Monday, October 22, 2007

Diversity in Adversity ....

I was at the University of Michigan Alumni dinner last night, and the guest of honor was Dr Balaji Sadasivan, Senior Minister of State (Foreign Affairs and Information, Communications and the Arts). He addressed the crowd with a speech that covered 3 main topics - economy, Myanmar and diversity. He talked about growth, and spoke about ASEAN as well as the troubled "family member" Myanmar, and under diversity, the issue that is on everyone's lips these days, gay rights and Section 377A.

For the uninitiated, 377A is a law that was passed down from the British law system which was implemented by the Singapore government when she went independent. The Penal Code of Singapore, in Section 377a, provides for a jail sentence for up to two years should a man be found to have committed an act of "gross indecency" with another man.

With particular emphasis, he stated that the revising the Penal Code 377A and debating the issue is not going to do much to benefit the society at this juncture in time because we are not mature enough to deal with this divisive topic at this time. And until we're have reached the level maturity to deal with such divisive topic, we should not let it divide us. In his words "Unlike the US, though, where the antagonists over such issues need never meet, Singapore is small and interconnected in many ways and "should not allow divisiveness to become a feature of our society"."

So yours truly here :) asked with respect to the maturity level of our society, and given the reality that we can never change the fact that Singapore is small and interconnected in many ways, what will he see as an "indicator" that we will be a mature enough society to deal with such issues? Of course, politicians will always be politicians ... he went on reiterating what he said before and finally concluding (repeating) that our society is not ready to discuss it and it should be dealt with at a less divisive time.

So the question was siamed, and being the polite me, I didn't pursue for further answers. Right after he finished with the answer to my question, he ran off immediately after the "Today" newspaper journalist and caught her before she left the place. It was an awkward moment given the MC was just saying "let's give a warm round of applause" and while clapping halfway, he was running out of the hall chasing after the journalist. Well, he came back after saying something to the journalist and the MC thanked him again, and we clapped again :D. Well, the today newspaper reporter subsequently SMS me to thank me for asking that question becasue she was not allowed to do so. Guess what's on the front page news on Today? :D ... ahahhahah

I am still pondering over why did he siam my question when actually, it would have given him an opportunity to clarify what he meant by maturity level of our society. I did not even specifically ask him to address the issue with respect to 377A, rather phrasing my question saying "divisive issues, like for instance 377A". I gave him the chance to deal it metaphorically but he decided to treat it like a question directly about 377A. Well it could well be that he is not beating around the bush (which he still did) or he was just focused on trying to address the 377A-related issue that he failed to listen to my actual question.

I was hoping that he would address the maturity issue with more clarity. Really what would be an indicator of maturity of the nation? When will Singapore be "mature"? Who and what decide the maturity level of a society? Does it mean the government is not mature enough to discuss it too? If divisive topics should not be discussed when it is being hotly discussed, should we wait till it is a non-issue before we discuss it? Then why the hell do we even want to discuss it then?

Nonetheless, he definitely came prepared for the 377A issue to be raised, and made clear his and the party's stand - which is really not a stand at all.

Here's the article from Today copied below. (Link)

Time has not come to deal with revision to 377A, says Balaji

Tan Hui Leng

diversity is a strength for any society.
Be it diversity of race, culture, skills or views, said Dr Balaji Sadasivan yesterday as he called for tolerance of such differences.
The challenge, he warned, was in preventing diversity from descending into divisiveness, as it has in the United States. Addressing a University of Michigan Alumni (Singapore) dinner last night, the Senior Minister of State (Foreign Affairs and Information, Communications and the Arts) cited how single-issue lobbies in the US try to "define society" by the single issue they promote or believe in.

"The issue could be gun control, prayer in schools, abortion ban, stem cell research ban, or gay rights.
"There is little dialogue between the proponents and opponents of these issues, only a divisive antagonism," said Dr Balaji, a University of Michigan alumnus, who also spent five years training in neurosurgery at Henry Ford Hospital in Michigan.
Unlike the US, though, where the antagonists over such issues need never meet, Singapore was small and interconnected in many ways and "should not allow divisiveness to become a feature of our society".
"We need a diversity of skills and views in our society so that we can respond to the changing environment in an effective manner," he said.
"As a society, it is better to deal with an issue when we can get enough Singaporeans to believe in tolerance and respect, by that I mean the spirit of tolerance and respect ... Then, we can have a meaningful dialogue."
In a dialogue after his speech, Dr Balaji cited Section 377A of the Penal Code — the current law on gay sex — as one such issue.
Responding to a question from a member of the audience, he observed that gay rights is one issue being lobbied intensely by groups on both sides of the divide in the US.
And while this may not have been an issue 10 or 20 years ago, globalisation has brought the debate here, he said.
Citing what other Government leaders such as the Prime Minister and Minister Mentor had said previously, Dr Balaji said that the authorities here take a practical approach to the issue and have not intruded into the bedroom for years. There is no entrapment of gays and there is no discrimination of gays in the civil service, he noted.
So, Section 377A has become a "symbolic issue" for its opponents and proponents.
Most people's views are somewhere in between. "Just as most people would object to the vast prosecution of individuals, many would also object to being bombarded by homosexual literature or posters," said Dr Balaji.
The issue could be dealt at a less divisive time, when society is better ready to discuss it. "Like the PM said, the debate would yield no benefit for Singapore now. So, in the revision of the Penal Code, we're not dealing with Section 377A."
In his speech, Dr Balaji also touched on the issue of Myanmar, which he described as a "troubled family member" of the Association of South-east Asian Nations.
While the regional bloc would do "what (it) can and what is necessary and useful", he said Asean was "realistic" that it alone "cannot make the impact" needed to shift the ruling State Peace and Development Council, referring to Myanmar's military junta.
"Prevailing on the Myanmar regime has to be an effort involving the whole international community," he said.
That includes the "critical role" of the United Nations and the "neutral interlocutor among all the parties", the
The UN Secretary-General's Special Adviser, Mr Ibrahim Gambari, who transited yesterday in Singapore en route to New Delhi from Jakarta.
Mr Gambari met officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who encouraged him to continue his consultations in the region. They assured him Singapore would support his efforts to promote national reconciliation and a political solution in Myanmar, said an MFA spokesman.
They reiterated Singapore's concerns about the situation in Myanmar and expressed hopes that the military junta would extend fullest cooperation to Mr Gambari "by agreeing to his early return … by giving him access to the highest levels of … the government, and by facilitating meetings for him with … in particular Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, members of the National League for Democracy, the monks and members of the State Constitution Drafting Commission", added the spokesman.
As Myanmar's closest friends and neighbours, Dr Balaji called on China and India to exert their influence on the junta, while Japan also plays an important role because it is a major aid donor to Myanmar. So far, China has been helpful in influencing the SPDC to make Mr Gambari's visit fruitful.
Meanwhile, as the current Asean chair, Singapore has taken the lead in issuing a strongly worded statement urging for smooth and non-violent progress toward national reconciliation.


Bitchy Witchy said...

Thank you for asking that question, Mr Chai!!! And check for an post on that too...heh

Anonymous said...

Since someone has informed me that I've an honourable mention here, let me clarify:

1. It was not that I was 'not allowed' to ask about diversity/S377a - and I did indeed ask Dr Balaji about it on Sunday. He was more open in responding to you later.

2. At the end of his speech, Dr Balaji wanted to clarify (with me) on the sources of his response to you.


Yee-wei Chai said...

Wow .... how'd u know about my blog?!? ... wondering if PAP is tapping my phone liao?

Anonymous said...

yes we are... ... now hush up...
btw that exchange you had with your girlfriend that night was pretty hot... my colleagues and I were impressed!


Yee-wei Chai said...

Damn ... did u get it on tape? please don't youtube it ... she's a shy girl ... :D