Yawning Bread. February 2007

Workers' Party shies away from the gay issue




For those of us who are liberals (or libertarians, in American-speak), the Workers' Party is not our natural home. As far as I know, they have not really spoken up for freedom of speech and civil rights generally. They said nothing when bloggers were charged under the Sedition Act, nothing again when the government launched a broadside against blogger Mr Brown, zilch when protests were barred from the World Bank/IMF meetings in September 2006, or when Time, Newsweek and other publications were told to put up hostage money.

From its founding in 1957, the party's outlook has been something akin to Fabianism, i.e. soft socialism, and this still seems to be true today. But whereas in the past there was also an awareness of civil rights under leaders David Marshall and J B Jeyaretnam, both of whom lawyers, under the present leader Low Thia Khiang, such concerns seem to have been packed away.

For example, the "our beliefs" page in the party's website essentially states that they believe in the parliamentary process, and only that. It's a defensive-sounding statement, a protestation of loyalty, as if meant to parry possible accusations that they are out to undermine the system as designed by the ruling People's Action Party. There is no mention about overarching beliefs with respect to economic issues, social issues or civil rights. One might be asked to refer to the manifesto, but a manifesto is a collection of the particular, not an exposition of the general.

This observed tendency to avoid being pinned down ideologically or on potentially contentious issues is exacerbated by its need to defend Hougang at all costs [1]. Understandably, any party would try its best to avoid alienating any section of voters, especially if there is a fear that should it ever lose its toehold in Parliament, it would wither and die. Might the preferred solution be to say as little as possible, and try to ride the illusion that the party can be all things to all voters?

Yet, the party must stay in the public eye for brand recognition. As well, it has to chip away at political apathy since apathy tends to work in the ruling party's favour. These, I believe, were the motivating reasons for its youth wing to hold a public forum on the Penal Code on 3 February 2007. But once you hold a forum, you have to say something, don't you?

It was a crash waiting to happen. The lesbian and gay participants there wanted a Yes/No answer to the (for them) burning question of decriminalisation. The party had wanted to avoid the subject, but was eventually forced to reveal its position: No. This reply became a prominent part of nearly all reports about the forum, thus immediately collapsing an issue which the party had hoped to avoid [2].

* * * * *

A report about the forum can be found at the Singapore Patriot blog. It was also reported in the Sunday Times, 4 February 2007 [3]. I myself was unable to attend, so I had to depend on reports in the media and the audio recording made by a friend who was present. 

Of the 4 speakers, only Sylvia Lim and Firuz Khan were from the Workers' Party. Thomas Koshy and Anthony Yeo were guest speakers, so what they said should not be taken as the party's position. Firuz Khan, reported to have mainly read from his notes, contrasted the process for law-making in the UK with Singapore's. Thus, all we're left with, for the purpose of understanding where the party stands in relation to the proposed amendments to the Penal Code -- the subject of the forum -- is Sylvia Lim's talk [4].

She focussed on 4 main issues:

  • An increase in maximum jail terms for many offences and the lack of justification for such a move; 
  • the abandonment of a long-held principle that judges can only imposes sentences combing a fine and imprisonment, or canning and imprisonment, but not all three -- some proposed amendments to the Penal Code will allow a sentence to combine all three in future; 
  • a few inconsistencies about selling obscene objects to young people – she suggested setting the age of maturity consistently at 18, instead of at 21 for sex and censorship and 18 for drinking, smoking and serving National Service; 
  • and the general tone of the amendments -- she said "the amendments seem to be taken mainly from a prosecution point of view", with no attempt to examine the law in terms of whether it offers the defence adequate scope.

Her bottom line was that Singapore appeared to be "moving towards being a very punitive society". She asked, "is this good for an inclusive society?"

I don't intend to dismiss the importance of the issues she raised, especially the first point about jail terms being increased. I too do not think any case has been made out for them. However, what struck me most was how none of Sylvia Lim's 4 issues could be described as controversial. There was a certain academic quality about them, especially when they were couched as questions worth asking, rather than positions strongly advocated. Make no enemies?


It was left to the 2 invited speakers to expound, in their more forceful ways, their criticisms of the proposed bill. Thomas Koshy lamented the gender bias that ran like a thread -- no, serpent -- through many provisions in the Penal Code and the proposed amendments. He had written an op-ed for 'Today' newspaper on 21 November 2006, highlighting his concerns. On the right, I quote the relevant parts from that article, in order to illustrate his views.

Indeed, the failure of the law to remain gender-blind is a serious issue, and anyone who believes that laws should serve the goals of fairness and justice would agree with Koshy that the proposed amendments to the Penal Code fall way short of that standard, and in quite arbitrary ways too. But note once again, Koshy was not speaking at the forum for the Workers' Party, so the party's views would not necessarily align with his.

Nor would they, necessarily, align with Anthony Yeo's. He spoke on marital rape, making the point that sex, even in marriage, can involve various degrees of coercion [addendum 1]. But would the Workers' Party be taking up the marital rape issue? No clue.

The problem with gender bias and marital rape criticisms is that there are people who hold strong views on the other side of each issue. This may make it risky for the party to embrace any position on these matters.

However, one should bear in mind that the forum quite probably wasn't intended as one for expounding the party's position on various issues. Organised by its youth wing, it was probably meant to serve the broader aim of political education for the public. That is a valid and necessary objective, though it might not have been well communicated as such, with the result that people might have come thinking they'd hear the party's stand on various aspects of the Penal Code. It's an impression that might have been reinforced when the party Chairperson herself, Sylvia Lim, was listed as a speaker.

And so the scene was set for the dénouement.

* * * * *

As soon as questions were invited from the floor, 2 participants threw in the question of Section 377A. That's the part of the Penal Code that criminalises "gross indecency" between males, punishable by up to 2 years in prison. The proposed amendments to the Penal Code do not include a repeal of this law, even as it proposes to repeal "unnatural sex" among heterosexuals.

Roy, the first participant, said it was "gross unfairness"; George, the second person to speak up, called it "gross discrimination" and something "fundamentally against human rights and the Constitution of Singapore."

Sylvia Lim, in her response, revealed that the party had anticipated this question coming up at the forum, and had had "extensive discussions" about the subject. "We are divided over the issue... of decriminalisation of gay sex," she admitted. The party was "not able to come to a decision" on this question, but thereby also implying that no decision meant supporting the status quo.

"There is sympathy for the government's view," she said, although it wasn't clear what exactly was the view she was referring to, because she followed that by saying, "consenting adults should be able to do what they want behind closed doors." To most people, that does not encapsulate the government's view, going by their refusal to repeal the law.

The party would not "move this forward as part of the party agenda," Lim added, "so we will not be making any submission."

Koshy also gave his response. He said his earlier remarks were in response to the government's proposed amendments, and since the government had not proposed such an amendment (to repeal Section 377A), it didn't figure in his talk. However, he told the audience he had mentioned it in the article he wrote for 'Today' last November. For good measure, he added, "if you asked me, I'd say yes [to repeal]".

Participants from the floor continued to press the question, despite the chair trying to move the debate away from it. Finally, one member of the Workers' Party stood up to say that there were "certain moral values that we should uphold." He quickly added the platitude, "not that I am against the community", but nonetheless reiterated, "we should not compromise on morals."

This compelled Sylvia Lim to say, "everyone has the right to their own morals," but also to repeat that "right now, we do not feel we can canvass that agenda."

* * * * *

Politics has been termed the art of the possible, but there's always the risk that a party may come to represent an incoherent hodge-podge of possibles. Inconsistency can become a serious liability when challenged in debate to defend certain positions.

Imagine if the 2 Workers' Party members of parliament were to stand up in the chamber to talk about excessive jail terms and a Penal Code that is too prosecutor-friendly, neglecting adequate scope for the defence -- points made by Sylvia Lim in her talk at the forum -- how do you think the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) would respond?

Any half-competent debater from their side would paint the Workers' Party (WP) as "soft on crime".

PAP: "Is the honourable member for such-and-such constituency standing up for the decent citizens of Singapore, or taking the side of criminals and terrorists?"

One possible response to that would be to say,

WP: "No, that's not where we're coming from. It is mischievous of the honourable member to suggest that we are taking the side of criminals and terrorists. We're just raising the question, asking the minister to justify these proposed changes, such as increasing jail terms. We don't necessarily disagree with them, if they are for the benefit of citizens. We just want to know why."

PAP: "But the very fact that the honourable member has raised the question says it all. Of all the possible criticisms he and his party colleagues can make of this tome of an amendment bill, he has chosen to query this aspect, with the innuendo that these changes are excessive and that he is unconvinced of their necessity. This unusual fascination with jail terms and the rights of criminals suggests that they fail to realise that adequately deterrent penalties are necessary to protect the decent citizens of Singapore. Are they trying to be bleeding-heart liberals?"

To avoid being painted into such a corner where the Workers' Party end up having to defend themselves rather than keep the debate on the parliamentary bill, they might adopt the more proven response -- proven in debates in other countries -- to the "soft on crime" accusation: We're not soft on crime; we're strong on human rights and on justice, fairly administered, and this bill violates these principles.

WP: "The approach, as discernable from the various provisions to increase jail terms and give prosecutors great freedom, appears to be a punitive one. Our concern is fairness and respect for legal and civil rights. It would be a sad day for Singapore should innocent people be found guilty, simply because the laws are stacked against them. We are very much FOR the decent citizens of Singapore, when we speak up, as we do now, to defend their civil right to fair process, lest they be railroaded into pleading guilty."

How would the other side respond?

PAP: "Well, this is a new one. I hope the honourable member is not suggesting that the existing judicial system is unfair. I hope he is not casting aspersions on our learned judiciary. As for donning the cloak of rights, when has he spoken up for civil rights before? On what other issues does he prop himself up to defend the civil rights of Singaporeans? Or is this present allusion to fairness and civil rights merely opportunistic?"

© Yawning Bread 


21 Nov 2006
'Today' newspaper

Excerpts from:

How useful, this feedback process?
by Thomas Koshy

Under the proposed amendments, consensual adult gay sex continues to be technically illegal even though it has been openly stated that such "crimes" will not be actively prosecuted. Is this "shut one eye" approach desirable? Should consensual adult gay sex be decriminalised altogether instead?

The proposed amendments make consensual oral sex with a girl aged between 14 and 16 a crime attracting the same proposed penalty as vaginal or anal sex - up to 10 years' imprisonment plus fine. Will this unnecessarily make criminals of teenage boys? Should consensual oral sex with a minor be as serious as vaginal sex which can lead to unwanted pregnancy and the spread of disease?

Even if oral sex with a girl below 16 years of age is to be a crime, isn't the girl as much punishable as the boy? After all, the girl may very well be the more active party. But there is no provision for punishment of the female.

Is there a gap in the proposed amendments in that they seem to deliberately avoid criminalising sex by a woman with an underaged boy? This year alone, there have been a number of cases in America involving mature females prosecuted for having sex with males below 16 years of age. How would such cases be dealt with in Singapore?

Under the proposed amendments, if a man pays a girl under 18 years of age for sexual services it is an offence - but if a woman pays a boy under 18 years of age, it is not. Should it be so?



  1. Hougang is the sole constituency that the Workers' Party won in the May 2006 general election. It is represented by Low Thia Khiang. However, Sylvia Lim is also a member of parliament, as a non-constituency MP.
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  2. The report on the Worker's Party's own website however, gave no details of what transpired during the Q&A.
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  3. In the story, "WP asks Govt to explain Penal Code amendments; It wants Government to justify why it is necessary to increase maximum jail terms by three times or four times" by Zakir Hussain, Sunday Times, 4 Feb 2007, it was reported that "The question-and-answer later also touched on the continued criminalisation of gay sex and the party's stand on it. Ms Lim said the WP would not dispute this law being on the books. Party leaders discussed the issue extensively but were divided on it."
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  4. The text of Sylvia Lim's talk at the 3 Feb 2007 forum can be found at
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  1. Thanks to a reader, I am informed that audio recordings of Anthony Yeo's talk can be found here (part1) and here (part 2).
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