On 3 April 2019, MP and Secretary-General of Workers’ Party Pritam Singh made a speech on Section 377A of the Penal Code at the Top Guns Forum organised by the NUS Political Association. Titled “One Singapore Family: Rising above the Culture War”, the speech reiterated WP’s position on the issue that it “would not be calling for the repeal of 377A because there is no consensus within the party’s central executive committee on the issue”.
He then went on to observe that the current framing of 377A by the conservatives and liberals “generates a lot of heat, but sheds very little light”. Instead, he suggested that “we need to focus on the larger issues besetting Singaporean families”. The speech ended with five proposed principles to guide the country forward on the issue: 1) Family First; 2) Never Politicise The Issue; 3) Continue The Dialogue; 4) Respect Individual Conscience; and 5) Rise Above The Culture War.
WP’s position is not surprising; after all, it is a political party and a liberal platform is probably not going to win them more votes given the political realities in Singapore. There are however three aspects of his speech that I am concerned with: firstly, its close similarities with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s speech on the issue during the 2007 parliamentary debates; secondly, the framing critique; and lastly, the over-selling of WP’s ambivalence as the “morally courageous” position.
Nevertheless, at the end of the day, Pritam is right on one point: while the pink is obviously political, it might not be best for it to become a matter of partisan politics. After all, as Audre Lorde said, “There is no single-issue struggle because we do not lead single-issue lives.” Allowing 377A to influence how our electoral politics play out might only be to the detriment of our democratic development.
A caveat: The place of divisive social issues in partisan politics
To be clear, I fully agree with what Pritam said about “not turn[ing] Section 377A into a political issue by pandering either to conservatives or liberals.” The electoral landscape in Singapore is complicated enough as it is and it would not do anyone any good to add an issue like 377A to the fray.
From a pragmatic perspective,WP’s reluctance to take a position on the issue makes sense. As someone who wishes to see greater political accountability, I fully support WP doing whatever it takes to maintain or expand the number of seats that it has in Parliament.
Even if they refuse to take a position on more politically inexpedient issues, their mere presence in the parliamentary chambers can have a salutary effect on the operation of another branch of our government, our Judiciary. A more diverse composition in Parliament can encourage a less deferential approach towards constitutional interpretation, which may lead to a more expansive jurisprudence on our fundamental liberties under Part IV of the Singapore Constitution.
This is because greater political diversity could promote the judicialisation of politics, which stems from the fact that courts are ultimately still a political institution that is sensitive to the political environment in which they operate. Scholars have observed that “credible threats on the court’s autonomy and harsh political responses to unwelcome activism or interventions on the part of the courts have chilling effects on judicial decision-making patterns”. This is especially the case in political environments with a dominant party, which allows the legislature to easily “overrule” the court’s decisions.
Same Same, No Difference?
The main problem I have with Pritam’s speech is the fact that it says a lot but they are neither novel nor significantly distinct from what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has already said during the 2007 parliamentary debate on the repeal of S377A.
The one difference is his wider definition of family, which he suggests should be an “enlightened and inclusive one”. He then mentions how the WP supports “single, widowed and divorced mothers who have to bring up children in difficult circumstances, for women who have been caregivers for their parents and others for the large part of their lives and now need care themselves, for unmarried singles who continue or seek to continue to be part of loving families, for children that their best interests and welfare be put first when their parents are going through a divorce”.
While a more generous interpretation might locate same-sex families in the group “unmarried singles who continue or seek to continue to be part of loving families”, there seems otherwise to be a glaring absence of queer families in his “enlightened and inclusive” definition of family.
We appear explicitly in the next sentence: “[W]e must consider homosexual friends who are coming out and their family members who [are] coming to terms with their sexuality too. Can they not be better supported if they face prejudice and depression?” This is not that different from what PM Lee said: “We should not make it harder than it already is for them to grow up and to live in a society where they are different from most Singaporeans.”
Earlier in his speech, Pritam emphasised that he knows and values his LGBT friends: “I know faculty at NUS who are gay. Those who taught me were some of the finest intellectual minds I have ever come across… I know more than a handful of civil servants who are gay… some of the most even-handed and respectful people I know.”
Similarly, PM Lee said, “[Homosexuals] include people who are responsible and valuable, highly respected contributing members of society. And I would add that among them are some of our friends, our relatives, our colleagues, our brothers and sisters, or some of our children.” As we would find out many years later, this statement was not merely rhetorical.
To his credit, Pritam sounds much warmer towards queer people than PM Lee. Before highlighting how he knows many gay people, Pritam clarified that “[l]ike many of my peers, Section 377A has no effect on my affection and esteem for my LGBT friends.”
Nevertheless, while that may be true, it is also true that 377A still has a significant effect on how young queer people might think of themselves when the only thing they learn about in sexuality education class about their sexual feelings is that it is a criminal offence in Singapore to manifest those feelings. It also has an effect on sexual assault victims when they are deciding whether to come forward to report the violence they have been subjected to. It also has an effect on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in our country that continues to overwhelmingly affect the gay and bisexual communities.
Finally, the last principle that Pritam proposes is to “rise above the culture war”. He cautioned, “ I think we should agree that we cannot let these culture wars [from America] represent the Singapore way. We should not fight over who is more right than the other — we should listen, discuss and debate with the suspicion that we may be wrong, and look for common ground to overcome our differences.”
This is reminiscent of what PM Lee warned gay activists in his 2007 speech as well: “If you try and force the issue and settle the matter definitively, one way or the other, we are never going to reach an agreement within Singapore society.”
There is one interesting difference between the two though. Pritam believes that we can “one day… get to that place where the uneasy compromise we see today transfigures into a unifying consensus marked by a tolerance and understanding”.
In contrast, PM Lee was perhaps less optimistic about his people: “People on both sides hold strong views. People who are presently willing to live and let live will get polarised and no views will change, because many of the people who oppose it do so on very deeply held religious convictions. Discussion and debate is not going to bring them closer together. And instead of forging a consensus, we will divide and polarise our society.”
Nevertheless, beyond calling for people to “talk and listen to each other and make sure the centre holds”, it is not clear how Pritam sees Singapore moving towards a unifying consensus either.
In sum, it is not clear what new contributions Pritam’s speech has made to the current political discourse on 377A. It might provide the justifications for WP’s position on the issue, but the principles that he proposes are not entirely new. There may be a slight shift towards a greater affirmation of queer people, but as with many other issues, the similarities with PAP’s position significantly outweigh the differences. It is understandably difficult to diverge from PAP’s position of compromise but that makes me wonder why he would give the speech in the first place.
On a slightly tangential but nevertheless important note, it seems that a key point in the speech is this: “We should immediately suspect those who try to label our MPs and candidates as anti-gay or pro-gay, anti-family or pro-family, and who campaign for or against WP on this basis. These people targeting WP are trying to politicize the LGBT issue and have a hidden political agenda to do so.” It is no secret that there have been certain factions in our society that have tried to conflate politics with these issues in support of the status quo, both politically and with regard to policy positions on queer issues. This then challenges queer folks and our allies as to how we should respond to this increasingly complex and nuanced socio-political landscape.
A Contradictory Critique of the Culture War
Even in the speech’s title, Pritam makes clear that the problem he is addressing is not so much 377A itself as it is the “culture war” that has emerged from that legal provision. He criticises this culture war for “leav[ing] little room for each side to stop and listen to each other and reduce temperatures”.
In brief, he describes the culture war as such: “Conservatives frame their campaigns as pro-family, while the liberals refer to theirs as the right-to-love.”
A problem with this critique is that while it may be true that there are two visible camps that can be characterised as “pro-family” and “pro-love”, focusing only on these two camps only reifies the very binary he criticises in his speech. Ironically, his speech has since become a “lightning rod” for praise from the “pro-family” camp and criticism from the “pro-love” camp.
Rather than acknowledge and solidify the warring positions, a better way to critique a culture war is perhaps to demystify and deconstruct that culture war. It might have been more helpful to shed light on the vast diversity of views on this issue beyond these two camps that reflect the deep complexities and nuances behind why 377A remains on the books. That could have helped to humanise the very real tension underlying the existence of this law.
For instance, there are religious folks with deeply enriching friendships with queer people who find themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place. Their religious beliefs demand that they oppose the repeal of the law; yet, they understand and feel the pain of their queer friends.
On the other hand, there are queer folks who oppose the repeal out of fear that rocking the boat might only lead to worsened conditions for their communities. Based on the frightening things they have read online, they fear that there might be protests, riots, and violence if the law is finally repealed one day. For that reason, they rather suffer in silence than to live openly in fear.
Ultimately, the “pro-family” and “pro-love” camps speak in abstractions and concepts: of family and morality, of rights and freedom. The lived realities reveal a very different picture: of ambivalence, of sacrifice, of doubt and faith. In the past few years, some groups have tried to amplify these nuances and tensions. An example is the book, “Good News for Bruised Reeds”, which tries to give voice to Christians who struggle with their non-normative sexualities. There are also a number of groups that have sought to provide support and solidarity for those who identify as queer and religious.
Political ambivalence as moral courage?
In his concluding remarks, Pritam declared: “The Workers’ Party will not participate in the culture war over LGBT issues because this is prejudicial to the common good of our society. We seek to rise above it. Because the moral courage required to address the issue of Section 377A is not in reveling in the glory of taking absolute stances on what we believe is right, but in lowering ourselves, swallowing our pride and listening to one another.”
I found his use of the phrase “moral courage” quite troubling for several reasons.
Firstly, moral courage requires the acknowledgement that beyond the debate over whether to repeal S377A, there is real suffering and harm that continue to afflict queer people in Singapore. One can take an equivocal position on 377A but acknowledge that LGBT students and employees continue to face bullying and discrimination in schools and workplaces, that the health of LGBT people is compromised by the lack of inclusive sexuality education and healthcare institutions, that LGBT people continue to face challenges that cisgender-straight people do not in accessing housing, the protection of the law and political representation.
On that last point, Pritam asserted that “[o]ur candidates’ individual conscience about this issue is irrelevant in their selection as candidates. What matters is their integrity, credibility, ability and the depth of their concern for Singapore and Singaporeans.” When the time comes, would WP field an openly gay candidate?
Secondly, Pritam remarked that moral courage is “lowering ourselves, swallowing our pride and listening to one another”. These metaphors of equality and balance often make people feel good but that’s all they do. The reality is, queer people have already swallowed our pride for far too long.
In campaigning for the equality between the sexes, abolitionist Sarah Grimké once wrote, “All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks.” Like the suffrage movement, this is not a debate or conversation between equals. Queer folks have listened for a long time in silence how we are an abomination and a taint on the social fabric of our society. We can lower ourselves no more than we have already been lowered. All we ask is to be heard, to be seen, to exist and to live.
Finally, Pritam’s definition of courage seems rather self-congratulatory for a position that demands close to nothing of him or his party.
In contrast, Maya Angelou once wrote on the meaning of courage in relation to her colleagues who confessed that they had done nothing in the face of racial segregation in the US: “Their responses confirmed my belief that courage is the most important of all the virtues. I thought, had I been white during the segregation era, I also might have taken the line of least resistance.” I’m not sure how the position he has taken is anything more than the line of least resistance available in the present circumstances that is somehow deserving of claims of moral courage.
Ultimately, could WP have taken a different position? Yes. Would it be a politically wise decision? Probably not. But to say that it is what is morally courageous seems to be over-selling themselves, which is nevertheless perhaps unsurprising given that this speech is a prelude to the upcoming electoral campaign.
So, now what?
One thing that Pritam asked rhetorically in his speech hits at the core of this issue and it is something I strongly urge those who care about marginalised and oppressed communities to reflect on it seriously: “Do we want Section 377A to define the ballot box and determine elections?” It should not, because as Audre Lorde has said, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” In making our decisions at the ballot box, we must not dwell on any particular policy or law but think of the larger implications of our votes on our political landscape, on political accountability and what is essential to a functioning democracy.
Ultimately, while it was disappointing to read Pritam’s speech, us queer folks in Singapore are not unfamiliar with feeling disappointed, let down and forgotten. This is only a reminder that change will not come from our political representatives. It might come from the courts one day, but it will not come easy. The disappointment perhaps comes from that unspoken hope that WP (or some other political party) might stand up to Goliath and liberate us all from our legal shackles. That was and should never be the story we tell ourselves of how our liberation will look like.
Rebecca Solnit recently wrote an essay on the danger of heroes: “ Positive social change results mostly from connecting more deeply to the people around you than rising above them, from coordinated rather than solo action. But we like our lone and exceptional heroes, and the drama of violence and virtue of muscle, or at least that’s what we get, over and over, and in the course of getting them we don’t get much of a picture of how change happens and what our role in it might be, or how ordinary people matter.”
Pritam and WP are not going to be the queer community’s heroes and that is okay. We do not need heroes to save us. The marginalised and the oppressed have always had to save ourselves. Others before us have done so many times, and we will do so in Singapore, eventually. We will get there.
Photo by JiaChien. Source: Pink Dot
Daryl Yang is a final-year student reading a double degree in law and liberal arts at Yale-NUS College and the Faculty of Law at the National University of Singapore. He co-founded and served as Executive Director of the Inter-University LGBT Network. He also co-founded and served as Advocacy Director of CAPE (Community for Advocacy & Political Education).