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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.



1. 2006-11-21 21:19  
I do not cheat, steal, slander, injure, or kill anyone.

I do my best to be a good citizen. I don't smoke, spit, litter, use coarse language, assume rude behaviour, and I pay my taxes.

However, being a gay Singaporean means that I am a criminal.

Condemned the day I was born.

Such is life. God's in His heaven, all's right with the world.
2. 2006-11-21 21:57  
I do not cheat, steal, slander, injure, or kill anyone.

I do my best to be a good citizen. I don't smoke, spit, litter, use coarse language, assume rude behaviour, and I pay my taxes.

But I do not condemn myself ( at least not anymore)
I wrote my feedback at Reach ( yes...its a blackhole ).
They say theres power in Unity...
Its my wish we can stay united to affirm ourselves that we are also decent, human beings making honest living with our skills...
3. 2006-11-21 22:54  
Alex, thanks for the well-written article and of course every human being with a brain would agree that the Singapore government's position in this matter is discriminatory and hopelessly backward. I am rather new to Singapore politics and I do know that Singapore's version of democracy and free-speech is uhhhhh......somewhat peculiar, BUT: can't Fridae at least organize a petition for all gay Singaporeans (and perhaps foreigners living in Singapore, too) to sign?
4. 2006-11-22 03:06  
So wat if i m gay , our government just have to live with it. Regardless of wat we do behind doors , they just can`t intrude.
5. 2006-11-22 06:10  
Historically, the SG govt's concern has never been for human rights for gay people. It has always been for economics. Brain drain of MBA's chosing to remain in Australia, US and UK because they're gay? That perked up their ears and they responded.

Any petition based on human rights arguments will fail. Now, a petition by everyone pledging to retire out of SG and taking away large sums of money, or if a few owners of valuable bio-tech patents chose to develop, produce and market their products elsewhere other than SG... etc etc... I wonder, will these push the button then?
6. 2006-11-22 06:14  
What's the bloody point to get all teh gay S'poreans to sign petition? Is there anything good that the 'GARMENT' will bother to read it it though? They will juz chuck it in the rubbish and say 'NO', a feat which we all heard many many times in a row...

I guess the GARMENT has no BALLS to change the penal code cos they constantly dun want the religious groups to constantly bark them down the throat, especially the Muslim and Christian communities... Sorry to say this, but it is all this fundamentalists groups that will start writing to forum and criticise the GARMENT so it can never be a win-win situation! Juz blame our GOVT and blame our cabinet who has no balls or the courage to stand up for the LGBT community whom they feel it is juz a speck of minority which can be brushed away with a flick of a finger.... that's basically what i pictured of the bloody GARMENT right now...

We can never progress as a full-fledge democratic society! Ppl in the world will always see Singapore as being ANAL, CONTROVERSIAL, UNSINCERE & BOX-IN MENTALITY country. The only way to slap them in the face is to get the foreigners especially gays to stop investing in Singapore and should stop coming to SG, as a form of retaliation, so that the bloody GARMENT will know not to trifel with the LGBT community.

On the other hand, the LGBT community needs to work together and stop discrimination and be united. Get educated, get busy and get out of Singapore... that way, SG govt will understand the further decline of social economy and will start to rethink things... No point talking abd b!tching around here - it wont change things... ACT ON IT, DUN TALK!
7. 2006-11-22 07:05  
8. 2006-11-22 07:13  
Very good and informative article.
I'm not going to boycott Singapore because I do enjoy going there.

We have gay rights in Australia but we also have more rude and aggressive and antisocial behaviour right throughout society. A lot of our problems need a Sg solution esp crime. I agree that gambling should never be introduced in Sg because it has messed up so many lives here.

Your Govt could do a few things quietly to encourage the pink dollar. It seems silly that your parties, even though I would not go to them , have to be held in Phuket; and it is a lot of money that could have stayed in Singapore.

You will not see social change until the Govt realises that the island is already overpopulated. Then it will stop pronatalist policies and be a bit more respectful of non breeding human beings.

Until then as Alex says make noise, intelligent noise , and cc to the world.
10. 2006-11-22 10:28  
BAN religions that is the solution
their hate is iniciated by the Book
our love and lifestyle comes from the heart.
Beeing GAY is natural , religion is lie .
there is no god , if there he he fails to live up to his reputation,john sharp bandung indonesia
11. 2006-11-22 10:31  
Actually If all gays sign a petition it will show that there is arund 20% of sigaporians PLU's
12. 2006-11-22 11:08  
It appears that the only kind of foreign talents that this discriminative government cares about are those that will reproduce and multiply.

I for one, am getting out of Singapore soonest if the government is going to stay this way. Why should I pay taxes and contribute to the economy set by people who are discriminated against me ?

I'd very much rather pay my taxes elsewhere.
13. 2006-11-22 12:25  
I have asked the question: Should the law be about morality? And even if it should, who is the arbiter of morality? In this connection, I have surmised that "many" will regard adultery as immoral, and yet the Singapore government has NOT regarded it necessary to make that a crime in Singapore! Clearly, the Singapore government's position is that heterosexuals have the right to a fulfilling sex life in all ways (including anal, oral and extra-marital!). If the Bill is passed as law without amendment, lesbian sex will be legalised too. Does the "conservative society" argument not apply to lesbian sex? But why single out male homosexuals for discrimination? The "conservative society" argument is also lame in the light of the decision to build the IRs. But all these are arguments based on logic, and Alex Au is right that logic does not prevail insofar as this issue is concerned. Given the socio-political climate in Singapore, it is useless to petition the government for change... it will only fall on deaf ears.

Uplift is right that, to the Singapore governemnt, money talks. The other current major issue it faces is braindrain and attracting foreign talent. One way to push for any action, is for the money for tourism, business and wealth planning to go elsewhere and human resources to choose to contribute their talents elsewhere, as a direct result of this hypocritical and double-standards law. It is a great pity that the citizens of Singapore have to go through such a roundabout way (and in such a way that is damaging to the Singapore economy) in order to communicate with their government.
14. 2006-11-22 12:35  
Thanks for the article Alex! Have sent in 'official form' feedback too--but like amsguy says, could we have a petition here? Just to give them idea of numbers? Need not restrict to local gay community... Problem is, there's probably going to be Less resistance to ditching 377a as an adjunct to ditching 377 than bringing it up on its own later, so this may be a now or never thing...
17. 2006-11-22 14:20  
Alex writes good articles here.

What is a law if it is not enforced? Might as well not have it at all.
18. 2006-11-22 15:17  
Trying to fight for legalized anal sex for gays is a baby step towards fighting for equal rights for gays.

Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves but it took J.F. Kennedy to fight for equal rights for blacks. No bonus points for guessing how long is it between the two events.

The govt comes into power elected by Singaporeans. It is not the govt that doesn't allow equal rights for gays, but Singaporeans as a whole.

Everyone looks up to USA for freedom of speech and practice of life. But do you know that US is also fighting against legalizing gay marriages? Of cos, it is now left hanging since the Supreme Court has many more things to decided on. But with a largely conservative Supreme Judges, I am not surprised if eventually, the ban in gay marriage is passed. This problem will eventually come to face SG gays.

I was just glancing through the comments, not reading in detail yet. I saw some talk abt brain drain. Seriously speaking, brain drain is happening everywhere, and its not a serious problem at the moment. Cos if it is, the govt will be worried abt it already. SG govt is clever enough to have well established ties with other countries, a stable economy to stay (gay or otherwise). A SG passort is sort after by pp after all. Its like the next best thing to US passport for many people.

Lastly, gay advocacy group faces major challenges when it has little support from the fellow PLUs. Many do not seek to be out due to several personal or practical reasons.

I guess so long gays can fuck each other safely in homes, or in saunas, and not be raided by police, and pink town in TP exist, everyone is happy.

Its up to you S'poreans, but the govt.
23. 2006-11-22 16:57  
As far as I know, anal sex and oral sex have been exclusively practised by gays since their existence, but it seems that such acts have been hijacked by the heterosexual to become their 'legal' enjoyment whilst the original inventors are incriminated for exploring and expanding the kamasutra not found in the straight books.

This is straight robbery ! In fact, gays should be commended for their kamasutra to enrich the sex lives of straight!
24. 2006-11-22 17:43  
I don't know... a lot is being said by gays about this issue and the SG govt being labelled and discriminatory in terms of not legalizing anal and oral sex among homosexuals.

However, when you think of it... gays still practice oral and anal sex despite it currently being a criminal act... so i guess this is a landmark event that gays take on how the govt eventually view their lifestyle thus the label discrimination..

but even gays practice discrimination among themselves in terms of behaviour and attitude... what is acceptable and not acceptable among those practising the lifestyle... of course the nicer term used for such discrimination is preference. some prefer their own race, some prefer people of certain body proportions, some prefer those who are masculine and detest effeminate gays...

if such discrimination do exist in our society, who are we to then label as being discriminatory? there is no unity in our society... all everyone cares is having the sexual acts legalize... once legalize, then what? will it be a victory for all gays despite having a minority of them discriminated for the colour of their skin and behaviour?

the govt's preference, of course is to enact laws that favour the natural order of things... following the majority of society's preference on how sexual acts should be legalize... it is discrimination, yes... but who does not discriminate anyway?
25. 2006-11-22 17:51  
Maybe I feel this way becuase I have never lived in Singapore for an extended period of time - so these are merely the observations of an outsider looking through this window.

The actions of this government demonstrate an alarming lack of foresight and vitually no consideration for the rights of individual human beings. The government explanation says it all: "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."

They have stated that many in their society do not tolerate homosexuality - and then go on to say that the law ought to reflect this intolerance. Surely it is plain to see that te government must lead the way in demonstrating to people that intolerance at this level is not acceptable - most developed societies have laws preventing intolerance and hate, not condoning it.

This makes me feel angry, helpless and alone - and I'm not even from Singapore.
26. 2006-11-22 19:37  
Intelchip where have you been the last decade? Quote: "Everyone looks up to USA for freedom of speech and practice of life". Huh? The US has become a very conservative country with so many states passing "defence of marriage" acts. Nobody is looking to the US anylonger for freedom. Countries like Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, South Africa and now even Israel are much free-er than the US.
27. 2006-11-22 19:41  
Singaporeans are too passive - please remember that people in Western countries had to fight (sometimes literally) for gay rights too. It is not even that long ago and see what has been achieved in many Western countries in 30 or 40 years. But it won't happen automatically - brave Singaporeans need to step forward and demand equal rights for gays.
31. 2006-11-25 13:33  
The issue regarding the legalisation of oral and anal sex to only heterosexual is clearly a discrimination against the minority group. If the cause of such restriction is based on religious belief and that such activities are not condoned by most religious groups, an individual who has no belief in any religious ideas or concepts should not be subjected to such restriction. In fact, religions should not, in any circumstance, have any influence in the political arena.
There is an inconsistency in the legislation regarding female homosexuality. The reason why such restriction is not particular mentioned because male homosexuality endangers the "male masculinity" and such masculinity plays an important role in the political arena, especially in a male-dominant-heterosexual social. On the other hand, female homosexuality, can or perhaps, give pleasure to male-dominant society
32. 2006-11-25 20:24  
One of the most effective ways more western
countries use to portest is by "outing". Surely
amongst all the MPs there must be at least one
who has a son who is gay - or may be gay them
selves! Simply inquire discreetly and establish who
he/they are and make it known publicly thereby
embarrassing the MP implying that he is discrimin
ating against hos own family.................!
Brian Butcher....AUSTRALIA
33. 2006-11-26 18:33  
i dun think outing will help. outing is a private affair. by outing someone to force the government to accept us, will affect the life of him and create irrevocable damage. i do not think, harming another person's life will help the rest of the community.
i believe dialogue will help. dialogue with our politicians, and dialogue with the people on the streets. dialogue to spread understanding of the community. dialogue to advance peace.
Gandhi has this to say "be the change you want to see"
Lester (singapore)
34. 2006-11-26 22:38  
bravo alex...great articles.....

its oni after i exit from sg that i truly realise how obedient i had been all this while....listening to wat the garment say, do as follow even displeased,scared to create more trouble for oneself....as long as life still goes on without being caught by the act.....typical sgreans style..............how far would sgreans go to get such things done?....how far would they be willing to walk out of their comfort zone? why would they want to create problems as long as they themselves are happily satisfied with wat they have?.....hasnt selfishness been in human mind and heart for ages?how many fortunate ppl out there would give their time and seconds to think of those tat are deprive from wat they cant have? if not for those charitable program and awareness from the media, would those sick and poor get more help?
a simple scenerio, if half of the population in our well-known universities show displease with such inequality...juz imagine wat will happen........so in simple case would, to let the voice be heard, be in the elite team, be the best of the best.....then maybe the little voice might get thru better....
while reading the article, something appear across my mind...'our declaration'.....the little 'poet' where we recite during schooldays ...wonder how many still remembers.........irregardless of rXXX, lang or religXXX..based on justice and equality........
....haiz.....where has all the great leaders gone to?......
35. 2006-11-27 10:10  
I suspect that economic pressure may be the best way to force an issue.

If a clear message is published in the foreign press regarding Singapore as a closed option because of this clause, the government may have to reconsider their plan.

Equallly, I myself, as should budding gay entrepreneurs and established businesses who believe in social justice, am relocating my digital business to the UK, or indeed any country keen to welcome my pink self and my pink pound!

A tax deprivation of a few million dollars a year from myself is not a huge blow to Singapore, but think of the snowball effect! Vive la revolution!

Wei Lim
36. 2006-11-28 13:16  
a great article. i always tink fridae's articles r more deep than trevvy's. great analysis. keep it up.
37. 2006-12-03 18:26  
what i would really like to know is why Alex Au decided to close down rairua. I think he should and i havent heard from calls for him to explain that too. being an activist means that he should be accountable, at least in terms of his choices which affect gay society in sg. would love to hear from him.



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