Pink Dot — 2013’s will be tomorrow, 29 June — is a huge celebratory event, albeit with a serious purpose. Its steady growth over the last five years have testified to the increasing acceptance of LGBT people in Singapore socially. But on the legal and political front, there is nothing to celebrate. There has been no movement, just paralysis — like the proverbial deer frozen in the face of oncoming (pink) headlights. It’s all a rather depressing state of affairs.
As I will argue below, the policy paralysis we see is part of a larger pattern. The government is poor at coping with social changes, and easily alarmed at evolving values and attitudes, such as a rising skepticism of authority and greater questioning of the social and economic model imposed from above. They first try to pretend it’s not a substantial change or that it will go away by itself, but when changing attitudes and behaviours spread (e.g. the rise of non-mainstream media), they see it as threat and actively try to restore the status quo.
On the gay front across the world, things have been galloping away. Uruguay, New Zealand and France have recently legalised same-sex marriage. In the US just two days ago, the Supreme Court struck down the 1996 law that barred the federal government from treating same-sex and opposite-sex married couples equally, and in a different decision, effectively legalised gay marriages in California. Approximately 100 million Americans now live in states where same-sex marriage is legal. Survey after survey show a majority of Americans are now of the view that allowing gays and lesbians to marry is only fair. Even in France, where anti-gay marriage rallies attracted huge crowds (and headlines), opinion polls showed that the majority of the French were supportive of the new law.
On Saturday, an Ifop poll showed the proportion of French supporting legalization of same-sex marriage has risen to 63 percent from 60 percent in early January and December, despite weeks of protest against the planned reform.
Support for adoption rights for gay couples also rose by 3 percentage points, although the country remains divided on the issue, with 49 percent in favor, according to the firm.
— Reuters, 27 Jan 2013, Thousands march in Paris to support gay marriage. Link.
Yet, here in Singapore, we still have Section 377A that criminalises homosex. It’s the kind of regressive, discriminatory law that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon spoke out against last December, as a violation of human rights. Singapore belongs to the same basket of human rights violators mostly in Africa and the Middle East, which draw up state policies to appease conservative Muslim and Christian scolds.
Someone mentioned to me just the other day that he was told by a cabinet minister — one of the four men newly inducted into parliament after the 2011 general election — that on the matter of gay equality, the cabinet is largely immovable because of a diehard group of fundie Christian ministers. The Prime Minister himself doesn’t belong to that group, but like the weakling he has shown himself to be on so many other fronts, can’t or won’t break the impasse.
377A has innumerable consequential effects. Chiefly, it works its way through state and society via two avenues. It underpins all sorts of discriminatory official policies, e.g. censorship and warped sexuality education, which in turn channels only negative visibility of LGBT persons, while blocking positive portrayals and viewpoints. These then entrench homophobic attitudes. Keeping 377A on the books also emboldens all sorts of prejudiced people encouraging them to disseminate their ignorant views, or implement private discriminatory policies (e.g. in the workplace) in the belief that they have law and moral authority on their side. Being such a linchpin, it is important to cut down 377A.
Readers may be aware that a constitutional challenge was heard in the High Court a few months ago. The decision was a setback, but not an unexpected one. Yet, here too, it bolsters the point I am making: The paralysis goes much further than merely the LGBT issue, as I will explain a little further on. The court gave short shrift to the merits of the arguments why 377A is discriminatory and how it violates the constitution. The main thrust of the decision was that it is not the role of the courts to interfere with the executive or legislative branch; the implication of this kind of argument is that no matter how bad legislation is or how flawed the reasoning for them, there is little that courts can do. This should worry us all — a shocking abdication of the role of the courts as check and balance.
As this illustrates, the problem we have in Singapore is that the rot extends far beyond the cabinet. The civil service has been thoroughly politicised, the military of doubtful loyalty to the constitution, mainstream media corrupted (beyond salvation?) and the judiciary demonstrably lacking in self-confidence.
I have said it before and I will say it again: This government’s competencies lie almost exclusively in the domain of building infrastructure and selling itself to foreign investors. This is not to say these aspects aren’t important. Of course they are as can be seen from a track record of development over the last five decades. But these competencies mask failing grades elsewhere. The government is mostly blind and deaf to changing values and attitudes, dismissive of social needs that do not conform to their perception of how society ought to be, and intensely adverse to accommodating these trends and needs even when these have grown beyond deniability. Social change is always unwelcome to them. They have a haughty, moralistic view of such developments. Their reaction is to denigrate the meanings of such trends and changes and if that does not make the “problem” go away, they instinctively move to smack down such intrusions into their notion of “stability”.
What are these trends that meet with a similar paralysis or antipathy that gay people have experienced? Here are some examples:
There is a rising demand for transparency and accountability. Yet, there has been no movement to accommodate these demands. From Temasek Holdings to the land and building costs of public housing, we are no more informed than in the previous century.
There is a growing appetite for alternative sources of news and current affairs information, but the government is doing everything it can to curb media sources it does not control. Only technical limitations and a fear of wider economic damage stop them from going too far.
The outcry over the proposed development of Bukit Brown caught the government on the wrong foot. Suddenly they found that people’s expectations were different from what they had assumed — “but didn’t you say you want more housing?”– but instead of re-looking at their plans, they have largely stonewalled alternative ideas. They look intent on bulldozing ahead.
There is a rising unease about wage stagnation and a widening income gap among Singaporeans, reflecting changing attitudes to the uber-capitalistic model that has been so ardently followed. The government was not only slow to catch on, it has largely reacted in a way that revealed its contempt for demands for more socially-conscious policies. When compelled by the tide of opinion to act more progressively, it has taken but half-hearted steps, couched in double-speak.
And now the wave of popular frustration with the high rate of immigration is yet another unwelcome change in attitudes. Once again, the reaction we see from the government is defensive, signalling a preference for pressing on according to its own agenda.
All these and more share a common thread: public opinion on what kind of society we should be, how our individual and collective priorities should be ordered, and the relationship between rulers and ruled are changing fast. On all these fronts, we are faced with either paralysis or resistance, often both. Paralysis in the form of incapability to think afresh and imagine a different Singapore along with the changing public; resistance because that’s all that is left to do when embracing change is just not on the cards. At best, the government scrambles around for small gestures it can make to look progressive, but which actually deliver little or nothing at all.
It’s the story of gay struggle in Singapore. But it’s the story of so many other struggles here too.