The curious thing about the Management of Success, Singapore revisited, is how the gay issue worms its way through it. This is both despite and because of the book being a “retrospection and introspection”, in ISEAS Director K Kesavapany’s words, about many aspects of Singapore governance and society. It is “despite” it since the book covers a diverse number of topics, from foreign policy to Singlish; it is “because” of it because the gay issue has in recent years become one of the major faultlines of our society as we ambivalate between going forward and staying traditional.
In Part 1, I discussed the chapter by Michael Hor in which he contends that Section 377A is unconstitutional. Section 377A is the law that criminalises sex between men.
Sociology academic Laurence Leong Wai Teng, in his chapter 31, also deals with the policing of sexuality. Putting the spotlight on the “We Asians are conservative” justification, he observes that as a multicultural society, ours can neither be uniform nor consensual. Moreover, the influx of foreigners calls forth greater acceptance of diversity and differences.
Perhaps the construction of Singaporeans as “sexually conservative” tells us more about the constructors than about Singaporeans?
The elite of the ruling People’s Action Party, Leong observes, are a humourless bunch, characterised by dedication to task and rules, and abstemious with respect to pleasure. Leong suggests that they project their own selves and personalities onto society as a whole and misconstrue the population as similarly conservative.
Even the recent relaxation of policy towards the gay community is less than meets the eye.
the state relates to gays in instrumental ways, based on not how much the state loves gays, but how much gays can contribute to the economy. It is not gays as a generic group that is embraced (hence, no civil rights are instituted); only those specific gays who are talented, entrepreneurial, and economically successful would have a place in Singapore.
Of course, this instrumentalist approach can also be seen in the way the government relates to heterosexuality. In supporting it through various matchmaking, housing and “baby bonus” schemes, what comes out clearly is the “productionist ethic of sex”. The government treats
sex as procreation principally to supply talent, labour and demand for the economy.
In Chapter 28, Russell Heng puts the gay issue in the context of political dissent. Together with filmmakers, bloggers, artists and some opposition politicians, gays and lesbians have recently demonstrated the politics of resistance, and the government has in response, rewritten some rules, giving a bit more leeway in some ways and tightening up in others.
Nonetheless, the rules are still characterised by their sweeping natures, partly intended to deter from the sheer uncertainty of their scope and meaning, partly intended to empower the authorities in the event of creative, unanticipated moves by dissenters. But,
Whether it is public gatherings as innocuous as a concert in a small garden and a run in a park, or the making of films about politicians or blogging about elections, the injunctions would firstly, be regarded as ridiculous, and secondly, unfair; unfair in the sense that people are aware of similar gatherings being held with state blessings. Such restrictions, no matter how legal they are, invite ridicule, circumvention or defiance. Faced with resistance, law enforcers are uncertain how to proceed. It would seem the political dilemma at the top that wants to enable but also restrict activism has put civil servants in an unenviable position of policing harsh laws with a soft touch.
With respect to 377A, Thio Li-Ann might prefer it be enforced harshly. Best known for her vituperative parliamentary speech defending the anti-gay law, she created a dichotomy between rights and interests in her chapter on human rights (Chapter 20). Activists she wrote, seek to appropriate the language of rights “to legitimize their political agenda”, which in her view, cheapens human rights.
Referring to the way gays, lesbian, bisexuals and transgenders refer to themselves collectively as sexual minorities, and picking up a gigantic tar brush, she said the term “sexual minorities”
obfuscates the moral issues at stake and would presumably include minority sexual practices like necrophilia, bestiality, and paedophilia. . .
She argues that gay activists are unfair in the way they characterise their political claims as rights, for doing so
erects a serious juridical and pseudo-moral obstacle towards challenging such claims, thus loading the dice of public discourse heavily in favour of a desired outcome (internal quotation marks removed).
Presumably, she would rather the discourse proceed on the basis of evil wanting to supplant moral good, even when the debate is about law and equality. Even when your rights are violated, you’re not supposed to discuss it in terms of rights because doing so disadvantages the rights-violators?
Declaring victory by citing the prime minister’s words in October 2007 that homosexuals were not considered a minority “in the sense that we consider . . . Malays and Indians as minorities, with minority rights protected under the law,” she points out that the Singapore constitution does not recognise enforceable collective or group rights.
This of course is big fat red herring, for the issue is not that of granting special group privileges to gay people, but of extending the rights enjoyed by heterosexuals to them in the name of equality. She concedes, however, that the
basic philosophy is that the rights of minority groups would be realized by securing the rights of their individual members under the Article 12 equal protection clause.
Which is exactly what (1) gay people have been saying, and (2) where Michael Hor in his chapter in the same book says Singapore falls short.
Lai Ah Eng’s chapter 18 is on religious diversity in Singapore. In a short subsection touching on the 2003 debate about homosexuality in the media, which occurred right after then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong spoke about permitting openly gay officers to serve in the civil service, she mostly cites Kenneth Paul Tan, who found the debate that year stunted by an
artificial distinction between the religious and secular, and the insistence on formal secularism that excludes all religious reasons from the public sphere.
Religious people can have a range of views, from the conservative to the most liberal, but the effect of demonising religious reasons transforms that discourse into a defensive one,
with complexity, subtlety, variety, and engagement being distorted into simple “us” versus “them”modes of reasoning.
Lai believes that there is a need to develop a culture of debate and discussion that admits more nuanced arguments than merely the “pro”and the “anti”.
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The Management of Success, Singapore revisited is published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, and edited by Terence Chong of the same institute. It is a sequel to an earlier book of similar name published in 1989.