Stop Making A Mockery of Rule of Law: Let's Accept Gays (Sept 8)

Monday, September 8, 2008

Stop making A mockery of rule of law: Let's accept gays

Why keep such an archaic statute when there's no intention to prosecute?

Monday • September 8, 2008


SINGAPORE is known to be economically liberal, but socially
conservative. It is a rules-governed society with clear parameters for
behaviour, whether political, economic, or social. And within the "OB
markers" (out-of-bounds markers) of these do's and don'ts, it is a
transparent and fair social order, with no favouritism for anyone
operating outside the parameters.

This state of affairs governed the issue of homosexuality in Singapore
for many years. Not only was gay sex illegal, but every manifestation
was openly discouraged — some would say suppressed — and
discrimination against gays in the public domain (the civil service,
the military, the police, schools, and so on) was commonly accepted.
Indeed, because it was public policy to promote heterosexual family
life as the only norm, any other lifestyle was considered deviant and
handled accordingly. Repressive though it certainly was to gays, it
was at least very predictable.

Today, official attitudes towards homosexuality in Singapore are quite
different. They are certainly ambivalent and ambiguous — some would
even say, schizophrenic. On the one hand, many gay Singaporeans are
feted and lauded for their creative contributions to Singapore, and
warmly accepted by even senior figures of the establishment. On the
other hand, gay sex remains a criminal activity, even after much
public debate on the issue, and any kind of activity which is seen to
promote a gay lifestyle remains off-limits.

To those who believe that the non-persecution of gays is already
something to be grateful for, one could argue that allowing a black
person to sit in the front of the bus while legally forbidding it, is
something to be grateful for. Or, in an analogy closer to home for the
supposedly homophobic heartlanders, should a Chinese person be
grateful if the edict forbidding Chinese and dogs to enter parks in
Shanghai in the '20s were relaxed in reality, but maintained in the

At another level, my gay friends argue cogently that non-prosecution
(or non-persecution, for that matter) signals, at the most, simple
tolerance of them, and nothing more. There is a difference between
being tolerated because gays are seen to be at the leading edge of the
"creative class" — which Singapore is trying to develop as part of its
new knowledge-based, creativity-oriented economy — and being accepted
because of the recognition that fundamental human rights and the
dignity of the individual extends to gays as much as to anyone else.

The somewhat schizophrenic decision to not prosecute an illegal
activity has ramifications beyond the gay community, and has disturbed
some sections of the larger community, which is not particularly
interested in gay issues.

To many thoughtful citizens, Singapore has always openly claimed that
the Rule of Law, possibly even more than the formal mechanisms of
democracy, is a vital component of good governance. Yet, to
criminalise gay sex and, in the same breath, state that anyone
breaching this law will not be prosecuted, makes a mockery of the Rule
of Law.

Minor though this violation of the principle may be, the proponents of
the concept that the Rule of Law is a sacrosanct pillar of the
Singapore ethos lament that the Government did not take the bold step
to simply decriminalise something which the rest of the developed
world has long decriminalised; which most Singaporeans (except,
perhaps, the most fervently fundamentalist Christians or Muslims)
don't care that much about one way or the other; which the police,
courts, and legal community would welcome simply to remove an archaic,
Victorian-era statute; and finally, which the gay community would
embrace as an important signal that their right to privacy — a
fundamental human right — is considered to be more important than the
right of anti-gay groups to proselytise about morality.

Optimists hope that the decriminalisation of gay sex — a yawn to
anyone except the homophobic and the gays themselves — will eventually
occur. In reality, rather than in law, gays in Singapore today have
never had it so good, and should within a short time, become
fully-accepted — not just tolerated — members of an increasingly
diverse, and therefore vibrant, Singapore community.

But if we pat ourselves on the back for being so "bold" as to accept
casinos and Formula 1 events into staid Singapore, why can't the
boldness extend to a simple act to enable gays to realise their dream
— indeed, their simple right — to be normal Singaporeans like anyone
else, no more and no less.

The writer is chairman of Singapore Management University,executive
chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings and chairman of MediaCorp.