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19 Apr 2004

why singapore shouldn't ban gay group

Paul Tan argues why the Registrar of societies is "dead wrong" in his reading of the relevant statute used reject Singapore gay group's application to be registered as a society.

According to a recent newsletter to Public Service Commission scholars, the buzzwords in today's society are, "globalisation", "risk taking", "diversity" and "change is the only constant." Apart from the pain of seeing so many clichs in one sentence, the rejection of People Like Us' (PLU) application to be registered in late March by the Registrar of Societies puts the lie in statements like this. Seven years have elapsed since the first attempt to register PLU, and nothing has changed. Yes, the civil service is taking in self-declared homosexuals but only if you have not had sex. Otherwise you are a criminal who should be spending your life in prison because that is what section 377 (and 377A) says. And yes, it is true that homosexuals are not 'persecuted.' But when it comes to what also matters to sexual minorities in this country - getting equal rights and protection under the law - no change has happened.

We need not revisit the sheer inconsistency and hypocrisy of government speeches claiming to embrace debate. We need not even consider the facile assertion that Singapore is supposedly "conservative" because it is inherently Asian to be conservative. I cannot imagine how one's geographical position on the world map determines culture unless there is some otherworldly force I am blissfully unaware of. No, culture is a choice. In fact, prior to the 1980's, the government was urging "rugged individualism."

Instead, I want to say two things. Firstly, I want to make the argument that the Registrar of Societies was dead wrong in his reading of the relevant statute. In my opinion, the language of section 4 of the Societies Act, which governs his authority to reject applications, does not permit him to reject a society like PLU. Secondly, to examine the social implications of such a decision.

There are two critical parts to the reading of section 4, which says that the Registrar can refuse registration of the society if it is "likely to be used for unlawful purposes, or for purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order" or "contrary to national interest."

The first part concerns the definition of words like "unlawful", "prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order" and "national interest." A plain reading of these words suggest to me that the central concern of the statute is that organisations are used for purposes of mobilising society in disruptive ways, and causing a breakdown in law and order. The dictionary and commonsense suggest that the words themselves set a high threshold. To provoke debate cannot be unlawful or prejudicial to peace, welfare and good order. Furthermore, the phrase "national interest" has a fairly narrow statutory implication, encompassing mainly threats to national security.
In fact, if one looks at the legislative history of the Act, the predecessor to the current Societies Act was enacted in 1889 primarily to deal with secret societies in Singapore. In 1966, the new Societies Act (which is the present one) was moved by Inche Othman Wok, then Minister for Culture and Social Affairs. In his speech at the second reading of the Bill, he stated that the new amendments were meant to deal with the registration of political associations, to ensure that their members were Singapore citizens, and that they should have 'no affiliation or connection whatsoever with political parties outside Singapore which are considered to be contrary to the national interest.'

Thus, both on a plain reading of the statute, or even with legislative history providing insight, none of the exceptions apply to a group like PLU, whose aim is to peacefully discuss issues about homosexuality and advocate legal reform. Unless you equate homosexuals with secret society gangsters, that is.

The second part of interpreting section 4 concerns the meaning of "likely to." Barring a society foolish enough to declare its violent tendencies, the only reference the Registrar can make his decision on is the applicant society's constitution. The question would be, is there something inherent to the nature of that society that would lead one to conclude it is "likely to" use it for nefarious purposes?

This phrase cannot be given too much latitude because conceivably, every society could be a shell organisation for some potentially criminal activity. I fail to see how the Registrar could have made a good-faith judgment that PLU would be likely to advocate legal and social reform in a way that would be disruptive. I cannot see how this is any different from registering any other society which purpose is to advocate change in the laws and which conducts activities aimed at creating awareness in the general public for its cause.

The interpretation of this statute should also be made by reference to our constitutional right to associate. The default position must therefore always be the right of individuals to gather themselves for a common purpose and to register a society to enable it to carry out its purposes more efficiently. The exceptions to such a default must therefore be limited to situations where there is a real danger that a group would use the benefits of registration to harm Singapore and Singaporeans. If not, the exception becomes the rule, and our constitutional guarantee becomes nugatory.

Discussion and advocacy of legal change should never, by itself, be sufficient grounds to censor a society's registration. It cannot be that the fact PLU aims to discuss homosexuality is good enough a reason, since Focus on The Family - among other organisations - discusses the issue as well.
Unfortunately, this is not just a legal matter. It has wider social implications. There are many groups and societies out there, mainly religious-based and mainly conservative; circulating ideas that homosexuality is wrong. That's fine. That's their prerogative. But to leave the situation as unbalanced as that is terribly irresponsible. For instance, patriarchal, sexist attitudes would never have been countered were it not for organisations like Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), which continues to lead the fight for legislative change, promulgates a host of educational literature, and organises legal clinics.

This is exactly what a group like PLU could do. Yes, part of its resources will be devoted to persuading changes in the laws - which is mightily important - but part of it can also provide critical and meaningful services and educational campaigns, not just for the general public, but perhaps more importantly, for homosexuals. For instance, if a person in a homosexual relationship is being abused, he cannot turn anywhere since he is technically a criminal (if he has had sex.) Also, it is not likely he will feel comfortable talking to the police right from the start. These are very real problems no one wants to talk about because it is easier to dismiss PLU as a bunch of activist liberals with an agenda.

Few also seem to understand that the potential for a group like PLU to organise educational and awareness campaigns is important to the development of socially productive Singaporean homosexuals. And here, I quote from a friend who says it better than I could:

"You keep refusing public sanction for the right to associate, you keep driving it under, you keep perpetuating a society where boys and girls who like other boys and girls (respectively, naturally) keep thinking it's something that must be kept under the bed (together with all sorts of reading material and socks crusty-caked with DNA). Which means everyone grows up dysfunctional. You perpetuate exactly the kind of homosexual "horrors" (by means of stereotypes - your queens, your IRC demons, your Ann Siang abominations) that you yourself create because no one knows any different. You'll have a Singapore whose gay population takes cues only from kazaa-ed (another act of illegality) episodes of Queer as Folk, Will and Grace and Queer Eye; and who thinks the life of fagdom is limited to air-kissing and shirt-removing at a gay dance club, furtive blow-jobbing in carparks and swimming pools and not-so-furtive grinding at a sauna, and watching all the gay plays that we put up, which, surprise, are either foreign (Bent, Wedding Banquet) or else forced to be reflections of foreign gay life. Why? Because no one knows what gay life in Singapore is, or what being gay in Singapore means. Well, not entirely true. We know it's wrong."

Paul Tan's column will resume in a month as he battles his post-grad law exams, a holiday in Greece, and a debate competition in Bangkok.






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