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.
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.