changing the laws on homosexuality would put Malay/Muslim MPs in a difficult position with their community.

But it is not just the Muslims who feel strongly about the issue.

Reverend Dr Yap said that within the Christian faith in Singapore there was a "minority which is vocal" which strongly opposes any move to repeal the Act.

Mr Au, however, argued that the debate on Section 377A was not one of religion, but civil rights.

In response, Mr Siew pointed out: "Pitching your arguments in terms of civil rights ... will not take it very far."

His suggestion of linking the decriminalisation of homosexual acts to economic benefits drew a range of responses from the audience - as well as other panellists, including Mr Koe, who said he would feel insulted if the decision were to depend on dollars and cents.

Whatever their stand, almost everyone present agreed that such a forum would not have been possible five years ago - a sign that Singapore is now a lot more open to different points of view.