As news spread of the momentous decision by the US Supreme Court, ruling that marriage equality is a constitutional right, all over social media my friends made an unflattering comparison between the US and Singapore. I think it was Kirsten Han who pointed out that just weeks ago, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong displayed his total lack of awareness about a fast-developing court case by relying on the argument that gay marriage in America was a patchwork of Stop and Go, “state by state”. He said, in response to a Filipino journalist,
“There is a trend in developed countries. In America, they have gay marriage. It is state by state. Not all states have agreed. In Europe, some countries have done it … but there was big considerable resistance,” said Mr Lee. “Even in America, there is a very strong pushback from conservative groups against the idea.”
— The Online Citizen, 5 June 2015, PM Lee Hsien Loong: Singapore not ready for same-sex marriage due to conservative society, Link.
With the Supreme Court’s decision, his argument is out of date within just three weeks. It’s just one more example of his atrociously poor political skills.
However, the comparison between Singapore and the United States shouldn’t just be about the difference in outcomes between our constitutional challenge to Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sex between men (the challenge failed) and that before the US Supreme Court. The difference in the legal and political environments determined those outcomes, and it is this difference which needs to be taken to heart since it, depressingly, reveals how Singapore is institutionally designed to ossify, dessicate and die.
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They way in which marriage equality was won in the United States is worth looking back on. Its advocates used levers that are essentially unavailable in Singapore, and therein lies a sobering recognition: bottom-up change is extremely difficult in Singapore. As mentioned above, this bodes ill for Singapore’s future, not just on the issue of gay equality, but any kind of progressivism, economic or social.
My first awareness that there was a movement towards marriage equality was in the early nineties, when I was active in People Like Us. There was plenty of talk of a court case commenced in Hawaii wherein three same-sex couples sued for the right to be married. The case was lodged in 1991. Initially, the plaintiffs lost, but on appeal they won. However, the judgement was stayed pending further appeal. Their victory was based on the equality provision of the Hawaii State constitution. A few years later, Hawaii amended its constitution to allow its legislature to define marriage as that between a man and a woman, and the legislature did so. With that, the fight was lost in the US’ 50th state.
The battle then moved to Vermont, where another three couples commenced a case in 1997. Two years later, on appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court, they had a judgement more or less in their favour. It was rather nuanced though. The court said that the Vermont Constitution entitles same-sex couples to “the same benefits and protections afforded by Vermont law to married opposite-sex couples”, but instead of ordering that they should be allowed to wed, the judges instructed the state government to devise a solution in keeping with this principle. Vermont enacted new laws for civil union in 2000; in 2009, the state legalised same-sex marriage.
And so the battle moved from state to state, but all the while, there was public debate and advocacy. Campaigns were organised, demonstrations held, films produced, celebrities made their stands, and both proponents and opponents had the freedom of speech to argue their views in media, town halls, schools and colleges. The chart below plots the data collected by Associated Press and the NORC (National Opinion Research Center) of the University of Chicago:
Politicians came relatively late into this. At the local level, there certainly were political candidates and office-holders who supported marriage equality from quite early on, especially on the East and West Coasts, but at a national level, it wasn’t until Obama’s second term 2012 – 2016 before it became possible for a significant number of politicians to announce their support without fear of losing votes.
In a flurry of cases in the last five years, the issue reached its endgame. Here too something is worth noting. At the three most significant court cases in the endgame (challenge to Proposition 8 in California, challenge to Defense of Marriage Act and the case recently concluded at the Supreme Court), the Executive in the respective cases (California state government, US federal government) appeared in court to argue for marriage equality. Yes, the US Attorney-General asked the Supreme Court to strike down marriage bans.
Contrast this with Singapore’s Attorney-General asking our Court of Appeal to continue criminalising and discriminating against gay people.
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The levers that proved useful to US advocates are clear from the above account.
- Enforcement of constitutional rights through judicial processes;
- Courage of judges to acknowledge changing conditions and interpret constitutions with an independent mind;
- Freedom of expression and freedom of assembly that permit individuals, academia and media to argue their case;
- Politicians who know they have to stand for certain values.
The depressing thing is that none of the above is present in Singapore. There is no record to speak of wherein our courts displayed any courage when it came to rights. Freedom of expression is constantly abridged whenever it’s a point of view the government does not want aired. Academics and media personalities often fear for their jobs should they be outspoken even when they believe in something. Multinational businesses, known for their support of gay equality in other countries, tend to hunker down and stay low-key in Singapore.
Point four is particularly interesting. Politicians in Singapore — opposition ones too — are generally not inspiring. While they are keen enough to talk about economic growth and cost of living, they avoid talk of social values like the plague. If at all they do, whether on the government or opposition side, they make motherhood statements with a slightly conservative slant. They play safe; they avoid taking a firm stand and prefer to follow an imagined social opinion. They never want to lead it.
These handicaps apply across all social and rights-linked issues, not just that of gay equality. What this means is that our avenues for progressivism are far more constricted than in the US or in any true democracy. Singapore’s set-up contains a strong bias towards inertia and fossilisation.
It is a well-known fact that adaptability is a key enabler for thriving. Societies that cannot adapt will lag behind and eventually die. Democratic processes may not themselves make for prosperity in the short term, but they endow a society with flexibility and the invaluable asset that is reinvention.
America’s achievement last week shows the strength of American democracy and rule of law. With all the same elements absent in Singapore, it only shows up our weakness. Our DNA foretells a shrivelled future.