Unless new information comes in that casts a whole new light on what information is currently at hand, voters in Marsiling-Yew Tee constituency who are keen on a progressive, tolerant Singapore may want to signal their views by voting against the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) team.
I know John Tan and Wong Souk Yee personally and I have a high regard for both. They too are standing in Marsiling-Yew Tee. It is not easy for me to take the position I am now taking, but it is a matter of deep principle. Such is the nature of the group representation system that we sometimes have to make hard choices.
Damanhuri bin Abas is another candidate on SDP’s slate for Marsiling-Yew-Tee. While he was speaking at the SDP rally Thursday night in Choa Chu Kang stadium, a friend seated next to me whispered, “He’s the darling of the Wear White campaign.” I hadn’t known that, but as soon as I got home, I began searching.
Wear White was a nasty little campaign that in mid-2014 sought to demonise lesbian and gay people in the run-up to that year’s Pink Dot. Wear White was active again in 2015. It is one thing to express one’s view about gay relationships, it is quite another to use language that seeks to stigmatise and dehumanise.
However, it is important to first establish the connection between Damanhuri Abas and Wear White. At this juncture, this is not 100% clear (which is why my opening sentence above is phrased as it is). Though there are substantial indicators of a connection, I can’t yet find a smoking gun.
What I have found so far
Quite quickly, a websearch using the terms “Damanhuri” and “Wear White” came up with a tag on rilek1corner.com:
The website seems merely to have re-posted a statement issued by the Fellowship of Muslim Students Association (FMSA), but the brief caption makes some link to Damanhuri Abas. Exactly what the link implies is not clear. Rumour is that he helped draft this FMSA statement dated 24 June 2014 (click on icon at right to see it), but it is not apparent from the statement itself, which I retrieved from FMSA’s Facebook page.
The statement makes sweeping references to “incest”, “hedonistic lifestyle” and “spreading of new diseases such as AIDS”.
Interestingly, there is another statement on FMSA’s Facebook page, this one dated 3 March 2014, defending Syed Muhd Khairuddin Aljunied who had cast shocking aspersions on lesbians. I wrote about this incident in Lesbians dance before NUS professor’s eyes. Apparently, a letter of complaint had been sent to the NUS Provost about Khairuddin Aljunied’s inciteful words, and so FMSA came out to defend him. In this statement the LGBT community is described by FMSA as “Neo-Sodom-Gomorrah (NSG) community”, and in another sentence as having “infected” Singapore.
Likewise, the post on the FMSA Facebook page publicising this statement also says “with Hairudin Hamid and Damanhuri Abas”, (scrutinise image below) but once again the significance of such a mention is hard to figure out. All we can say is that in the general case, a post is tagged because the tagged person usually has a stake in it.
Nonetheless, what both statements show is the stance of FMSA with respect to equality and respect for LGBT persons. To the extent that Damanhuri is involved with FMSA — and a photo on FMSA’s website shows him involved in at least one recent activity — it becomes incumbent on him to disavow these statements if he does not subscribe to them. I believe he has not done so.
Earlier today, the website Aiseyman posted an image of a Facebook (?) conversation which appears to show Damanhuri explicitly saying he is against repeal of Section 377A, the law criminalising gay male sex. The proxy effect of keeping 377A is to institutionalise discrimination against all LGBT. Unfortunately, the date of this exchange is not clearly shown.
No information about FMSA office-bearers?
I next tried to see to what degree Damanhuri Abas is involved with FMSA. If he is only engaged as an outside consultant to help with its programs, we cannot hold him responsible for FMSA’s corporate stance (as evidenced in the issued statements), but if he is on the management committee or the like, then it’s quite a different matter.
FMSA’s registration (UEN) number is S61SS0174D. A search with the Registry of Societies (ROS) confirms that such an entity is on its rolls. However, when I tried to purchase a recent copy of its Annual Return — all entities registered with ROS are legally required to file Annual Returns (declaring its office-holders and providing information about its accounts, among other things) — the ROS server listed only 15 documents, the most recent of which was the Annual Return submitted by FMSA for 2001. Yes, 2001.
Had it not complied with the law in submitting its Annual Return for each of the past 14 years? I cannot see on the ROS website any provision for a society to be exempted from filing Annual Returns.
Might there be something faulty about ROS’s listing? A test search of a similar society showed nothing wrong. My test involved searching for Fellowship of Evangelical Students, a society that was founded in 1960, one year earlier than FMSA. The Fellowship of Evangelical Students had filed an Annual Return for 2014. Its Annual Returns for 2013, 2012, 2011, etc, were available too.
This no-find for FMSA on ROS’ server makes me wonder about FMSA’s own transparency and operational accountability. As it is, it does not list its office-bearers on its Facebook page or on its blogsite (http://1fmsa.blogspot.sg/)
Jasmine flowers in spring
Let me come back to Damanhuri’s speech at the SDP rally Thursday night. He spoke in Malay and English. I don’t understand enough Malay to tell you what he spoke about in the first part, but his English speech dwelled largely on discrimination faced by Malays. One specific example he gave was this: Muslim nurses who wanted to wear the tudung at work were not allowed to do so (I think he was referring to public hospitals). I hadn’t known that, and I would agree with him that this is rather ridiculous.
Now, I am usually alert to any religion making demands on public space, but in this particular instance I will take the view that whether nurses wish to wear a tudung has no relevance to the standard of patient care, which is how they should be judged professionally, nor does it impinge upon any other person’s freedom.
I expect any right-thinking person to apply the same logic to equal rights for gay people. Equal rights for gay people do not take away anybody else’s rights. Unless, of course some people see that they OUGHT to have a “right” to interfere with and restrict the autonomy and dignity of others…. in which case, what do they mean by equality?
But the most memorable part of his speech (for all the wrong reasons) was when he tried to lighten his argument. He said something to the effect that in any case, a tudung only makes a woman more beautiful, like a jasmine flower in spring. This is sexist. It reinforces the tendency to measure a woman by her looks; it once again implicitly adopts the male’s perspective — whatever his idea of beauty may be — as the dominant consideration.
A sexist attitude often correlates with an anti-gay one.
The choice to make
It is very easy to mouth the words and declare that one is “for” non-discrimination and acceptance of diversity. Indeed, this is the Singapore Democratic Party’s stand, and the least Damanhuri could do was to sing the same tune. But a closer examination will reveal to what extent a person actually lives these virtues. In his case, the evidence is very troubling. Speaking up for non-discrimination only for one’s own kind, while ignoring and (worse) denying equal respect and rights for others is not the real thing; in fact one could even argue that it is a distant cousin of sectarianism.
In Marsiling-Yew Tee, the candidates for the People’s Action Party are Lawrence Wong, Halimah Yacob, Ong Teng Koon and Alex Yam. I have considerable respect for Halimah Yacob; Lawrence Wong strikes me as being one toe away from putting his foot in his mouth but is generally all right. I don’t know much about Ong Teng Koon or Alex Yam.
This might make it easier for voters in Marsiling-Yew Tee to tell SDP that choosing someone like Damanhuri to be its candidate is not without consequences for the party. In the longer-term interest of truly promoting a progressive Singapore, this hard step needs to be taken (unless new information emerges that overturns what I have found).
In previous general elections (as recently as 2011 too), the SDP’s manifesto contained a statement that it supported repeal of Section 377A, consistent with its overall stance on equality and non-discrimination. This election, it does not seem to have a single manifesto. Last night, when I began researching Damanhuri Abas, I emailed the party to ask them to clarify whether they still hold this position or whether they are retreating from it. When/if I hear from them, I will publicise their reply.
Meanwhile, a mirror-image situation applies in Holland-Bukit Timah constituency. There, the SDP team is standing against a PAP team with an outspoken homophobe in its ranks. Christopher de Souza gave a particularly insulting speech during the 2007 parliamentary debate about Section 377A, full of slippery-slope scare-mongering. There is also Vivian Balakrishnan in the PAP team. In the 2011 general election, he made sly derogatory remarks against then-SDP candidate Vincent Wijeysingha’s sexual orientation.
The choice is clear.