TNP: S'pore's Gay Divide: Why Pink has become Red Hot by Leong Ching (Oct 25)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

S'pore's Gay Divide: Why Pink has become Red Hot by Leong Ching

PINK is the colour of calm. It is also the colour associated with gays. Coincidentally, it was also the colour of the Prime Minister's shirt in Parliament yesterday.

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The New Paper, 13 Sep

But while the pink issue was very much the subject of debate, the House was hardly calm, with the issue taking on red-hot hues that was at times personal, passionate and unusually graphic.

God, love, gay, sex, anal, sexual perversity, selfish and hurtful. These are not the kind of words often used in a parliamentary debate.

But the past two days were hardly one of the more ordinary days in Parliament.

And this, on an issue - whether Section 377A should stay - that was already decided.

Yet, homosexual sex was turned on its head, examined inside out, upside down.

In the House, there was logic. There was emotion. And there was brutal honesty.

Outside Parliament, however, there was hate, as reflected in e-mail comments directed at the two NMPs on opposite sides of the Gay divide - and online pressure on the Government, as the PM revealed yesterday.

Was the debate in Parliament a reflection of the issue's potentially divisive, even disruptive nature?

The Prime Minister himself explained the Government's stance on Section 377A, calling for the nation to 'live and let live'.

More than 20 MPs spoke, crafting some of the most passionate and strongly-worded speeches since the debate on whether to allow casinos in Singapore two years ago.

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The New Paper, 4 May

Away from the civilised cut-and-thrust of debate, however, hate mail flew.

Law professor and NMP Thio Li-ann, who made one of the strongest, most graphic speeches, was a target.

She felt compelled to speak up, she told The New Paper, because 'it is important in life not only to have a brain but a spine.

'We must have moral courage and do what is right and expose a political movement that would hurt the common good of Singapore.

'I have already been insulted and received hate mail, even harassment.

'But should we be a nation of cowed individuals, subjugated by fear of being called hateful names?

'As I said, certain homosexual activists like to call people bigoted and intolerant - but they are also bigoted and intolerant towards those who disagree with them.


'(It's)double standards. Anyone who is a fair thinker will see the truth of this analysis,' she said.

Since her speech on Monday, she has been called terms like 'homophobic', 'unenlightened' and 'prejudiced' on the Internet. Some called her a 'fundamentalist'.

Many other profanies, vulgarities and four-letter words were hurled at her because of her stand.

Prof Thio said: 'One person expressed the wish to defile my grave on the day 377A was repealed. And I am conveying the sense of it in the most polite way I know how.

'I don't believe in repeating obscenities.'

The protagonist on the other side, lawyer and NMP Siew Kum Hong, has also been the target of hate mail and much pressure.

For example, someone had asked him why he spent his time helping 'arse lovers' rather than championing the 'cause of the poor'.

Online, calls have been made to remove him from Parliament, calling him a 'disgrace', accusing him of 'wasting national time' and that he was 'just trying to make a name for himself'.

Mr Siew said he does not let such name-calling bother him.

'This is one of the most difficult things I've ever done. But I'm glad I did it. It's the right thing to do,' he told The New Paper last night.

He admitted that he had become emotional during his speech in Parliament.

'But this sometimes happens when people feel strongly about an issue,' he said.

His was not the only speech delivered with passion.

Making the last speech yesterday, MP Seah Kian Peng declared: 'I would be the mother who loves her gay son. I would be the man who loves his gay brother. And I would the first to stand up to defend a gay man's right to be treated equally under the law.'

But he did not want to repeal the law as he felt it would harm the institutions of marriage and the family.

What was supposed to be a sedate review of the Penal Code turned into something with quite few 'firsts'.

The petition to repeal 377A was not even part of the menu as it was supposed to have gone to the Petitions Committee first.

But, in a surprise move, Leader of the House Mah Bow Tan tabled a motion to discuss it in Parliament on Monday.

That opened the floodgates to a spirited debate, capped by a speech from PM Lee Hsien Loong.

Members were taken into the bedrooms of homosexuals, with graphic accounts of how sex between two men was physically harmful.

On the other hand, they listened to poignant quotes from mothers of gay men.

They were told stories of how talented homosexuals had renounced their citizenships because 'they had no place in Singapore'.

Did such passionate views reflect how strongly society felt? No, said the PM.

'Chinese-speaking Singaporeans are much less seized with the issue than the English-speaking. They are not as strongly engaged, either for or against,' he said, noting that there were no Chinese speeches made on the issue, save for a short one by MP Baey Yam Keng.

This is supported by a study by The New Paper in May, which suggested that heartlanders did not feel strongly against gays - as long as gays did not impose on their space. (See fax on previous page.)

Other indicators: Opposition Low Thia Khiang chose to remain silent yesterday, while his fellow Workers' Party member Sylvia Lim revealed that the WP supports retaining 377A.

PM Lee added: 'It reflects the focus of the Chinese speaking ground and their mindsets. So, for the majority of Singaporeans, the attitude is a pragmatic one - we live and let live.'

How then, do we account for the robust speeches? The last time Parliament saw strong reaction was two years ago, when it debated whether to allow casinos here.

Then, too, words such as 'moral majority', 'doing the right thing', religion, principles were bandied about.

But only one MP - former Jalan Besar GRC MP Loh Meng See - made an emotional anti-casino plea.

He said then: 'I cannot understand the argument put forward that as gambling is already in existence, the harm is incremental in nature. Do we not know that two wrongs don't make a right?'

In the end though, the argument was won by pragmatism and economic imperatives, with ministers coming out and revealing the financial benefits of the integrated resorts.

In the present debate, however, issues of private lives and public principles are harder measure, quantify or justify.

Another reason could be that this debate had strong and clearly media-savvy groups weighing in on both sides.


As the PM noted: 'Both sides have mobilised to campaign for their causes. There was a petition to remove Section 377A. It accumulated a couple of thousand signatures and was presented in this House.

'Therefore there was a counter-petition to retain it which collected 15,000 signatures,' he said.

'The ministers and I have received many e-mails and letters on this subject.

'Very well-written, all following a certain model answer style. I don't doubt the depth of the sentiments and the breadth of the support, but it's also a very well organised pressure campaign.'

The PM was rational, conciliatory and inclusive. As he ended his speech though, it was clear that he had an iron fist in his velvet glove.

His message: Cool down, don't push too hard.

'I should therefore say that as a matter of reality, that the more gay activists push this agenda, the stronger will be the push-back from conservative forces in our society, as we are beginning to see already in this debate.

'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,' he said.