ST Review: Debate an example of democracy at work by Siew Kum Hong (Oct 26)

Friday, October 26, 2007

Oct 26, 2007
Debate an example of democracy at work

They were the two Nominated MPs who stood out in Parliament this week. Lawyer Siew Kum Hong was instrumental in putting forward a citizens' petition to repeal Section 377A, a law that deems sex between men a crime. Law professor Thio Li-Ann spoke passionately against it. The two NMPs penned their thoughts after the debate, exclusively for Insight.

By Siew Kum Hong

MY SPEECH on Monday will probably be the speech of my career. I put my all into it, because I believe passionately in what I said.

That night, my overwhelming emotion was relief that it was over. But the relief was accompanied with sorrow, because it continues for so many others. That is the great tragedy of Section 377A.

I sat in Parliament on Tuesday, listening to the Prime Minister explain why Section 377A will be retained. Even though I continue to believe Section 377A should be repealed, I am heartened by his speech.

The Prime Minister took pains to acknowledge the contributions of the gay community, their need for private space, and the importance of not making things unnecessarily difficult for them. It was probably as much as anyone could have asked, short of a repeal.

His speech was fair, balanced and realistic. It will go a long way towards ensuring the debate - which will inevitably continue – remains on an even keel, and will hopefully temper the more extreme elements on each side.

The Prime Minister was probably right when he said most people were not seized by the issue. Certainly, as Mr Baey Yam Keng pointed out, many people did not really understand what it was about.

That is why it was important to have this debate. The parliamentary petition enabled the pro-repeal perspective to be put forward for people to consider. The undecided majority can hear both sides and make up their minds. Indeed, a friend who had previously opposed repeal told me that after reading the speeches, he had changed his mind and would actually sign the petition now.

And the petition allowed the voice of a politically disenfranchised group to be heard. In a democracy, surely that is important.

While homosexuality may not be in the mainstream (and I'm not so sure about that), it is indisputable that the pro-repeal argument is a firmly mainstream, albeit minority, view, not just one held by gays. The broad-based support for the petition demonstrated that.

For engagement to be civil, participants need to respect the common ground rules and the integrity of the process, while agreeing to disagree on the substantive issues. It is a critical part of a secular, democratic society.

Some repeal opponents have told me they appreciated the distinction between the substance and the process. All this shows that the vast majority of Singaporeans do believe in civil engagement, even on issues of morality where consensus is difficult.

That was in stark contrast to those suggesting that the issue has polarised society. I think the fault lines, if any, have always existed. It was more a question of their becoming apparent.

But such statements risk being self-fulfilling prophecies. The more people harp on polarisation, the more likely it becomes. Some journalists have been particularly guilty of such attempts to sensationalise the debate.

As we got closer to the parliamentary sitting, I began to decline media requests in that vein. While the media is and should be free to report stories as it deems appropriate, I was nevertheless disappointed at the apparent agenda of certain journalists.

Activists on both sides will continue to advocate their position. And that is proper, because that is also what democracy is about.

I have been immensely humbled in the past two weeks, both by the tremendous support shown by so many, and by my increased understanding of what gays go through.

I have gay acquaintances, but I do not have gay family members or close friends. I agreed to present the petition out of principle. But as the online open letter drew more and more signatures, as hateful comments started flying around, I understood so much better the human cost exacted by Section 377A.

I believe that, as society as a whole gains greater understanding of and familiarity with gays, its views will shift. And I am glad the Government's nuanced position allows for this possibility.

Many surveys have consistently shown young people to be more accepting of homosexuals, and the acceptance level has increased over time. Last month, The Straits Times reported that only 30 per cent of youth surveyed felt homosexuality is wrong.

And Straits Times journalist Tessa Wong wrote about how she was brought up in a conservative background, but realised that homosexuality was not intrinsically wrong after knowing a gay friend better. Such stories give me hope.

It is now time to move on. I have presented the petition, and Parliament has debated and passed the Bill. While I disagree with the result, we live in a democracy, and that is how the democratic process works. There are other issues to raise, other goals to advance. The
Government has a country to run.

Section 377A will surely resurface at some point. My hope is that all participants will remain civil, and focus on the issue at hand as a secular democracy. That will ensure that even as people disagree on their moral positions, society remains a cohesive whole. And it will demonstrate, again, that there is democracy in Singapore, and it works.