TODAYOnline: When ambiguity works, let it be (Oct 24)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

When ambiguity works, let it be

PM Lee on keeping Section 377A, even as homosexuals
must have a place in society

Wednesday • October 24, 2007

Loh Chee Kong

IT may be untidy and ambiguous.

But for once, such lack of cut-and-dried neatness in its laws is
what Singapore needs, according to Prime Minister Lee Hsien
Loong, as the country continues its fragile balance of affirming
old-fashioned family values and making new space for

As the heated debate on the decision by lawmakers to continue
to criminalise homosexual acts raged on without any convergence
in sight, Mr Lee yesterday stepped in to make clear the
Government's position.

Explaining why it was retaining Section 377A — which bans
sexual acts between men — even though it does not proactively
enforce this law, Mr Lee said: "The current legal position reflects
the social norms and attitudes. It is a practical arrangement that
has evolved out of our historical circumstances. It's better to accept
the legal untidiness and the ambiguity. It works; don't disturb it."

Observing how the debate had unravelled over recent months, with
"well-organised pressure campaigns" from both sides of the fence, Mr
Lee said the issue had become a red herring for gay rights or "a
symbolic issue … for both opponents and proponents to tussle around".

Added the Prime Minister: "Abolition isn't going to give (gay rights
activists) what they want. What they want is not just to be free from
Section 377A but more space and full acceptance by other Singaporeans."

He added that "supposing we move on Section 377A", the gay rights
activists "will push for more, following the examples of other avant
garde countries in Europe and America", including same-sex marriages
and what is taught in school about homosexual relationships.

Yesterday, the Bill to amend the Penal Code, Singapore's largest set
of criminal legislation, was passed in Parliament.

But the changes were overshadowed by the retention of Section 377A.
The two-day Parliamentary sitting was dominated by one of the House's
most impassioned debates in recent times — filled with fiery rhetoric
and heart-felt pleas — with Nominated MPs Siew Kum Hong and Thio
Li-ann quoting the Prime Minister to buttress their opposing arguments.

Mr Siew had also submitted a public petition calling for the repeal of
Section 377A, on the grounds that it violated the Constitution, which
guarantees equal protection under the law for all citizens.

But Mr Lee said the Attorney-General had given him "clear" advice that
the continued retention of Section 377A "would not be a contravention
of the Constitution".

While there is growing scientific evidence that homosexuality is
inborn, Mr Lee reiterated that gays should not be considered a
minority "in the sense that we consider, say, Malays and Indians as
minorities with minority rights protected under the law".

Yesterday, more MPs spoke on the topic, with Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP
Charles Chong suggesting that the law be changed to allow consensual
homosexual acts in private. Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Baey Yam Keng also
lamented how homosexuals in Singapore are stereotyped into categories
such as "effeminate men, men who prey on young boys, flamboyant men
who seem to lead decadent lifestyles and Aids patients".

Retaining Section 377A would perpetuate the view that gays are
"criminals who should spend time behind bars", even though many are
"just your average men on the street", said Mr Baey.

Concurring that homosexuals "must have a place in this society", the
Prime Minister added: "Among them are some of our friends, our
relatives, our brothers and sisters, and our children. We do not want
them to leave Singapore for more congenial places but homosexuals
should not set the tone of Singapore society."

Noting that out of the 17 MPs who spoke on the issue, only Mr Baey
spoke in Mandarin, Mr Lee pointed out that many Singaporeans —
especially the Chinese-speaking community — are "not that seized with
the issue … including a significant number of gays themselves". "For
the majority of Singaporeans, the attitude is a pragmatic one: 'We
live and let live'."

As it is, homosexuals "have a lot of space in Singapore society", he
added. Citing the example of Raffles Institution teacher Otto Fong —
who was asked by the Ministry of Education to remove a blog entry in
which he spoke about his sexual orientation — Mr Lee reiterated that
gays "should not promote their lifestyle to others, or set the tone of
mainstream society".

"(Mr Fong) is a good teacher, by all accounts. How you live is your
own thing but what you disseminate comes very close to promoting a
lifestyle. There is space but there are limits."

Mr Lee also responded to comments made by Dr Stuart Koe, one of the
gay rights activists who started the petition against Section 377A.

Dr Koe was quoted in Today as saying that the current situation was
like having "a gun put to your head and not pulling the trigger".
"Either put the gun down, or pull the trigger," Dr Koe had said.

The Prime Minister's response: "If we try to force the issue and
settle the matter definitively one way or the other, we will never
reach an agreement. Instead of forging a consensus, we will divide and
polarise our society."

Mr Lee also drew a distinct line on when Singapore should blaze a
trail, and when it should take a backseat to global developments.

On issues such as the economy, technology and education, Singapore
will "stay ahead of the curve, leading the pack", he said, even if the
issue proves unpopular or controversial.

But on issues "of moral values with consequences to the wider
society", Mr Lee said Singapore should decide "what is right for
ourselves", and study the "impact of radical departures from the
traditional norms on early movers".