TNP: How Does Personal Background Matter? (Oct 19)

Friday, October 19, 2007

How Does Personal Background Matter? By Leong Ching (Oct 19)

WHEN I told a friend that Senior Counsel KShanmugam was fighting a law suit for a triathlete, and doing it for free, the first question he asked was: 'What race is the triathlete?'

I was about to explain the swim, run, bike routine when it hit me - he wanted to know if the triathlete was Indian.

In everyday life, we naturally assume personal motivations for doing things. (In the case of Mr Shanmugam, triathlete Gino Ernest Ng is Chinese).

We assume people identify with causes because they or their family or friends have had personal experiences which spurred them into acting.

So, an oncologist is in the Singapore Cancer Society, a keen musician sits on the board of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, and Dr Benedict Tan, a sportsman and a doctor, is on the Singapore National Olympic Council.

Mr Siew Kum Hong is a Nominated MP. He has taken up many causes.

Serious issues: CPF reforms, ministers' salaries.

Municipal ones: Stray cats.

Philosophical: What it means to be Singaporean.


When he agreed to file a petition in Parliament to repeal an anti-gay law, people naturally asked: 'Is he gay?'

My friends asked me. My colleagues wanted to know.

'I don't know,' I said.

But, as a reporter, I thought, shouldn't I try to get an answer?

Was I being overly inquisitive?

In making arguments, sometimes the background of the person matters.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew often quizzes people who ask him questions during open debates.

'How long have you been in Singapore?'

That way, you know where the person is coming from, and the authority from which he speaks.

The question can then be put in greater context.

In Mr Siew's case, the messenger, rather than the message, became significant.

At least one reader questioned his agenda in a letter to The Straits Times. 'Mr Siew has overstepped the boundary as an NMP when he chose to represent the homosexual interest group,' she wrote.

Mr Siew had never revealed his sexuality before, and the more sensitive and thoughtful would consider it irrelevant to the present debate.

Dr Kevin Tan, for example, said: 'It is neither here nor there. You should focus on the message and not the messenger.'

That is true, logically.

But sometimes, the all-too-human side of our nature resonates to some personal connection.

And when sex is involved, it takes on a sensational - and personal - dimension.

Mr Siew himself said: 'I do know people have always wondered about that.'

He had been told by a friend that some people, who opposed repealing Section 377A, had asked if he was gay.

'He told them I was not, and explained to them that there are straight Singaporeans with strong views on this issue, and who are willing to speak up. They had no response to that.'

Can we see beyond the person and focus on the logic, the larger picture, of the case?


Look beyond the gay issue and there could be something more to ponder and value.

Mr Siew said: 'I cannot speak for the role played by personal motivations, in how other people approach the debate. Indeed, we are all human beings, so personal reasons will always play a role.

'Some people have told me that they did not sign the petition because they disagreed with the repeal of Section 377A, but they fully appreciated the effort and the process being undertaken.

'And they felt that the petition was a good thing, despite disagreeing on the merits.'

This is the right spirit, he said.

'They are able to differentiate between the process and the issue, and they understand the petition as a democratic process even though they disagree in substance.

'And that is heartening to me, because that is really what democracy is about,' he said