Rights and leverage

In 2007, Singapore had a huge debate about Section 377A, the law that makes homosexual sex between men illegal. The government tried to pacify both sides, with the prime minister saying his government would keep the law, but not “proactively” enforce it – whatever that means. It was a fudge.

In 2008, when Barack Obama was running for the US presidency, he said he was in favour of civil unions for same-sex couples, but not marriage. It too was a fudge. However, his views, he said, were still evolving.

In 2012, Obama declared he had evolved. A few days ago, he said he was in favour of full marriage for same-sex couples.

In 2012, Singapore’s 377A remains on the books. We have not evolved at all.

Despite the above opener, this article is not just about gay equality, because the real issue is the gradual ossification of Singapore. On many fronts, we are losing our ability to adapt to the modern world. The gay issue is just one front. Progress and change of any kind is hard to obtain in Singapore. Consider this: how long has the debate about high-stress education been going on? At least 20 years, I would think. How long has the income gap issue been simmering? In 2006, blogger Mr Brown blew it open with a piece in Today newspaper accusing the government of hiding incriminating statistics until that year’s general election was over. What progress have we made on either of these fronts?

But let me wrap up the news about Obama before I move on to my broader theme.

Obama and his evolution

A few days after Vice President Joe Biden said he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex married couples having the same rights as heterosexual married couples, Obama came clean with his new stand in a hastily arranged interview:

A longer news report from ABC News can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQGMTPab9GQ

It is not as revolutionary as it may first appear. Firstly, as you may have noted from the second cited video, public opinion has changed in America generally. Today, a small majority of Americans are now in favour of same-sex marriage, but it’s also a generational thing, as Obama pointed out: 61% of Americans aged under 40 support same-sex marriage.

Secondly, as many other commentary articles are saying, by staking out a clear position, Obama’s reelection campaign can expect to benefit from a surge of donations. So there is political calculation in here.

Thirdly, Obama was careful to speak of the issue in highly personal terms. He is still leaving it as a matter for each state to resolve. There is no promise of federal action beyond what he has already done, which was to repeal the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy and to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Nonetheless, the presidency is a bully pulpit like no other. Obama’s words will carry great weight, especially with California’s Proposition 8 heading towards the Supreme Court. Supreme Court Justices are always cognisant of public opinion, which in turn is swayed by political leadership.

But he also framed it on the basis of the right to equality: “I have always been adamant that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally,” he said.

And this is where Singapore falls badly short. The US has a long tradition of valuing equality. It is the fulcrum for obtaining social progress for disadvantaged groups. But is also a part of a broader commitment to civil and political rights.

Singaporeans disregard their rights

Here, we don’t pay heed to rights. Not to equality, nor freedom of expression, nor freedom of association. Most Singaporeans don’t seem to mind when these rights are taken away.

What people care about is a better life, bread and butter issues – goes the usual explanation.

But what they forget is that it is rights that provide us the leverage to obtain a more sensitive government that is better motivated to deliver that better life.

Let’s say you want a major change in education or healthcare policies. Without freedom of speech, it is going to be very hard for you to inform and persuade others of your ideas. You may have the internet at hand, but viewership is so fragmented, its effectiveness is low. To get anywhere, you need sustained access to newspapers and television. You need investigative journalists who have the courage to look into issues and the space to publish, and filmmakers making good documentaries that give your proposals wings – filmmakers who do not depend on government funding for their next project. But as any Singaporean knows, all this is a pipe dream at this time. Between overt censorship and covert government control of mass media and funding, our freedom of expression is mostly undercut.

Even if you speak up in numbers, you may still get nowhere unless you can demonstrate enough clout so that the government takes notice. There is no better way of demonstrating clout than through a street demonstration with large numbers attending. And this is where the freedom of association comes in. People should be free to organise as they please, to form long-standing associations that work towards a shared goal, or to arrange a street protest to show their breadth of support. Again, this is a pipe dream at this time.

Without these and other rights, we have no leverage. Our frustrations cannot be channelled into action. Our desire for a better life can only be met by imploring the government to please shower us with goodies.

Left behind

But why change? What’s wrong with the status quo?

Because the status quo is untenable. The rest of the world changes and if we do not adapt, we become disconnected with it and ultimately irrelevant. Take the question of gay equality again. Country after country is moving ahead, but we are stuck. Our attitudes make us a laughing stock. Our laws and policies only serve to repel talent, including our own, who may then choose to emigrate. Even a simple thing like getting a foreign university to set up a branch here produces months of Singapore-bashing.

Take the question of capitalism gone mad. While a new socio-economic compact is slowly emerging in the Western world (and perhaps even in China), we here cannot push alternative ideas forward the way others can, even if we suffer all the same frustrations. Absent the ability to push change domestically, we may well be condemned to suffer the excesses of market fundamentalism longer than others.

My argument is this: Before we even dream of getting any progress on issues important to us, including bread and butter issues, we must attend to a key weakness: civil and political rights. Without them, we have no leverage. Without leverage, we get no more than glacial progress.

25 Responses to “Rights and leverage”


  1. 1 Poker Player 12 May 2012 at 18:14

    “Consider this: how long has the debate about high-stress education been going on?”

    Long enough for those who went through it to discover their lives are not necessarily better as a result of their education. To add insult to injury, people educated in laxer systems privately think that we are a nation of cretins.

    • 2 Poker Player 12 May 2012 at 18:25

      This is our contribution to the world. Think of a trivial algebraic problem. Translate it into the most convoluted English sentences possible. Get 10 year olds with no algebra to solve it.

      20 years later, that child, all grown up, will have his working day will filled up with work that depends on this skill – rather than work that depends on him expressing himself clearly.

  2. 3 Sprachen Sie Singlisch? 13 May 2012 at 05:57

    “To get anywhere, you need sustained access to newspapers and television. You need investigative journalists who have the courage to look into issues and the space to publish, and filmmakers making good documentaries that give your proposals wings – filmmakers who do not depend on government funding for their next project.”

    Sounds like space to be filled by media channels like Fox News; finances entirely by special interests. Be careful what you wish for. Freedom of expression is a 2 edge sword some regulations and restrictions should apply. What they are is the much more interesting question.

    • 4 Poker Player 13 May 2012 at 10:20

      “Sounds like space to be filled by media channels like Fox News; finances entirely by special interests. ”

      Don’t we already have this?

      What do you call the SPH (Straits Times, etc)?

      Except that it is worse – no competition allowed.

      Talk about boiled frog syndrome…

      • 5 Sprechen Sie Singlisch? 14 May 2012 at 11:47

        Not exactly. The PAP wags the Singapore Government which in turn wags SPH. News Corp. (which owns Fox News) wags the Republican party which is currently paralysing the US Congress.

        In the former, the interest of the media and the state are in alignment. In the latter, the corporation is only interested in maximizing shareholder value even if it is to the detriment of the interests of the state.

        The media landscape in Singapore is far from optimal but recent actions by international media conglomerates seem to more of a hindrance the smooth operation of the state rather than just a check on its power.

      • 6 Poker Player 20 May 2012 at 18:26

        “The media landscape in Singapore is far from optimal but recent actions by international media conglomerates seem to more of a hindrance the smooth operation of the state rather than just a check on its power.”

        Hindrances behind closed doors are to be preferred to those forced out in the open to be witnessed by free (and voting) citizens?

        Or you seriously believe that the PAP operates smoothly without hindrances?

    • 7 Poker Player 13 May 2012 at 10:26

      “Freedom of expression is a 2 edge sword some regulations and restrictions should apply. What they are is the much more interesting question.”

      In our case, it’s the opposite problem…it’s what we need to remove.

      I am reminded of a comment made in an older article – wives of Ministers are at a disadvantage compared to other wives – they can’t use private investigators if they ever decide to divorce their husbands. We know it’s not divorce the law is worried about…

      How on earth does a free people ever get themselves into a ridiculous situation like this…

      • 8 Sprechen Sie Singlisch? 14 May 2012 at 12:49

        Agree. I’m being a contrarian for the sake of bracketing this argument. I believe we need to seriously think about what the limits of expression should be.

        Firstly, lets not kid ourselves into thinking that expositions of YB’s quality is going to fill the media vacuum when our press constraints are lifted. In fact his erudite is more of a negative than a positive to those without a wonkish predisposition. Most like, a lowest possible denominator outfit will come to dominate the remaining space not taken up by state media; one that panders to the fears and insecurities of the populous, much like what TR is morphing into. Keep in mind that pandering to the lowest possible denominator is by far the most profitable new business model.

        Secondly, the Government will take away the initiative on defining these limits on expression. This seems to be the intent with respects to the online code of conduct. (If there are details on the web could someone point this out?)

        Once again, I agree with the general trust of YB and you. But I don’t think the discussion has gone deep enough with regards to the dark side of free speech that is starting to appear in our own blog sphere.

        Some of the limits that I think out to be discussed are
        1) Defining racial and religious hate speech. Especially for races outside the usual 4 or religions outside the usual 7.

        2) How do we handle cyberbullying or what to do about these virtual xenophobic lynch mobs.

        3) Shield laws for citizen journalists.

        4) Libel laws vs. fact free reporting.

  3. 9 CY 13 May 2012 at 10:57

    We are a country ruled by fear. The government fears the outcomes from changing their ‘tried and tested’ formula. They point to past successes as the basis for not changing and do not dare to change. Examples abound:

    Why not try out some facets of the Finnish education system that can lower stress, do away with destructive competition, and perhaps even improve creativity?

    Why stick with a 30 year old policy of inflation management through only exchange rates that has no impact on domestic inflation.

    Why insist on inordinate defense spending and low healthcare budgets?

    I think they mean well but are ruled by fear. Fear that tweaking our formula will bring everything crashing down. But they fail to see that there is as much danger in standing still.

    What are these high salaries for if not to get people who can master this fear and steer the best course through future challenges? As an ex consultant, I certainly would not be advocating paying high salaries to executives who do not dare to take calculated risks

    • 10 octopi 13 May 2012 at 20:02

      High inflation in Singapore is driven by 1 main thing: the price of land. The asset enhancement policy has poisoned everything. The only way to deflate in Singapore is to deflate the land. A plate of chicken rice costs $5 in Singapore? Half of it goes to the landlord.

      Defence spending has to go down, but the people who make the argument for it have to reckon with the fact that our security situation is not going well. Malaysia’s political situation is uncertain. Also if China and the US end up going to war with each other they will both be fighting on our turf. In the US apparently the people want more defence cuts than either political party:

      http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/05/on-defense-cuts-both-parties-are-far-out-of-step-with-voters/256960/

      I don’t know if the same situation exists in Singapore.

  4. 11 octopi 13 May 2012 at 11:06

    “Without freedom of speech, it is going to be very hard for you to inform and persuade others of your ideas. You may have the internet at hand, but viewership is so fragmented, its effectiveness is low. To get anywhere, you need sustained access to newspapers and television. You need investigative journalists who have the courage to look into issues and the space to publish, and filmmakers making good documentaries that give your proposals wings – filmmakers who do not depend on government funding for their next project. ”

    The death of the blogosphere is a sad event. With more people setting up and reading blogs, it becomes possible to set forth and discuss policy issues, because the medium of essays is ideal for this. Facebook and twitter – which largely supplanted the blogs in the last few years – will not achieve this. The important thing is also to give the alternate viewpoint the intellectual respectability that it needs. I estimate that we need around 10 more yawning breads.

    The Online Citizen has made some improvements in its transition from just another PAP bashing blog towards more thoughtful in depth analysis, although I have this sneaky feeling that there is some political agenda now.

    The other issue is that Singaporeans are not politically mature. They aren’t even politically literate. If you go to a UK / US blog site, you will find that their commentators have a keen understanding of what is or is not going to appeal to people in a democracy. The lines are drawn, everybody understands the issues. In Singapore, people are still confused about the powers of the judiciary, the executive and the legislative. People need a better mind map of the political process in Singapore over and above “PAP vs Opposition”. Stop a man in the street, and quiz him on what the various parties stand for on various issues – most likely you will draw a blank.

    This “software” is as vital to the working of a functional democracy as the “hardware” of access to the mainstream media.

    The biggest disadvantage of the people outside the PAP – Govt nexus is the paucity of good data with which to debate issues. No matter how intelligent the commentary, it can be easily rebuffed with “where’s your data? Dun talk cock!”

    Film making is an interesting topic. The question is: why has vlogging not caught on in Singapore?

    The liberalisation of the media is desirable but not essential. Singaporeans have not achieved the full extent of what can be achieved with our limited means. Internet penetration is pretty good in Singapore. 75% to 60% in 10 years – not bad at all! The big transition will be 60% to 55% – if it happens. That’s when it gets real interesting.

    • 12 Poker Player 13 May 2012 at 20:04

      “The other issue is that Singaporeans are not politically mature. They aren’t even politically literate. If you go to a UK / US blog site, you will find that their commentators have a keen understanding of what is or is not going to appeal to people in a democracy. The lines are drawn, everybody understands the issues. In Singapore, people are still confused about the powers of the judiciary, the executive and the legislative. People need a better mind map of the political process in Singapore over and above “PAP vs Opposition”. Stop a man in the street, and quiz him on what the various parties stand for on various issues – most likely you will draw a blank.”

      There is not that much of a difference.

      The US has the old The Tonight Show with Jay Leno – there is a segment called “Jaywalking”.

      We have the “We are Singaporeans” segment in The Noose.

      And the US press loves surveys that show how little Americans know about their own politics.

      The main difference is the amount of deference towards political leaders.

      • 13 octopi 21 May 2012 at 05:03

        To say that in the US, there are politically literate and politically illiterate people is the most meaningless statement ever. This is true of any country on earth. In Singapore, you can go to a lot of forums like TOC and you will have to dig very far in order to come up with intelligent comments. Whereas you could go to the huffington post or the atlantic, and every other comment will either be insightful or reflect that the guy is well steeped in a certain political tradition.

        The point is not that Singaporeans should not have democracy before they develop political literacy. The point is that in order for people to effectively use their free speech, it has to translate to coherent policy before it translates to action. It is part of the process of helping ourselves.

        The government may not rebuff people on specific issues directly based on a dissenter’s lack of data, but they like to portray themselves as the only competent party around – something which is made easier since they have all the data and other people don’t. Remember when Gerald Giam was criticised for his stand on the ministerial salaries because he got 1 or 2 facts wrong? These things matter. Knowledge is power and if you don’t have information, you don’t have the knowledge.

      • 14 Poker Player 21 May 2012 at 11:05

        “To say that in the US, there are politically literate and politically illiterate people is the most meaningless statement ever. ”

        Agreed. But that was not my statement. It was some imaginary strawman’s.

        Mine was: “There is not that much of a difference.” in response to your comparison.

    • 15 Poker Player 13 May 2012 at 20:09

      “***The biggest disadvantage of the people outside the PAP – Govt nexus is the paucity of good data with which to debate issues. No matter how intelligent the commentary, it can be easily rebuffed with “where’s your data? Dun talk cock!”***”

      They haven’t used that rebuff – and for good reason – they may be challenged to provide the data – the job of any functioning govt.

  5. 16 ape@kinjioleaf 13 May 2012 at 16:15

    IMHO, the strive for civil and political rights tend to be associated with civil and political unrest and violence. This in turn made many people reluctant to stand up for their rights openly in case they be labelled ‘shit stirrer’. Another reason for reluctance, that I usually encounter is that the ‘issue has nothing to do with me’. For example, the gay rights, workers rights, animal rights etc. Many tends to see civil rights in a very pigeonhole view and missed the broader issue. There are also those who feels that open debate and expression of aspirations (and frustrations) should be left to the ‘better educated/represent’ such as lawyers or leaders. The worst is when some government use the method of arresting a few key person to make an example to deter the rest.

    I think the reluctance to engage in an open and formal debate is the cause of civil violence because violence break out as a result of too much restrained frustrations – violence don’t occur when there are avenues for open debates and rational actions.

  6. 17 politicalwritings 14 May 2012 at 12:46

    I don’t see how lack of gay rights makes Singapore irrelevant. Sure, others may frown on us a little, but no one is going to bypass Singapore economically or politically just because gays don’t have rights.

    • 18 Poker Player 21 May 2012 at 00:42

      No one? How about gays with partners and children? And their children? And people who just plain believe in fairness?

      On my part, I take every opportunity I have to make fellow Singaporeans squirm in the company foreigners from civilized countries by talking as much as possible about Singapore homophobia with as much nonchalance and enthusiasm and condescension as an anthropologist’s most recent discovery of a tribe of cannibals…

      • 19 politicalwritings 21 May 2012 at 10:00

        By no one, I mean companies (economically) and countries (politically). Do you have evidence that Singapore has lost investments because of lack of gay rights? Do you have evidence countries refuse to establish diplomatic relations with Singapore because of lack of gay rights?

    • 20 octopi 21 May 2012 at 05:16

      Gay people have risen to some levels of prominence in US society. Offhand I can think of David Geffen and Tim Cook. Yes – the new Apple CEO is openly gay! And who’s to say that none of the captains of industry in Singapore are gay?

  7. 21 visitor 14 May 2012 at 14:32

    Hey Mr Au. This is sort of indirectly related to your LGBT post but i still gotta share it with you!! :O

    NEWFOUND HOPE: Heartwarming comment by a reader of Hafidz Baharom’s article about Bersih: “I was debating to myself whether I should go or not, as I have other commitments and a lot at stake should I get injured or arrested. Your article was a strong factor why I decided to heck it all and just go. I’m glad I did! I took the komuter train to the rally area. There was a man wearing a kopiah (skullcap work by Jewish & Muslim men) in my train carriage, obviously a PAS (a Muslim opposition political party) supporter, who was in deep discussion with his friends. He mentioned something about, who cares if Ambiga supports LGBT people or not? Coming from an orthodox-looking Muslim, I was surprised he said that; some hardcore supporters from the Malay-Muslim ruling party have openly condemned Ambiga for supporting LGBT rights and, by some twist of logic, equated support for Bersih as support for LGBT ‘sin’. The PAS man went on to say that LGBT are human too, and therefore have rights, including a right to legal counsel. Before I even stepped foot into the Bersih rally, I was already overwhelmed with newfound hope for humanity! If Jaringan Melayu Malaysia was allowed to have a rally of hate at UPM, what the hell, what’s wrong with having a rally of love for our country?”

    http://fridae.asia/newsfeatures/2012/04/27/11677.should-lgbts-join-bersih

  8. 22 hazeymoxy 14 May 2012 at 15:51

    We may not be able to have street demonstrations, but how about just sitting still in the comfort of your own home? I’m specifically talking about education though it could apply to other areas.

    Recently, I read yet another article in Today by yet another parent questioning the education system. It’s the same old story with the same old comments. Why don’t parents organise themselves and keep their kids at home and not send them to school and tuition centres? No permission required for that. Imagine a significant number of kids not taking PSLE. Imagine empty schools.

    Not happy with the transport system? Don’t go to work. Or walk to work no matter how long it takes. No laws broken here. If no one takes the public transport and everyone walks to work, even if they arrive at noon, imagine the chaos. Imagine the impact.

    There are ways to cripple the system and make the voices of the people heard. But there’s something greater at play here. I’m not sure what it is. Lack of ideology? Lack of self belief? Not wanting to take personal responsibility?

    It’s easier than ever to organise a movement, easier than ever to show the world what’s going on – the government isn’t able to jail anyone secretly and indefinitely now – so there are witnesses. Yet, silent we remain. Interesting.

  9. 23 Snowy 17 May 2012 at 10:40

    “The rest of the world changes and if we do not adapt, we become disconnected with it and ultimately irrelevant. Take the question of gay equality again. Country after country is moving ahead, but we are stuck. Our attitudes make us a laughing stock. Our laws and policies only serve to repel talent, including our own, who may then choose to emigrate. Even a simple thing like getting a foreign university to set up a branch here produces months of Singapore-bashing.”

    While personal stance on homosexuality as a matter of personal opinion, I shudder at the use of the logic quoted above as a justification of why an individual or a country *must* change.

    If something is a matter of right and wrong, why should anyone change just because the rest of the world has changed?

    Such a logic also implies that it is okay not to change if the rest of the world does not change (yet).

    Homosexuality is not the only issue that tries to make use of such an argument.

    Other issues, past and present, include capital punishment, freedom of speech, slavery, racial segregation, women suffrage, pacificism, freedom of religion or freedom from religion, use of drugs such as cannabis and heroin etc.

    Does using the logic quoted mean that slavery was okay in the past because many countries or most parts of the world accepted it as a legitimate practice?

    Human beings are not mindless – and should not decide on what is right or wrong based on how others have decided.

  10. 25 woceht 18 May 2012 at 07:35

    When discussing civil liberties with friends I am often confronted with the response that loosening up restrictions will just mess things up. They often have not really thought about and aren’t very amenable to considering how much more exciting messiness can be. It’s hard to change minds that haven’t been exposed to more liberal viewpoints. Coupled with how activism is portrayed and deeply associated as “shit stirring” no wonder such movements never quite gain any traction.


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