From the Gallery: When the Govt chooses to follow, not lead (Oct 23)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Oct 23, 2007
When the Govt chooses to follow, not lead
By Chua Mui Hoong

The clock ticked past 7pm, but MPs sat, riveted, eyes intent on the Speaker.

And when Nominated MP Thio Li-ann concluded her fiery oratory against the 'radical political agenda' of gay rights activists, many Members of the House thumped their seats in approval.

Yesterday's parliamentary sitting was unusual for the amount of interest generated. In the public gallery sat academics, law students and gay activists.

In the House, which tends to thin after 5pm, many MPs remained, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who listened soberly and attentively to all, but did not join in the thumping of chairs after Dr Thio's speech.

The hot topic yesterday was gay sex, arising from a petition filed by NMP Siew Kum Hong on behalf of a group of activists to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, which makes it a crime for men to have sex with men.

It was the most passionate Parliament session since the casino debate in 2005, and striking for the eloquence and quality of arguments on both sides.

On one side was Mr Siew, who used up the full 30 minutes allotted to him with a moving appeal for equal treatment under the law.

Allowing anal and oral sex between a man and woman, but criminalising them between men, discriminates against gay men and is unconstitutional, argued the lawyer.

Presenting a diametrically opposite view was Dr Thio, an academic specialising in constitutional law.

She also used up the full 30 minutes allotted to her, to argue why Section 377A had to remain on the books, to protect society from the moral ills of homosexuality.

As for the equality argument, she countered that all people are equal before the law, but the state has every constitutional right to differentiate and prohibit some behaviours.

NMPs freed from any party discipline could argue their personal point of view with conviction.

In contrast, Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim adopted a moderate stance, saying the party had not developed a consensus on the issue and 'as such, we will not be calling for its abolition'.

The People's Action Party MPs who spoke essentially defended the status quo of keeping the law on the books to signal society's disapproval of the homosexual lifestyle, while not enforcing it
actively so as not to oppress gays.

Ms Indranee Rajah said this was simply a practical approach, Mr Alvin Yeo said MPs had to represent the views of the silent majority.

Mr Hri Kumar presented a nuanced view, arguing that Section 377A was riddled with inconsistencies.

The debate was thus noteworthy for having had six lawyer MPs from different political persuasions and personal convictions argue passionately and cogently for two opposite points of view - proof, if proof were needed, of just how contentious the gay sex issue, and indeed any issue of values, can be.

What's the state to do, faced with heated points of view from both camps?

The answer is straightforward: weigh the costs and benefits.

In this calculus, the political cost of removing a law has to be balanced against the possible benefit of scrapping it.

Scrapping the law may cheer gay activists and their supporters. But it will annoy many more, including well-organised religious groups.

Keeping the law may thus appear to be a less costly option - although Mr Siew tried to argue that it exacts a cost to Singapore, in terms of a brain drain of gay people, and in the suffering of those so criminalised and stigmatised. By keeping the law, the Government is taking sides in the debate - a point made by Mr Siew, who urged it to 'lead, not follow' public opinion on this issue.

After all, majority opinion alone cannot be the basis on which to make policy or laws.

In Singapore, majority opinion is no bar to change.

The PAP Government has not shied away from leading opinion on public sector pay, or casinos, or immigration policy. Indeed, it prides itself on changing mindsets to get Singaporeans to accept unpopular measures.

But the Government is choosing to follow, not lead opinion on the gay issue - which, given the intensity of feeling and clout of the social conservatives, is perfectly understandable from a political point of view.

What's next on this issue?

Yesterday's sitting advances the debate somewhat, drawing out honest, even visceral, points of view from opposing camps.

Some Singaporeans are uncomfortable with the high-profile petition, warning of a backlash. Mr Yeo for one urged activists to be more patient and not let the issue divide society.

Pro-gay lobbyists may want to learn from another amendment to the Penal Code passed yesterday.

This criminalises sex with minors overseas. As recently as May 2005, when MPs pressed for such a law, the Home Affairs Ministry stressed how hard it would be to enforce, pronouncements that were viewed then as ruling out a change for some time.

As NMP Eunice Olsen alluded, the change now may or may not have been motivated by a desire to get Singapore a better rating in the next United States Department of State's Trafficking in Persons Report.

Singapore was downgraded to a Tier 2 country this year, partly because it did not criminalise citizens' sex exploits with children overseas.

This being a pragmatic government, arguments that hold most sway will be those that can point to clear benefits from a change.

This Government is unlikely to act ahead of public opinion on the gay issue, unless there are strong economic imperatives to do so. If it hinders the Republic's ability to attract talent for example, there may be a rethink.

Until then, despite this stirring debate, the issue is likely to return to the back burner.