21 Nov 2006

singapore's policy initiatives - does reason have any place in it?

Following the government's clarification that gay sex laws have to stay on the books as "many religious groups also do not condone homosexual acts," Alex Au asks if it is legitimate to hold on to laws for its symbolic value and examines the government's sharp U-turn on child sex tourism laws and legalisation of casinos despite vigorous protests from various quarters.

As reported in the story Singapore to legalise anal, oral sex - but only for heterosexuals, the Singapore government intends to amend the Penal Code in a number of ways, one of which is to repeal the clause criminalising "carnal intercourse against the order of nature." This archaic term is understood to mean anal and oral sex.

However, the government has made clear that another section of the Penal Code criminalising "gross indecency between males" will remain. The effect of this will be to permit heterosexuals to engage in anal and oral sex in private, but any kind of sex between men will still be criminal.

The starkly discriminatory nature of such a proposal cannot go unnoticed.

In an explanatory note issued on Nov 7, a public assurance was made that the law on "gross indecency" between males will not be "proactively enforced," even as the government wants to keep it on the books. Of course, one would ask: if it is conceded that it would be morally outrageous to try to enforce such a discriminatory law, then why still keep it?

The government said: "Singapore remains, by and large, a conservative society. Many do not tolerate homosexuality, and consider such acts abhorrent and deviant. Many religious groups also do not condone homosexual acts... We should not be hasty to act in this area."

In short, it is to be kept for its symbolic value, so that these groups are justified in promoting a climate of homophobic prejudice and discrimination. Whether that is a legitimate purpose of law in any country, seems to be a question never asked.

Open for public consultation
The proposed bill is currently open for public consultation until Dec 9, 2006. At some date after that, it will be tabled in Parliament for passage, something that is virtually assured. The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) hold all but three seats in the legislature, and it has already been indicated that the party whip will not be lifted.

Hence, for anyone wanting to try to modify the provisions of the bill, the only opportunity he has is to make online submissions to Reach Singapore (the government body collating feedback), or to angle for an invitation to the very few public consultation focus groups that are being organised.

Even then, Singaporeans expect their views to disappear into some kind of black hole, for the feedback process is well known for its opacity.

Precisely because of this widespread lack of faith in the process, Reach Singapore is unlikely to be inundated with citizen comments. Not many people have any expectations of the government's amenability to suggestions. Nor do they have much hope of PAP members of parliament speaking up for them, if their views run counter to the government's wishes.

This scenario of a governmental juggernaut ploughing ahead through a politically demoralised population applies not just to the gay issue, but to almost any other issue in Singapore.

In any case, comments are likely to take the form of logical arguments, pointing out the inequity of the proposed amendments, or the absurdity of the government wanting to keep a law that they do not intend to enforce. Yet what should truly give pause should be the realisation that, basically, the government is not moved by logic. In this matter it is somewhat impervious to humanistic rationality, for if it had been, it wouldn't have proposed the bill in the current form.

This comes as quite a surprise considering that the Singapore government likes to pride itself for its exhaustive, impartial rationality when it comes to policy development, but it shouldn't be such a surprise because in many areas, not least its handling of political dissidents, its conservative and patriarchal instincts whenever family and sexual topics are raised, and the complete neglect of market competition in some aspects of economic management, the evidence is all there to see - evidence of a government that behaves in irrational ways.

Sharp U-turn on child sex tourism
This doesn't mean that the government does not change course. In fact, the very same Penal Code Amendment Bill contains an example of a very sharp U-turn, relating to the matter of extra-territorial jurisdiction for offences involving the prostitution of minors.

New clauses in the bill say that anyone who "obtains for consideration" sexual services from a person under 18 years of age, or merely seeks to do so, will henceforth be guilty of an offence. Any Singaporean who does that outside of Singapore will also be guilty. At the same time, anyone who publishes, even electronically, information with the intent to promote such conduct overseas or who organises travel arrangements to facilitate it will also be guilty of an offence.

Up till very recently, the government resisted calls to enact extra-territorial legislation. On 6 February 2004, Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng told Parliament: "When we replied to a parliamentary question on this in 1995, we said that there was no need to amend our laws to make it an offence. The situation has not changed significantly since then."

He added: "Difficult legal issues arise in extending our jurisdiction overseas. Besides, there are also practical problems in enforcing such a law. Police will have to first detect such an act; it will then have to conduct investigations overseas and even bring witnesses back to Singapore to give evidence. Our preliminary study is that jurisdictions with such laws have found it difficult to enforce such a law. Successful prosecutions have been few and far between."

As recently as 16 May 2005, Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee told another sitting of Parliament, once again on the question of child sex tourism, that, "in Singapore, when we have laws, the question of enforceability is a key point. We do not want to have laws which are difficult to enforce."

It's as clear as day: A law that cannot in practice be used, they said, should not be enacted.

One after another, ministers refused to budge on the child sex tourism issue. So what changed?

In recent years, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in many Southeast Asian countries have increasingly drawn attention to the widespread sexual exploitation of children. Among the culprits are Singaporean men, ever keen to go on sex tours.

At the same time, Ong Keng Yong, erstwhile press secretary and close aide to former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, took up the post of Secretary-general of ASEAN. In that position, he is supposed to further the common interests of the grouping.

Singapore's refusal to do its part to curb child sex tourism became increasing embarrassing, and so with head-snapping suddenness, the government has now changed course. Embarrassment from foreign NGOs, multiplied by pressure from local NGOs, seemed to work, where pointed parliamentary questions made no headway.

Casino U-turn
Another well-known U-turn was over the casino issue. Almost out of the blue, the government decided in early 2005 to legalise casinos, jettisoning 40 years of anti-gambling posturing. This, despite a likely "conservative majority" being steadfast against the idea.

What made that happen? Economic distress. Singapore's tourism receipts had been declining for years, yet tourism and the related aviation industry were supposed to be among the key pillars of Singapore's economy. Coupled with the dotcom bust, the economic pain was enough to force a change of course.

That recalled the moment in July 2003 when then-Prime Minister Goh said there would be no more exclusion of openly gay civil servants. Almost everyone now knows that it came out of economic desperation. Singapore needs to attract foreign talent to its private sector as well as its quasi-government sector (e.g. universities and research institutes) to power its next phase of economic development. Goh's statement was little more than a public relations attempt to soften Singapore's harsh image, to make this place seem a little more attractive.

What these examples may show is that the Singapore government is capable of lurching from one policy position to the exact opposite, in response to economic pain or diplomatic embarrassment, even as it remains deaf to lucid, logical arguments.

How this analysis can lead to a strategy for taking the cause of gay equality forward, is another matter however.

It may be too much to imagine gays and lesbians going out of their way to inflict economic pain on Singapore, but constantly reminding the world of the Singapore government's homophobia may unintentionally, and in no organised way, have the same effect - undercutting the government's appeal for foreign talent to relocate here, and making government officials suffer embarrassing questions abroad.

So, bitch away.

Alex Au has been a gay activist for over 10 years and is the co-founder of gay advocacy group People Like Us. Alex is also the author of the well-known Yawning Bread web site and is celebrating the web site's tenth anniversary on from 7.30 pm on Nov 30 at Mox Bar & Cafe. All are welcome. More info at www.yawningbread.org. He can be contacted at yawning@geocities.com.