ST: Space for everyone, but one step at a time (Oct 24)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Oct 24, 2007
Space for everybody, but one step at a time
By Lee Siew Hua

LEAVE Section 377A alone. But also know there is space for all in

This is a bottom line that strives to be as balanced and symmetrical
as it can be. And in laying it down over a shifting social landscape,
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reveals a little more of his style in
navigating the untidy eddies and the moral tussles in the life of a
modern nation:

The journey ahead will have to be step by step. Sorry, no avant-garde

He focused his whole speech on this one strand of legislation, while
not commenting on the rest of the Penal Code.

It is a telling choice, for the seeming smallness of Section 377A
belies the possibility that it can warp parts of the social fabric if
not handled with the deftness or the heart it deserves.

A hint of what may unravel in society came across in his warning: 'The
more gay activists push this agenda, the stronger will be the
push-back from conservative forces in our society...

'The result will be counterproductive because it's going to lead to
less space for the gay community in Singapore.

'So it's better to let the situation evolve gradually.'

The desire to move gradually over uneven terrain is an echo of his
much-dissected 2004 speech at the Harvard Club of Singapore, when he said:

'We will have to feel our way forward, crossing the river stone by
stone, to use Deng Xiaoping's phrase.'

Stone by slippery stone in a river. That's where the 'balance' that he
repeatedly alluded to in his speech comes into play.

His hope is for a stable society with traditional heterosexual family
values - but with space for homosexuals to live and contribute to society.

So here is a sense that the Prime Minister is decisive on the
imperative of balance, but in certain aspects is feeling his way
ahead, with Singaporeans on all sides watching - and the more vocal
ones urging that he step in opposite directions.

There is 'no perfect balance', as he readily acknowledged to an
intently listening Chamber.

But that is the art of politics in engaging some of the changing
segments of Singapore that are more noisy, conviction-filled and
space-seeking than before.

And the negotiations over moral issues are nowhere as structured as
other battles, even that against an unruly beast like dengue.

To some delight, Dr Amy Khor, Senior Parliamentary Secretary
(Environment and Water Resources), told the Chamber that in the
search-and-destroy operations against dengue in Bukit Batok, the
inspectors could on occasion tell her how many mosquito-friendly
buckets some households harboured.

Neither are moral questions rapidly resolved, the way the Orchard Road
beggars and tissue-paper peddlers are whisked away, as the House
earlier heard.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister's presentation was also striking for the
way he addressed the gay community directly.

He saw in their midst responsible, invaluable, highly respected
contributing members of society. Many are our friends, relatives,
colleagues, siblings, brothers and sisters or some of our children, he

But, he also saw through the orchestrated push that gay activists have
staged to compel the Government to talk about Section 377A openly.

He stopped short at saying there may be a backlash from society,
choosing instead the more calibrated 'push back'.

One constant in all this tussling is that he will keep an eye on
cohesion in the Singapore family.

After all, the gays are also 'our kith and kin', he said.

The idea of Singapore being a family was also taken up by Members of
Parliament on both sides of the debate. The collective hope seems to
be that as debates over values intensify, the family keeps its
colourful differences but will not descend into dysfunction.

At another level, the family has been fundamental to Singapore policy
in pervasive ways. It is built into the Housing Board allocation
policies, with families favoured over singles, for instance.

So the constancy and sanctity of the family remains paramount, even as
the world changes, and even as the sleeping Victorian-era Section 377A
inherited from Britain was reawakened for a new debate in another era,
another land, yesterday.

The whole episode is fascinating for what it reveals of the shifts in
Singapore life, and its governance.

It is not unexpected, for cultural wars have been heating up in the
United States and elsewhere, and we expect people to sincerely hold
positions on values.

And certainly there will be more untidiness ahead that cannot be
regulated away, but will demand greater resourcefulness, harder
thinking, truer debate. Yesterday showed that this is not an easy road
for all, but worthwhile.