A conversation, backed by courage

Is it time for Section 377a of the Penal Code to be abolished? (Getty file photo)
Is it time for Section 377a of the Penal Code to be abolished? (Getty file photo)

By Andrew Loh

A national dialogue about the future of the country must necessarily focus on the fundamentals which undergird how that society functions. This, perhaps more than anything else, should be the starting point of our own National Conversation (NC).

Much have been said and much criticism and ridicule have been thrown at the NC initiative itself. I hope, in this article, to not do that because the NC, for all its shortcomings (and there will be such failings in something as big as this one) is nonetheless still worth undertaking. Why? Because it is about how our children will live in the future, and it is also about what our own lives will be in 20 years. A conversation such as this is not about speaking to the current powers-that-be but also to future alternative ones.

The one thing which is an absolute necessary ingredient in this NC is political courage from our leaders — for there will be many issues and opinions raised, all contending for attention. Some of these issues will be supported by the majority, others may not even be on the radar screen of most. And this is where political courage is needed — to do what is right, and not what is popular and convenient by majority consensus. It is not what governments are elected for.

An example of when political courage is needed is on the issue of the gay community.

The ruling People's Action Party's (PAP) position on the matter of section 377a of the Penal Code which criminalises sex between mutually consenting adult men is to not "proactively enforce" that law. The Government's position has been reiterated several times even as former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew has said that "Section 377A 'eventually' has to go."

"If this is the way the world is going," he said, "and Singapore is part of that interconnected world and I think it is, then I see no option for Singapore but to be part of it."

Of the major opposition parties, the Workers' Party (WP) has repeated that it "has no position" on the matter. It is a position which the National Solidarity Party (NSP) seems to hold to as well. Section 377a "is the not the key political focus of the party", the party said in response to questions to Fridae.com in 2011. "[Future] MPs of the party would have to exercise their own political discretion and judgment in deciding whether to vote for or against the repeal of Section 377a, in accordance to social sentiments of that time," it explained.

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and the Reform Party (RP) are the only two political parties which have stated unequivocally that they support the repeal of section 377a.

"We are committed to working towards the repeal of Section 377a and the decriminalization of homosexuality," RP secretary general Kenneth Jeyaretnam told Fridae.com. The SDP says "Section 377a discriminates against a segment of our population and that discrimination, in whatever form, has no place in society. We therefore call on the PAP Government to repeal the law."

Out of the five political parties above, 3 either have no position on it or support the status quo, while the other two have made their stance clear on repealing the Act.

But it is the ruling PAP which matters, at least for now, since it holds an overwhelming majority in Parliament. By its promise of not "proactively" enforcing the law, implicit in its position is that gay men having sex with other gay men is one which it feels does not warrant its intervention.

Yet, it retains the law in the Penal Code.

The reason given is that it needs to take into account the views of the "conservative" segments of society (something which it has provided no substantiation for, by the way). Some have also alluded to a possible political "backlash" for the PAP if it repealed section 377a.

Given the four major opposition parties' position on the matter, however, one is hard pressed to see what this political backlash would be. Other reasons for the PAP's status quo position are that it does not want to run ahead of society's norms, or that members of the PAP themselves are conservative, and not necessarily representative of the wider population.

Whatever the reasons may be, it precisely proves the point that political courage is needed when it comes to repealing section 377a.

For embedded in our National Pledge, which generations of our children are taught to recite everyday in school, is the vow to base our society on the promise of equality. Even the WP's election manifesto of 2011 says the party "also recognizes that Singapore is a multicultural society and everyone should be treated equally."

We all breathe and speak the vow of equality — yet when it comes to a minority segment such as the gay community, we shy away from doing precisely what we are teaching our children to do.

Mr Lee is right in that Singapore will have to discard s377a eventually. But it will be because the world is moving that way, and not because we recognize that everyone should be treated equally and with fairness. And this is sad. But more than sad, it gives the lie to what we pledge.

Political courage is doing what is right. And here, what is right is this: no one should be subject to a slew of discriminatory policies because of who he was born to be; no citizen should feel that he was born a criminal just because he was "born like that", just as no women should be discriminated for merely being a woman, or a heterosexual criminalized because he is one.

A Singapore of the future must be one where each one is free to love whomever he or she chooses. But to get to that place where we are able to firmly and truly believe in the words we speak — words such as equality — we need political leaders who will not shy away or take the convenient way out of controversial issues such as s377a.

Alex Au, writer and gay activist, has published "A Call to the Singapore Conversation". Au has been championing gay rights for many years — and his latest call is an impassioned one, one which, if we take time to ponder on, is indeed a beautiful one too.

For it calls for equality, fairness, non-discrimination, dignity, for the gay person — a gay person who is no less one of us Singaporeans.

A Singapore, he says, "where we all understand that a promise of equality is meaningless unless everyone is equal."

And may I add that in a National Conversation on what we want our society to be in 20 years, is there anything more beautiful and meaningful than one where we all recognize, accept and appreciate that we are, each of us, equally Singaporean — and human?

And if this is what we truly desire and aspire to be, then our political leaders must have the courage to do what is right and not what is politically expedient or convenient — after the conversation has ended.