Comment: How the biggest threat to gay communities in Singapore is not just the legal system
Singapore is a tiny island state which has managed cramped 4.6 million people into her lands. Although it is sandwiched between Muslim countries, the country has a Chinese majority, but also supports a healthy proportion of Malays, Indians and others (which includes the Whites). The four races are accompanied by four major religion, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity.
Since the 1950s, the island’s autocratic government has managed to transform the fishing village to a global, modern city. Long gone is the idyllic lifestyle associated with a tropical island life. Sky scrapers rule the skies as the little villages (they prefer to call it slums) vanish, Google has become our main source of information and up to 44 per cent of our adults are myopic due to staring too much at textbooks, TV and computer screens.
You would think that such a diverse, modern country, which ranks 25th on the Human Development Index would be open about our sexuality.
When the British left Asia, their gift to their former colonies were the democratic parliamentary system, legal system based on English law, a civil service based on British models, educational system, left hand diving and debts. We can go on and on about the flaws of the school system and the unfairness of the debts, but what we shall talk about today is the law section of 337A.
337A basically says that sex , or ‘gross indecent act’ between two men is illegal. Such acts are punishable by imprisonment for up to 2 years. To uphold the law, there are strict censorship laws in place, which prohibits the display or promotion of any same-sex lifestyle.
For example, the 2007 Xbox game “Mass Effect” was ban in Singapore due as it contains a scene of lesbian intimacy.
Douglas Sanders, a professor in law at the Chualalongkorn University in Bangkok was kicked out of Singapore for wanting to give his public talk on the section 377 during at IndigNation in 2007.
It is not only the private sector which is bound to this censorship. According to censorship laws, no gay content, or the promotion of gay lifestyle should be depicted in free-to-air television.
In April this year, state media MediaCorp TV Channel 5 was fined S$15,000 (£5,600) for promoting a gay lifestyle. The home decorating series, ‘Find and Design’ featured a gay couple who renovated their games room into a nursery for their adopted child. It also showed shots of the couple with the child, and at the end was congratulated by the host for their new joy.
Singapore’s Programme Advisory Committee for English Programmes (PACE) said that this was unacceptable as “gay relationship should not be presented as an acceptable family unit.”
Before 2007, the act of gross indecency is punishable to both heterosexuals and homosexuals. The law forbid oral and anal sex, and it seemed like the only acceptable position for sex is good old fashion missionary. A little house keeping in Parliament then permits the these acts for heterosexuals, but not homosexuals.
This double standard enraged many gay activists, who argues that section 377A that forbids homosexuality is as ancient as the laws that forbid oral and anal sex. Keeping such double standards also highlights that the Singapore government is acknowledging that they are a bunch of homophonic who are unable to keep up with modern times (To give them credit, we young heterosexuals also complain that they are a bunch of dinosaurs that have lost touch with modern thinking).
It also go against the ideological image in which the government is trying to create Singapore to be: a vibrate, modern, diverse, global city. No developed country has laws that treat their homosexuals as second class citizens, and it seems like even though Singapore has caught up with the West’s economical ideas by forcing capitalism down our throats, but still chooses to stay behind when it comes to social liberties.
In the defence to keeping the law, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained to the State’s newspaper, The Strait Times that the section could not be taken out of the law, as people who oppose it do so with deep religious convictions, especially Christians and Muslims.
Singapore is a conservative country which values the conventional family unit. Therefore it is not ready to legally accept the existence of homosexuals, he added.
He also pointed out that that what homosexuals really want is more space and full acceptance by Singaporeans. By pushing for the law to be appeal, they will not gain what they want, but rather “will divide and polarise our society”
The harder the gay activist push, he cautioned, the harder the conservatives would push back.
It is the government’s job to mediate between children who are fighting and it is often not an easy task.
In a way, I do understand what he means. Singapore is a country that is build from oppression. When the People’s Action Party (PAP) won power amidst racial rioting in the 1960s, the first thing the government did was to cut away freedom of speech, illegalised demonstrations and imposed a curfew on its people.
They ‘promoted’ social harmony through a series of cultural propaganda and laws and gave all religious groups 2 days of public holiday. They imposed social studies in primary schools, encouraging the children to tolerant other races and religions. The island also decorates itself during different festivals, organised religious and ethnic understanding groups actively tells people to accept the differences and anything sort of discrimination against race and religion would not be tolerated.
Unfortunately, homosexuality was still relatively unknown during that time, otherwise PAP could also brainwash the people into accepting that we are all different.
Homosexual is a word that only came to our world around the late1980s, when the AIDS epidemic came about. It does not make things any better when Paddy Chew, the republic’s first person to declare his HIV-positive status, is a queer. (He was bisexual and recently died.)
To ask the older generation to accept homosexuality as normal is, to me, a task that is almost impossible. It goes against everything they were taught at home, school and religious classes. To them, it is as though you are telling them that the place we should be really looking forward to go is hell, and not heaven. And since the conservative, older generation has a majority in age demographics, it is safe to say that only death would bring about any change to the sunny island.
However, not all hope is lost. The country is slowly opening up. In 2004, the government had abolish the need for a permit to hold in-door talks. They have also let a few mainstream movies such as Brokeback Mountain enter. Although openly gay artist Martin Loh’s newest homosexual exhibition is said to be cancel due to logistic problems, he has, in 2003, launch a successful gay content exhibition called Men in the Raw.
In 2005, activists has also declared August a month to celebrate the country’s queer culture by launching the annual IndigNation. Pubs and bars who raised the rainbow flag outside are still in operation, and thankfully there is no recent case of people being prosecuted under the section 377A.
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Most government want to place themselves in a favourable position by keeping the majority of the people happy . Section 377 is basically there to keep conservatives happy. Since our Asian values is to respect our elders, the government is trying to ‘respect’ them by not ruining their enclosed ideology of gender identity.
As for products placed on the shelves, the government can argue that heterosexuals have the right to not see any content which violates their narrow minded thinking, and so they have to be ‘protected’. Also take in mind that not only explicit images of homosexuals are ban, heterosexual men will find it impossible to find porn on the selves as well.
The dangers of section 337, I would say white elephant 337A does not lie in the present, but the future. If PAP are to be voted out, section 337 will give the new government rights to prosecute people for being themselves. Laws that can potentially hurt the people should be abolish for political reasons, not religious ones.
If we were to learn from history, we can see that mixing religion and politics usually results to war and death. Religion is a thing that can be interpreted in many ways, and people can choose what to believe and what to discard. But homosexuality is a fact, something that can be seen and touch. Not believing in God would not hurt you in anyway (since you do not believe in divine punishment) but having a law that may potentially decimate a person will definitely hurt.
I would ask, for the homosexual community to have patience in Singapore, just as I would ask the heterosexual majority to reach out and try to be more understanding. Though 337 is still enforced and we have no public education about homosexuality, there is always trusty Google to teach us the way and we are not being completely shut down for being queer.
If we as a nation (with the help of over powering propaganda of course) can overcome religious and ethnic difference, I am sure we can one day overcome the barrier of sexual orientation as well.