It’s difficult to make sense of what Pastor Lawrence Khong is trying to do. In the past few weeks, he’s taken the lead in attacking the Health Promotion Board (HPB), and now the Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, over the HPB’s FAQ on sexuality. Khong accused the HPB of disseminating a message that “condones same-sex relationships and promotes the homosexual practice as something normal”.
When Gan answered a parliamentary question from Lim Biow Chuan (PAP, Mountbatten) in a manner not to Khong’s liking, Khong turned his guns on the minister too. You can read Gan’s parliamentary reply here. Lim, in case people have forgotten, gave one of the most homophobic speeches in Parliament in 2007 when Section 377A, the anti-gay law, was debated.
In his most recent post on the website of Faith Community Baptist Church, Khong castigated the minister for “empty rhetoric”, and the government for its “pro-homosexual slant”. Asserting that “No society can be pro-Family and pro-LGBT at the same time”, he revealed his unloving take on what “family” really means — as something that is not only oppressively sexist and regulated, but is also shockingly ahistorical.
No surprise of course that what he’s really upset about is the way HPB’s scrupulously factual language in its FAQ “paves the way for homosexuality to be normalized.”
This has been a battle-cry for the Christian Right for the last two or three decades. What is different is that where once it rallied followers by the tens of thousands, today, it is more likely to leave people cold. Where once, those who spoke up for gay equality were castigated by the government and its echo-ers as a disruptive “vocal minority”, now it is all too apparent which side is being shrill.
Over many years, I have seen how conservative Christianity in Singapore has trotted behind the Christian Right in the United States in the issues its takes up, and the methods employed. What will be interesting to watch will be how our local churches will conduct themselves as their US cousins make accommodation with a new reality. Popular support for same-sex marriage has quite definitely crossed the 50-percent threshold across the US, and there’s really no stopping it. A whole generation is coming of age for whom sexual orientation is a non-issue.
Ross Douthat has an opinion piece in the New York Times, 2 March 2014, titled “The terms of our surrender” (subscription may be necessary) in which he ponders what will happen now that the war against gays is essentially lost. He posits two possibilities: one, where the Right retreats into isolated pockets, something like how in several non-Muslim countries, extremely strict Islam requiring women to wear the niqab (a veil that covers the face from the eyes down) is tolerated within particular spaces (my example, not his) ; alternatively, where a wipe-out eventually follows, the same way like how racism is considered unacceptable anywhere, with the State even regulating any private club or company that tries to hold on to racist practices. Douthat wonders if the day may come when it is equally unacceptable to speak and act in ways rejecting of LGBTs.
Even the Roman Catholic Church has begun to shift. While its official teaching — that homosexuality is a disorder — has not changed, Pope Francis has signalled that the Church should not get obsessed with dogmatic issues. You can expect more creeping movement to come. And since I’m not this, I need to reiterate something that many Singaporeans don’t realise: The Vatican has long spoken up against criminalising homosexuality. However, the archbishopric in Singapore, long intimidated by our government, has preferred to let people think they’re for retaining 377A.
Strategically timed to hold the line?
It is tempting to imagine that Khong’s shrillness is proportionate to the speed of the Right’s retreat. There is a certain basis to such a belief. For example, when a viewpoint is almost universally held, there is no need to speak up strongly for it. People might even call it “common sense”. But when that viewpoint is contested, then the decibels rise. One might argue that it is precisely at this juncture, seeing how the tide has turned in the United States and across nearly all of Europe, and how the constitutional challenges to Section 377A are reaching our Court of Appeal soon, that Khong and his friends feel a need to sound the clarions and hold the line.
Moreover, they may be encouraged by the fact that there remains a key difference between Singapore and the US: a majority here still hold negative views about homosexuality. We haven’t even got to the point of polling people about their views on same-sex marriage! This simple fact can only give Khong and company hope that they can and will prevail.
But what the HPB’s FAQ and Gan’s parliamentary answer hints at is something that is also noticeable in Singapore: that thinking opinion has quite clearly shifted, even if the masses haven’t. Of course, it also means that our government is left with the messy issue of how to reconcile their nonsensical 2007 stance — we won’t repeal 377A, but we won’t enforce it; we don’t approve of homosexuality, but we won’t discriminate, though we will censor — with an evolving reality. And do this without showing up with no pants on.
But although wondering how the government is going to negotiate this may interest us on the liberal wing, it’s not a concern for Khong. So let’s get back to him.
Captains go down with sinking ships
Can it be that Khong is unable to see the writing on the wall? That just as popular opinion in Europe and America has shifted, so will opinion shift in Singapore eventually? In an article I wrote a year ago — Singapore creeps towards more acceptance of gay people — I estimated that the rate of change of popular opinion in Singapore is about one percent per annum. This, I said, is not much different in the rate of change seen over the last few decades in Britain and the US.
Surely, he’s intelligent enough to be able to see what’s happening around the world.
Yet, sometimes, when people see defeat coming, they choose to make a heroic last stand. Especially for a person in a leadership position, as Khong is for his church, his entire position may be jeopardised if he is seen giving up without a fight. This is particularly so since he nailed his colours to the anti-gay mast long ago. To give up quietly may, in his private view, seriously undermine the respect his flock has for him on other issues.
And he won’t be the only one. We shouldn’t be surprised if a procession of them start emulating him and raise their battle flags again.