By Kumaran Pillai
Outgoing Singapore Democratic Party treasurer Dr Vincent Wijeysingha gave this exclusive, no-holds-barred interview to The Independent Singapore before his resignation from the party. He spoke openly about his journey through the political landscape, the prejudices he faced and the need for greater gay awareness and advocacy.
He was a rising star, holding key appointments as party treasurer, head of communications, author of SDP’s shadow budget and prime contributor to SDP’s policy position papers.
His decision to quit electoral politics seems to follow the outing of his gay orientation on Facebook just before the Pinkdot event this year.
One party member said, “Vincent’s resignation is a loss to SDP.”
Dr Wijeysingha is the third to resign of the four-member SDP team that stood for election from the Holland-Bukit Timah GRC in the 2011 general election. Tan Jee Say and Michelle Lee have already left the SDP and Ang Yong Guan, the fourth member, is no longer seen at party events.
Here’s what Dr Wijeysingha had to say.
You’ve had an incredible journey in Singapore’s socio-political scene. First of all, how did you get involved in mainstream politics?
It’s an exciting journey, even if not entirely trouble-free!
Entering politics was fairly straightforward. During the first year after I came back to Singapore, I was looking at civil society initiatives. There was a lot of good work going on.
I sensed that, for me at least, a focus on wider politics would be worthwhile. It felt the right thing to do, engaging in the broader political spectrum.
What were some of the prejudices that you faced in your political life?
The most immediate prejudice I experienced was in the silence that surrounds homosexuality – it means that people like Vivian Balakrishnan can use it as a trump card during elections.
The existence of Section 377a implies that prejudice against the gay community is institutionalised in Singapore. And it permeates every aspect of our lives – through the school system, the army and the workplace. LGBT people end up hiding their true selves and living a life of silence in isolation. Dr Balakrishnan then uses it against us.
Tell me more about this video that was circulated. Was that taken at a private event?
It wasn’t a private event, it was a forum organised by M Ravi to discuss the Section 377a constitutional challenge that he was taking – the Ivan Tan case. I spoke at that event.
Was that before you decided to enter politics?
No, about the same time. Roy Tan, who has done a great job of chronicling the work of the gay community over several years, recorded the forum and uploaded it to YouTube. It was a useful contribution to the public debate.
It may have been a concerted plan on the part of some PAP supporters: the video was publicised about a fortnight before the general elections and then Dr Balakrishnan made a statement about it.
But my sense is that, in any case, the issue is complex: there are layers of prejudice and layers of commitment to democracy. There are those who are committed to democracy but struggle with the extension of rights to gay people.
What’s interesting was SDP’s response to Vivian’s statement about your “gay agenda.” SDP was quick to say that they do not have a gay agenda. But the larger question is, why not? If they are championing for full democracy, why leave the gays out?
This one is a semantic problem…
The term ‘gay agenda’ was coined by American evangelical churches to describe what they see as a nefarious plot by gay people to take over the world!
Dr Balakrishnan may have heard the term being used in similar fashion and then used it in the same way.
In fact, the term doesn’t have any substance to it – when you think about it – what is a gay agenda?
So when the SDP responded during the elections, we said that we don’t have a gay agenda – what we have is an agenda for the poor and an agenda for democracy.
Justice Quentin Loh said that in Singapore’s legal system, whether a social norm that has “yet to gain currency” should be discarded or retained is decided by Parliament. So shouldn’t you be championing the gay issues in Parliament instead?
As far as I perceive it, the Singapore courts don’t interpret the law. We don’t appear to have a natural justice approach to the law but follow what Parliament has prescribed. I call this the Yong Pung How Doctrine; he articulated it often during his tenure as Chief Justice.
In England, you will sometimes find judges saying emphatically that Parliament must look again at a particular issue. Our judges don’t do that.
But neither is Parliament the place where social change is initiated. It is the place where social change is ratified.
Social change occurs in the community. When a question arrives on the floor of Parliament, it has already been progressed outside.
A small number of non-government MPs does not change the legal framework but rather responds to public sentiment outside which, to be sure, is the task of politicians but, more importantly, of social activists, to shape.
What made you post about your sexual orientation just before the Pink Dot event this year?
As far as I am concerned, I was outed during the GE. It was already a known fact…
My post was rather tongue-in-cheek but it made an important point: that one should attend Pink Dot if one is, like me, committed to the equal rights of all people.
Speaking openly against a prejudice that has thrived in silence is part of the process that dispels the silence.
I understand that you are resigning from SDP…
Yes, after that post on Facebook, I received hundreds of ‘Likes’ and messages. Some wrote to congratulate me for coming out. And it really surprised me.
It struck me that LGBT people may have been lulled into a sense of security. The police do not raid our social spaces anymore; it does not use agent provocateurs. Several MPs including the two former Prime Ministers are on record as saying that no moral attitude should be assigned to homosexuality.
I was certainly lulled into a sense that all is well. That when Section 377a is removed from the statute book – and eventually it will – things in general will be okay.
But the sentiment is split: many of the comments in the social media were supportive but some were highly prejudiced.
The volume of misinformation and misunderstanding suggested to me that there is a major task ahead to address these negative views because they contribute to the very real discrimination in daily life. So that forced the question on me: how should I respond.
If I remained in party politics, I would focus on mainstream issues, ie. those at the political middle ground. This could result in the sidelining of marginal concerns such as those faced by the gay community – I faced a dilemma.
Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that I might be of better use if I engaged these marginal concerns, particularly since they impact on me and therefore have deep meaning for me as an individual.
Will you be joining any gay advocacy group or starting one on your own?
I haven’t thought that far. I do need to get involved, wherever it might be.
My values remain the same; they are the values the SDP inculcated. The SDP has provided a much-needed voice to place the issues of personal liberty firmly in the political arena.
I take those values with me; they form a key element of my values apparatus.
You see, in fact there is a “gay agenda”, but not in Dr Balakrishnan’s sense. It is an agenda for equal protection of the law, for respect and amity.
I’m sure that when people get over their initial prejudices through access to better information, the so-called gay agenda will be no more of a threat than the agendas for equal rights for women, for ethnic minorities, for disabled people that at one time were also viewed with suspicion and fear but which today are entirely mainstream.
By Kumaran Pillai