TODAYOnline: Diversity, divisiveness and dialogue... (Oct 22)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Diversity, divisiveness and dialogue ...

Time has not come to deal with revision to 377A, says Balaji

Monday • October 22, 2007

Tan Hui Leng

diversity is a strength for any society.

Be it diversity of race, culture, skills or views, said Dr Balaji Sadasivan yesterday as he called for tolerance of such differences.

The challenge, he warned, was in preventing diversity from descending into divisiveness, as it has in the United States.

Addressing a University of Michigan Alumni (Singapore) dinner last night, the Senior Minister of State (Foreign Affairs and Information, Communications and the Arts) cited how single-issue lobbies in the US try to "define society" by the single issue they promote or believe in.

"The issue could be gun control, prayer in schools, abortion ban, stem cell research ban, or gay rights.

"There is little dialogue between the proponents and opponents of these issues, only a divisive antagonism," said Dr Balaji, a University of Michigan alumnus, who also spent five years training in neurosurgery at Henry Ford Hospital in Michigan.

Unlike the US, though, where the antagonists over such issues need never meet, Singapore was small and interconnected in many ways and "should not allow divisiveness to become a feature of our society".

"We need a diversity of skills and views in our society so that we can respond to the changing environment in an effective manner," he said.

"As a society, it is better to deal with an issue when we can get enough Singaporeans to believe in tolerance and respect, by that I mean the spirit of tolerance and respect ... Then, we can have a meaningful dialogue."

In a dialogue after his speech, Dr Balaji cited Section 377A of the Penal Code — the current law on gay sex — as one such issue.

Responding to a question from a member of the audience, he observed that gay rights is one issue being lobbied intensely by groups on both sides of the divide in the US.

And while this may not have been an issue 10 or 20 years ago, globalisation has brought the debate here, he said.

Citing what other Government leaders such as the Prime Minister and Minister Mentor had said previously, Dr Balaji said that the authorities here take a practical approach to the issue and have not intruded into the bedroom for years. There is no entrapment of gays and there is no discrimination of gays in the civil service, he noted.

So, Section 377A has become a "symbolic issue" for its opponents and proponents.

Most people's views are somewhere in between. "Just as most people would object to the vast prosecution of individuals, many would also object to being bombarded by homosexual literature or posters," said Dr Balaji.

The issue could be dealt at a less divisive time, when society is better ready to discuss it. "Like the PM said, the debate would yield no benefit for Singapore now. So, in the revision of the Penal Code, we're not dealing with Section 377A."

In his speech, Dr Balaji also touched on the issue of Myanmar, which he described as a "troubled family member" of the Association of South-east Asian Nations.

While the regional bloc would do "what (it) can and what is necessary and useful", he said Asean was "realistic" that it alone "cannot make the impact" needed to shift the ruling State Peace and Development Council, referring to Myanmar's military junta.

"Prevailing on the Myanmar regime has to be an effort involving the whole international community," he said.

That includes the "critical role" of the United Nations and the "neutral interlocutor among all the parties", the

The UN Secretary-General's Special Adviser, Mr Ibrahim Gambari, who transited yesterday in Singapore en route to New Delhi from Jakarta.

Mr Gambari met officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who encouraged him to continue his consultations in the region. They assured him Singapore would support his efforts to promote national reconciliation and a political solution in Myanmar, said an MFA spokesman.

They reiterated Singapore's concerns about the situation in Myanmar and expressed hopes that the military junta would extend fullest cooperation to Mr Gambari "by agreeing to his early return … by giving him access to the highest levels of … the government, and by facilitating meetings for him with … in particular Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, members of the National League for Democracy, the monks and members of the State Constitution Drafting Commission", added the spokesman.

As Myanmar's closest friends and neighbours, Dr Balaji called on China and India to exert their influence on the junta, while Japan also plays an important role because it is a major aid donor to Myanmar. So far, China has been helpful in influencing the SPDC to make Mr Gambari's visit fruitful.

Meanwhile, as the current Asean chair, Singapore has taken the lead in issuing a strongly worded statement urging for smooth and non-violent progress toward national reconciliation.