This is written from a Straits Times journalist in response to the parliamentary debate on S377A.
27 Oct 2007
By Janadas Devan
I CONFESS: I found the parliamentary debate on Section 377A of the Penal Code exceedingly depressing. It is no fun at all finding oneself holding a view - I believe the provision is odious and should be scrapped - with so little support.
Of the 82 PAP MPs, only 3-1/2 expressed views that resembled mine - Mr Charles Chong, Mr Hri Kumar and Mr Baey Yam Keng. The half was Ms Indranee Rajah, who suggested 377A might be scrapped at some point, only not in this century. Her citation of how long it took to end slavery suggested we might have to wait roughly 2,500 years.
Of the nine NMPs, only one, Mr Siew Kum Hong, who presented the citizens' petition calling for the repeal of 377A, stood up for homosexuals. And among the three opposition MPs, none did.
My depression was infinitely deepened when I read NMP Thio Li-Ann's parliamentary phillipic - entitled Two Tribes Go To (Culture) War - as well as her Insight article yesterday. She was brilliant, incisive, learned, witty and civil. The 'moral conservative majority' has found a formidable warrior - notice that 'War'; and my side - the immoral liberal minority? - was left looking stupid, speechless, confused, sour-faced and uncivil.
Consider how she tore to shreds so many of our cherished beliefs. The idiots that we are, we had believed 'pluralism' meant, among other things, 'autonomy and retention of identity for individual bodies', a 'society in which the members of minority groups maintain their independent cultural traditions', 'a system that recognises more than
one ultimate principle or kind of being', as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it.
But we were wrong. 'Democratic pluralism,' Prof Thio wrote incisively yesterday, 'welcomes every view in public discussion, but does not commit the intellectual fallacy of saying every view is right. The goal is to ascertain the right view for the circumstances.' That means that under certain circumstances - to be determined by whatever passes for
the majority at any moment, I suppose - pluralism can insist on a singular 'ultimate principle or kind of being'.
We silly fellows had also misunderstood the nature of secularism. We had thought it meant separation of religion from the state, politics and public policy. We were wrong. As Prof Thio explained trenchantly in her 'culture war' speech: 'Religious views are part of our common morality. We separate 'religion' from 'politics' but not 'religion'
from 'public policy' (emphasis mine).
I never knew that! I had always assumed that it was necessary to separate religion from politics as well as public policy, for it was impossible to separate public policy from politics, and both from the state. But it turns out my assumption was baseless.
Jawaharlal Nehru, a Brahmin who insisted on untouchability being banned in the Indian Constitution despite the opposition of many caste Hindus, simply did not understand a thing about secularism. Bishop Desmond Tutu, a Methodist who insisted that discrimination against homosexuals be prohibited in the South African Constitution, was similarly clueless. And all those Enlightenment chaps in powdered wigs who insisted on the separation of church and state in the United States - in part, because there was no 'common morality' among religions - well, silly fellows, they knew nothing.
Yes, I must admit, Prof Thio demolished my side with astonishing ease. First, her big guns - pluralism is not plural; secularism can be religiously informed - left us limbless. Then, equally impressively, the cultural warrior sliced and diced us with her rapier wit and uncommon civility. We were finally left with our torsos tossed into ideological ditches and our heads stuck on cultural pikes.
'To say a law is archaic is merely chronological snobbery,' she thundered, referring to 377A. That sent me reeling. So original! So conclusive! So brilliant!
'Chronological snobbery' was first coined by Owen Barfield and C.S. Lewis, two eminent British popular theologians. It first appeared in print, I think, in Lewis' moving spiritual autobiography, Surprised By Joy. Lewis and Barfield coined it to stigmatise modern 'intellectual fashions' that they thought consigned unfairly religious faith to a seemingly unregenerate past.
Prof Thio, a most learned person, must have known of the origin of this phrase in theological controversy, and she brilliantly extended it to the law. And if one linked this extension to the profound truths she uncovered about public policy in a secular state, one would see how her stigmatisation of 'chronological snobbery' can be extended further
still. All those in favour of teaching 'intelligent design' alongside Darwin's theory of evolution in schools, raise your hands. Done! Education Ministry, please take note.
Then there was her wit, deployed so civilly. Anal sex is like 'shoving a straw up your nose to drink', she said. A colleague of mine googled that and discovered it was an often cited image in American anti-gay pamphlets. To top that, she said 377A must be kept on the books so we can say 'Majullah Singapura', not 'Mundur Singapura'. If you did not get the joke, here is a clue: Mundur means 'backward' in Malay, and 'backward' here alludes to that 'straw' and another orifice. See? Now, isn't that funny?
Oh, I cried when I read that. Imagine that: The moral conservative majority makes better vulgar jokes than the immoral liberal minority - and in Parliament too. If the immoral minority cannot beat the moral majority even in this department, we are really and truly kaput.
What sent me into shock was the discovery that Singapore is actually the US. I am referring to Prof Thio's sources of inspiration. Google 'culture war' and you will discover them.
The term was made famous by Mr Patrick Buchanan, a right-wing conservative (many would say zealot) who challenged former president George H.W. Bush, a moderate, for the Republican presidential nomination in 1992. At the Republican convention that year, Mr Buchanan alarmed many Americans by declaring: 'There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.'
Once one understands the milieu from which this statement issues, one would understand the origins of Prof Thio's profound understanding of pluralism and secularism. It does not derive from the Enlightenment or from contemporary Europe or Asia. It derives from the American religious right. It is they who insist pluralism cannot ultimately be plural; it is they who demand public policy be informed by religious beliefs.
And all but a few thumped their seats when Prof Thio finished her speech? They must have missed the radical - yes, radical and extreme - nature of her claims. One person who did not, I think, was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. My colleague Chua Mui Hoong reported he did not thump his seat.
That lifted my depression somewhat. I did not like one bit the upshot of the Prime Minister's speech - that 377A will stay because the majority, especially Christians and Muslims, are opposed to its scrubbing. But I was proud of what he had to say, and how he said it.
There are 'limits', he said, for homosexuals in Singapore. But there would be limits too, in how religious beliefs are applied in the policing of homosexuals. Section 377A will not be applied 'proactively', he said - meaning, it will be inoperative.
Mr Stuart Koe, chief executive of gay Asian portal Fridae.com, was wrong to liken 377A to a gun being put to the heads of homosexuals and not pulling the trigger. There is a gun, it remains symbolically loaded, but it has been laid down.
For that - a small victory - we have to thank old-fashioned pluralism, not Prof Thio's radical rewriting of it. Some of us - our children, our friends, our siblings - have different sexual orientations, so let's give them space.
For the rest - well, we will have to wait, but hopefully, not for 2,500 years.