Look at this map here. Some countries, mostly in Africa and the Middle East, are red, as is Singapore. Why does Singapore belong to this set of countries?
Is there some economic characteristic that we share with say, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Nigeria? Perhaps some cultural or linguistic linkage with Angola, Libya, Uzbekistan and Papua New Guinea?
Is it climate? But much of Southeast Asia and tropical America is not red. Perhaps lack of democracy and repressive government? Burma, as you will notice, is red too, as is Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But North Korea is not red, so it can’t be that.
Singapore considers itself an advanced economy, but no country is Europe or North America is red. Nor is Australia, New Zealand or Japan. Culturally, we have close relations with China, India, Indonesia and Malaysia, but only Malaysia is red.
The answer: Singapore belongs to the African and Middle East basket of countries by virtue of our law criminalising gay men. Bigger map.
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In 2007, Lee Kuan Yew openly said several times that Section 377A of our Penal Code has to go eventually. In August that year, he told the International Herald Tribune: “Yes, we’ve got to go the way the world is going. China has already allowed and recognized gays, so have Hong Kong and Taiwan. It’s a matter of time.”
However, in the three years since, nothing has happened. In some ways, we’ve seen movement backwards. Some months earlier I reported police entrapment starting all over again. Censors remain as quick with the scissors as they have been in many years.
Meanwhile, countries in Europe and America we depend on for trade, investment and diplomatic goodwill, are progressing to equal marriage rights for gay people. We thumb our noses at them, saying we have our Asian values. . . . except that no country in East Asia, and now not even India, has a similar law.
Even countries not as “developed” as we are are demonstrating more judicial robustness and legislative courage. After a series of court rulings, Argentina’s legislature passed a law legalising same-sex marriage earlier this year. Around the same time, Mexico City legalised gay marriage too, with a subsequent challenge filed against it in the country’s Supreme Court thrown out earlier this month. The Supreme Court also said that same-sex marriages officiated in Mexico City must be recognised throughout the rest of the country, in line with opposite-sex marriages. And then, a few days later, the Supreme Court ruled once again that married gay couples had the same adoption rights as married opposite-sex couples.
Uruguay and Colombia are two other Latin American countries that offer Civil Unions to same-sex couples.
In Costa Rica earlier this month, the Supreme Court threw out a proposal to hold a referendum that would bar same-sex couples from marrying, saying the legislature is the proper place to consider this question.
Up north, the latest CNN poll found that nation-wide, 52 percent of respondents in the US supported same-sex marriage, with 46 percent against, overturning a 36:58 percent split just four years ago. Support for gay marriage climbed 16 percent over four years, a phenomenal rate of attitudinal change. This is the most significant bit of information from an otherwise depressing videoclip about how former President George W Bush’s 2004 campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, who helped lead the charge against gay marriage back then, is actually gay himself. Mehlman is redeeming himself now not just by coming out, but by switching to fight for gay marriage. See also the news story Bush campaign manager comes out of closet.
Here’s a different poll, by Gallup, showing similar results.
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Meanwhile, things go the other way in Africa. Last year, a rising star member of Uganda’s parliament, David Bahati, introduced a bill to make homosexuality a capital offence. Not only that, the bill requires parents, teachers and neighbours to report to the authorities anyone they suspect to be gay, including their children and schoolkids, an idea that is horrifyingly reminiscent of Nazi persecution of Jews and homosexuals in the 1930s. Uganda’s current anti-gay law imposes prison terms.
Bahati is not alone in his hate campaign. The other prominent actor is Martin Ssempa, a pastor who spouts incredible venom in his sermons against gay people.
But investigative journalists have found a link back to fundamentalist churches in America. Ssempa is supported financially by the 6,000-member Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas. But there may be more, and more secretive, links too. Bahati is a member of an American evangelical movement called the Fellowship, or the Family — a secretive cabal of powerful Christian politicians who wield considerable political influence, both in Washington and abroad. In a new book, New York University associate research scholar Jeff Sharlet describes what he discovered about them:
“We desire to see a leadership led by God,” reads a confidential mission statement. “Leaders of all levels of society who direct projects as they are led by the spirit.” Another principle expanded upon is stealthiness; members are instructed to pursue political jujitsu by making use of secular leaders “in the work of advancing His kingdom,” and to avoid whenever possible the label Christian itself, lest they alert enemies to that advance. Regular prayer groups, or “cells” as they’re often called, have met in the Pentagon and at the Department of Defense, and the Family has traditionally fostered strong ties with businessmen in the oil and aerospace industries.
— excerpt from the book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power by Jeff Sharlet, 2009.
What accumulating evidence shows is that the surge of anti-gay rhetoric in Uganda resulted from US-led scheming and financing by fundamentalist megachurches. Similar movements have been reported in other African countries such as Kenya and Nigeria.
Needless to say, Singaporeans familiar with the gay debate in Singapore will see immediately the similarities: the way anti-gay rhetoric emanates almost exclusively from rightwing churches, the way groups prefer to mask their religious motives and act furtively (remember the AWARE take-over?). Are they operating from the same playbook?
Far from being similar to the progressive West and the tolerant East, far from being even similar to middle-income Latin America, is it not valid to say Singapore really does belong to Africa?
Are we proud of that?