Yawning Bread. July 2007

This month, the Christian rightwing finds 3 more villains


    

 

 

The latest run of the gay issue began with Janadas Devan's article in the Straits Times. (Straits Times, 7 July 2007, 'Can mum, mum and kids make a family?') [1] This was barely a week after Lee Kuan Yew kept the issue alive by reiterating to Berita Harian (the Malay newspaper) his point that eventually, Singapore will have to repeal the anti-gay law. Lee had made that point earlier, in April, at St James Power Station, which had resulted in a month of letters on the subject.

Janadas' column was probably the most pro-gay piece ever published in the Straits Times in years, if not ever. The usual letters from Christian quarters now zeroed in on him, with headlines such as "Let's conserve our marriage constitution as one between man and woman". [2]

I know that Janadas himself noticed that just about all these letters were written from a Christian perspective. Where were the Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, Muslims, freethinkers?

I also know that he was rather shocked at how "medieval" some of those arguments were. One letter-writer, Claire Nazar, said, "Even if a 'homosexual' gene was discovered, this does not change the Christian perspective on the issue. Christian theology considers death, sicknesses, cancers, genetic mutation and even an eventual finding of a 'homosexual' gene (or genetic defect) as the results of sin and flouting of God's moral order."

In effect she was saying that even if something is not your doing, e.g. your sexual orientation, your race, or that you caught leprosy, if Christianity condemns it, then it is perfectly reasonable for Christians to persecute you for it. It is God's will after all that you be persecuted.

The nearest equivalent to this kind of thinking is found in reactionary Hinduism where people believe that if you're born into the lowest castes, you should suffer all the abuses heaped on you throughout your life without complaint, since it's your karma.

Also parallel is the extreme brand of Islam, as demonstrated by the Talibans, who deprived all females of education or any rights whatsoever, simply because they were born female.

We should be concerned, very concerned, that such habits of logic have taken root in Singapore.

* * * * *

 
Eight days after Janadas' article appeared, the Christians found themselves fighting on another front. People's Action Party Member of Parliament Baey Yam Keng said at a forum [3] that if a vote came up in Parliament and the party was lifted, he would vote for repeal.

Those were two very big if's, which, frankly, render his answer quite hypothetical. But they were enough to alarm the Christian rightwing. The citadel walls have been breached again.

Letters poured in with headlines such as "Legalising something that is not right does not make it right" and "Views of 'conservative' majority must be heard, not just those of 'progressive thinkers'." [4]

Kenneth Vaithilingam, in his letter, reminded Baey, "as the representative of the people of Tanjong Pagar, although only one part of five, he is supposed to reflect their views in Parliament and not only his personal ones."

I do not recall him reminding Lee Kuan Yew, who is also an MP for Tanjong Pagar, of the same, when Lee expressed his views just 3 months earlier.

In any case, Vaithilingam needs to be careful what he wishes for. At the rate at which social attitudes are changing in Singapore, he shouldn't assume that the majority will be with him much longer.

* * * * *

 


   

The morning after the Baey issue burst open, renowned actor Ian McKellen joined the fray. In a television interview on CNA's Primetime Morning, when asked what he'd hope to do during his free time while he was in Singapore, he said, "I'll be rather controversial. I'm a gay man, and I gather that that's not quite the proper thing to be although maybe the laws are going to change and I do hope they do change. I've been looking for a gay bar, if there's such a thing. So that's what I've been looking for.... If you've got any ideas...." [5]

He followed that up with more during an interview with the radio station Class 95. In it he was even more forthright: "Just treat us with respect like we treat everybody else and the world will be a better place, I think."

He added, "Coming to Singapore where unfortunately you've still got those dreadful laws that we British left behind ... it's about time Singapore grew up, I think, and realised that gay people are here to stay." [6]  [7]

McKellen was here with the Royal Shakespeare Company for their stagings of Shakespeare's King Lear and Anton Chekhov's The Seagull.

Well, so far, I haven't seen irate letters to the press about his remarks. He, at least has been spared.

* * * * *

 
This month, the anti-gay letters have far outnumbered the pro-gay ones. And as I said above, virtually all the anti-gay letters were written from the Christian perspective.

The best reason I can think of for why other segments of the population aren't writing in is that the subject doesn't exercise them very much. This supports a point I made at the same forum where Baey was speaking, which is that we need to make a distinction between people who are just uncomfortable with the idea of gays and lesbians in their midst -- and this is usually due to mere unfamiliarity -- and those who are out to campaign for discrimination. I think the latter is in fact a very small minority, and almost always motivated by fundamentalist Christianity, while the former are not ideologically opposed and in time can change their views. However, their silence and their general discomfort make it easy for the politicking Christians to claim that the majority is with them.

Why aren't more gays and lesbians writing to the press? Surely this is an issue that very much concerns them?

I'm not certain about the answer to this one. Perhaps there is a mix of reasons. There's complacency that segues into apathy, and there's cynicism. Complacency because there is a growing feeling that time is on their side -- this especially after Lee Kuan Yew said that eventually the law has to go.

Another possibility is that they may feel that writing to the press achieves nothing. In the end, the government decides what it wants to decide. Why stir yourself to speak up?

Cynicism is just as likely. And it's not a good sign, for it means that gay Singaporeans may no longer feel any ownership of this place. In their minds, they've written Singapore off. They are not convinced that the "system" will ever give them a fair deal, looking at how the government has acted with little more than cravenness so far.

The danger is this: If Singaporeans themselves don't believe that the government will ever treat them fairly, why should gay foreign talent do so? But as Richard Florida argued in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, the gay index is just a surrogate for the general attractiveness of a city for "clever people", to use Janadas Devan's words. Thus the failure to be convincing on this score may well suggest a general failure to achieve the much-desired buzz, without which, what hope of a creative capital city, retaining our best and brightest and attracting talent from around the world?

I know from many "whispers from the inside" that the government's calculation is that the Christian rightwing cannot be ignored, that is to say, they acknowledge they are now being held hostage by them. The cabinet was shocked by the ferocious, organised opposition to the casino proposals in 2004, and no longer have the guts to stand up to the Christian religionists.

My feeling is that it is unlikely that the government will be moved from its present position of not repealing, softened with a promise of not enforcing. I would hope I'm being too pessimistic, and that they would indeed take a deep breath and find the courage to do the right thing. But when Lee Kuan Yew himself chose to take the matter public in April, I kind of knew where things stood, at least at that point in time.

By his actions, he was saying, the government does not have the strength to stand up to the Singapore churches, and he was pleading for patience and forgiveness from gays and lesbians. He was conceding that the government's position was morally wrong and in terms of Singapore's long-term economic interest, unwise, but was too impotent to make it right.

Yawning Bread 


 

Yawning Bread has been silent for the last two and a half weeks, just when the gay issue erupted again. It must have been frustrating for some readers, hoping for my take on things.

The main reason was that in late June and early July, I had to deal with a small family crisis, then, even after the crisis had passed, I was so exhausted, I took a short holiday. When I got back, Indignation 2007 was demanding my full attention, and so I had to devote a week working on it.

But the secondary reason was that it's my habit to let an issue play itself out a bit before I comment. It's not my style to give an immediate reaction.

 

Footnotes

  1. See Can mum, mum and kids make a family? 
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  2. See Letters to the press re 'Can mum. mum and kids' 
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  3. The forum, held on 15 July 2007, was organised by Wild Rice, a theatre company, in conjunction with Alfian Sa'at's new play, Asian Boys Vol 3 - Happy Endings. See press reports in MP Baey supports repeal
     
    Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong was also there, and he too said he supported repeal. Unlike Baey, however, his views had been known earlier, and so did not make quite the same headlines. Furthermore, Baey was a People's Action Party MP, whereas Siew was independent.
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  4. See Letters to the press re MP Baey supports repeal 
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  5. Ian McKellen's words were captured in this YouTube videoclip  
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  6. Source: Australian Broadcasting Corp, 18 July 2007, 'Recognise gay rights, McKellen urges Singapore' 
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  7. See also the reports by AFP and Reuters in Ian McKellen wades into Singapore gay rights debate 
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Addenda

None