TODAY: Gay debate takes ugly turn (Oct 25)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Gay debate takes ugly turn

But a few black sheep in cyberspace do not mean S'poreans can't hold a mature dialogue: Analysts

Thursday • October 25, 2007

Ansley Ng

THE Parliamentary debate on the law against gay sex will be remembered for its fiery, heart-felt spirit. But outside the House, passions — among both supporters and opponents of Section 377A — have, at times, degenerated into spite.

There were threatening, expletive-laced emails. One parliamentarian had his sexuality questioned. Another academic was flamed in blogs and had her phone number circulated.

And the employer of one gay professional was questioned about their hiring him.

The ugly turn of events, some may say, is only to be expected given the emotional nature of the subject matter — one that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had warned on Tuesday could polarise society.

But a bigger question being asked is: What do such instances say of Singaporeans' ability to debate issues maturely, and without hostility?

In Parliament on Monday, Nominated MP Thio Li-ann recounted how a colleague received threatening emails following the publication of an article in The Straits Times in May, after reforms to the Penal Code were mooted.

Assistant Professor Yvonne Lee had commented that it was wrong to decriminalise homosexual acts. For a month after, people, including young lawyers and students, wrote to the dean criticising her.

Her photo was posted on blogs and her phone number circulated. She received emails — "80 per cent of them abusive" — asking if she was a "fundamentalist" who would discriminate against homosexual students.

"It was a professional attack, intimidation and harassment," Asst Prof Lee told Today.

Professor Thio herself was "shell-shocked" and made a police report after receiving an abusive email in August from an unnamed stranger who threatened to defile her grave on the day Section 377A was repealed.

"If it was just a rude letter, I'd let it slip. But this really overstepped things," the law lecturer told Today.

In the opposing camp, fellow NMP Siew Kum Hong, who presented a public petition to scrap the law against gay sex, had his sexuality questioned.

"When you are a public figure taking a position on a public issue, you have to accept that some people will not be mature enough to refrain from such things," said Mr Siew, a lawyer.

"It bothers me but I just got past it and carried on. I don't want to dignify their comments."

The organisers of the campaign — who, in a statement yesterday, said they were "deeply disappointed" by the decision to keep the law — told Today that hate messages were posted on their website. "That's what the gay community experiences as part of their lives — derogatory slurs," a spokesman said.

Indeed, one employee at a large government-linked company learnt, a few months ago, that an anonymous letter had been sent to senior management, asking why they employed a gay person.

"I was really shocked. I'm not a closet gay but I don't show off my sexuality at work. I'm there to work, not advocate gay rights; I'm a professional. Honestly, I felt very violated," he said.

To him, the incident suggests there is "a lot of fear" that legalising consensual gay sex would cause societal disintegration. "When there is fear, it can lead to viciousness."

MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC Baey Yam Keng, however, said that while some were not pleased at his speaking up for homosexuals, no one had been outright abusive so far.

One email sender vowed not to vote for him in the next election. Another asked if he was "naive or blind".

Said Mr Baey: "For these kind of emotional issues, there will be skewed positions taken. But it's healthy to have these two opposing views — albeit some being extreme about it — rather than not talk about the issue."

He feels such debates raise awareness among the uninformed, which feeds into an even more robust discussion.

But Prof Thio asked: "Can we promise ourselves that we will not resort to deception or shouting at each other, but focus on facts and issue? Even if we disagreed, can we disagree in a civil fashion?"

On Sunday, Dr Balaji Sadasivan, Senior Minister of State (Foreign Affairs and Information, Communications and the Arts), had called for tolerance of differences on Section 377A. The challenge, he had warned, was in preventing diversity from descending into "divisive antagonism", as it has in the United States.

Such polarisation was unlikely to happen in Singapore, said Dr Terence Chong, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Citizens by and large have shown that they are capable of civil and passionate debate – both in and outside of parliament – despite the actions of a few anonymous "black sheep" in cyberspace, he noted.

"The overall tone of the debate has been civil. It would be naïve for anyone to want passionate debate without any name-calling at all. And it would be very unfair to point to a small group of people who send hate mail and say we are not capable of a mature debate," said Dr Chong.