It was a political master stroke. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s announcement on Aug 21 that the government will repeal S377A coupled with unusually inclusive words of support for gay Singaporeans as an integral part of the community was an act of statesmanship.
He said: “While we remain a broadly conservative society, gay people are now better accepted in Singapore, especially among younger Singaporeans. It’s timely to ask ourselves again the fundamental question: Should sex between men in private be a criminal offence? Singaporeans still have differing views on whether homosexuality is right or wrong. But most people accept that a person’s sexual orientation and behaviour is a private and personal matter, and that sex between men should not be a criminal offence.”
Yet, in the end, it boils down to the looming issue of equal protection under the Constitution. If the rights of males are challenged under S377A which criminalises sex between consenting males, that law could one day be stuck down because of an issue much, much larger than the actual act itself.
The government has chosen the Big Tent approach – that it will represent all segments of society who would wish to come under its tent and that it would do its best to take into account all their interests.
Inasmuch as it understands the position of a minority as far as their place under the sun is concerned, the government should be keen to also make sure that the views of the vast majority are respected.
In a study conducted after the National Day Rally, Blackbox Research found that 43 per cent of 650 Singaporean adults aged 18 years and above that it had polled expressed support for the decision to repeal S377A.
This is more than double the 21 per cent who oppose the repeal. But a significant 34 per cent neither support nor oppose the repeal, with 2 per cent preferring not to state their stand.
Singapore is not ready for any sea change even as more younger Singaporeans may seem to be, at least in a non-activist sense.
PM Lee: “But at the same time, most Singaporeans do not want the repeal to trigger a drastic shift in our societal norms across the board, including how we define marriage, what we teach children in schools, what’s shown on free-to-air television and in cinemas, or what is generally acceptable conduct in public. In our engagements and soundings over several months, this has come through very clearly.
“Among those with reservations, some feel strongly about 377A itself. But for most, their main worry is what they feel section 377A stands for, and what they fear repealing it may quickly lead to.
“They also worry that this may encourage more aggressive and divisive activism on all sides.” This a real concern which appears right up the alley of the People’s Action Party, with its 63 long years in power, to address.
PM Lee said Parliament will amend the Constitution to make sure that traditional institutions and values will be protected.
As a government, the PAP will be at an advantage in this coming debate in Parliament.
It holds nearly all the cards and will even gladly lay them on the table.
It is already fairly transparent. Yet, it can also say at the end of the debate that it will take into account all views and act in the interests of Singapore society. That’s the role of a government.
Opposition parties may well be at a disadvantage, especially when they are yet to be elected or in power. Here’s one simple question for them: Are you on the side of an activist minority or the conservative majority?
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a magazine publishing company.
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