Yawning Bread. 18 December 2007

Christopher de Souza's four rebuttals




To some readers, the debate about Section 377A of the Penal Code is now old news. However, a few speeches by Members of Parliament cry out for examination, even if it's just for the record. Christopher de Souza's is one. [1] 

He was among the MPs who spoke against repeal. The overall shape of his speech was in the form of rebuttals of 4 arguments that, he said, were favoured by proponents of repeal. Graphically, it took this form:


Taking the first argument that Section 377A is inexcusably intrusive, even into private choices and behaviour he argued in rebuttal that there was also a public dimension to it, and this public dimension took the form of social consequences that would follow should the state give equivalency in liberty to both heterosex and homosex.

He said: "[If] we do repeal section 377A, what is in private will not remain private. There are far-reaching consequences."

Already, one sees a slick side-stepping of the point. He doesn't actually rebut the fact that the law intrudes into private behaviour although he is claiming to do so. He merely draws attention to that fact that a change in the law will have an impact on the public, which is quite a different meaning of "private/public". It is also little more than a truism. Of course, if you change a law -- any law -- it has some public impact, but how would that refute the argument that 377A intrudes into private lives?

More specifically, he said, should the law be repealed, "homosexual lifestyle no longer remains private but travels into spheres traditionally reserved for heterosexual couples".

What on earth does "spheres traditionally reserved for" mean? I can well put it in another way: privileges that heterosexuals want for themselves and themselves only, with no other justification except that it is customary.

De Souza then lists 4 spheres:

1. Marriage

He argued that countries which first began by decriminalising homosexuality have since gone on to legalise same-sex marriages and civil unions. At no point did De Souza explain why this was a bad outcome. He merely left it as understood that that since it would break the monopoly that heterosexuals had of this privilege, it should be obvious it was bad.

2. Adoption

Again he assumed that adoption by same-sex couples, legal in many countries, would be a bad thing. He asked rhetorically, "Do we want our family-centric culture and the traditional definition of family to be threatened?"

As you'd notice, he was saw culture and tradition (read: habitual privileges) as threatened. He didn't explain why it was important to preserve either of them.

3. Spousal Rights

Same-sex partners are now getting such rights and benefits as opposite-sex spouses used to enjoy exclusively, e.g. inheritance and medical benefits, even in countries that have not yet legalised same-sex marriage. De Souza then said this would be problematic as it would necessitate a review of other laws. "How will we cope in Singapore, where traditional definitions of family and marriage had been the bedrock of the HDB policies? How would it affect the laws of intestacy? Would we then to change the definitions of spouse under, say, the CPF Act or Income Tax Act?"

His point? To be faced with a need to review other laws for consistency is necessarily a huge obstacle and thus a compelling reason not to change one law. How will we cope? he asked.

4. Education

"Do we want to see our children being taught that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle choice? " De Souza assumed that the answer must evidently be No. In fact he didn't even feel the need to elaborate beyond saying "This is something that we should all think carefully about."

Yet, if one actually thinks about the matter, one cannot but see parallels with how our education system sets out to teach respect for and appreciation of other cultures and lifestyles. Trite though it may be, we even have a Multi-Racial Harmony Day. We consider ourselves wiser and more advanced than, say, a hundred years ago when it was taught that the Anglo-saxon lifestyle, values and associated morals were superior to those of the less civilised natives. White missionaries went around putting down paganism. People of that era would have been aghast to learn that schools today teach the equivalency of cultures, histories and religions.

To sum up these sub-points, de Souza reiterated that "a repeal would have far-reaching consequences" in his attempt to shut the door on the intrusiveness argument. Indeed, repeal would have consequences but it is precisely for those consequences that we argue for repeal. If repeal changes nothing, we won't bother. However, de Souza failed to show how the consequences are necessarily negative in terms of the public interest. That some or many people might view them negatively is not the same as being negative in the public interest. He was hopelessly confusing the two.

For example, raising taxes is usually viewed negatively by many people, yet it can serve a public interest, since a government with the financial means to do its job providing social services is an overall public good.


De Souza's second rebuttal attempted to deal with the pro-repeal argument that consensual homosex does not cause any demonstrable harm, but his rebuttal consisted of just two sentences: "Some say that the retention of section 377A does not shield society from harm. I do not think that line of argument is defensible in light of the possible consequences the repeal may bring."

As you can see, he referred to the consequences he had outlined earlier, conflating consequences with harm, and quickly waved his Q.E.D. [2] 

Lack of enforcement

Then he turned his attention to the pro-repeal argument that 377A had not been used against consensual homosex for years. The government itself had said it would not be "pro-actively enforced". The Law Society too said that keeping an unenforced law on the books risks "bringing the law into disrepute".

De Souza however, noted that "In fact, the Ministry has just confirmed in the Second Reading of the Bill that it has been enforced in certain circumstances. By retaining section 377A, the consequences listed above can be prevented." (emphasis mine)

What are those circumstances? Let's look closely at what Senior Minister of State Ho Peng Kee said at the start of the parliamentary debate on 22 October 2007:

Police has not been proactively enforcing the provision and will continue to take this stance. But this does not mean that the section is purely symbolic and thus redundant. There have been convictions over the years involving cases where minors were exploited and abused or where male adults committed the offence in a public place such as a public toilet or back-lane.

De Souza, intentionally or otherwise, read way too much into Ho's mention of enforcement. In any case, how those instances of enforcement -- against sex with minors and sex in public -- have anything to do with de Souza's "consequences listed above", i.e. marriage, adoption, spousal rights and educating for tolerance, was an unbridged logical gap.

Scientific arguments that homosexuality is genetic

The parliamentarian's last rebuttal was aimed at the supposed claim that sexual orientation is genetic. No one actually makes a claim as simple as that; rather, the chief argument is that sexual orientation is not something anyone chooses and feels as innate as other aspects of personhood such as sex, hair colour and inborn talent. One of the supporting arguments to that is that among males, there is a genetic component to sexual orientation as shown from how identical male twins share sexual orientation more often than non-identical male twins. 

Acknowledging that there had been scientific studies indicating a genetic influence, De Souza cited an opposing study: "Later twin studies have been drawn from broader, more representative samples. In a recent large-scale study by two universities, i.e. Yale and Columbia, researchers concluded that 'We find no support for genetic influences on same-sex preferences net of social structural constraints.' "

When I heard him speak, I thought it strange that I had not heard of this Yale Columbia study. So I looked it up and discovered why it was not widely cited. It (Bearman and Bruckner, 2001 [3]) consisted of just one question in a poll of school adolescents: "Have you ever had a romantic attraction to a female (male)?" Such a simplistic method from a sample so young is far from meaningful.

Moreover, this "large-scale study"  was not uniquely large. Compare the sample sizes with that of a more widely cited study, by Michael Bailey et al, 2000 [4], using twins from the Australian Twin Registry aged 17 50:


Unlike the Bearman & Bruckner study, Bailey et al's consisted of multiple questions about various aspects of sexuality, and the researchers were thus able to plot concordance rates based on different definitional criteria for homosexuality. The concordance rates found between twins can be seen in the table below. "Concordance rate" is the percentage of the other twin sibling being non-heterosexual if one sibling is non-heterosexual.


This is not the place to go into a full discussion of the significance of concordance rates in twins. I cited the above just to illustrate why de Souza's argument fails. He should remember not to misrepresent the question as merely one of "is homosexuality genetic?" because no one asserts such a simple basis, nor try to rebut the misrepresented argument by relying on a poll of teenagers.

Yawning Bread 





Since sexual orientation is a continuum, it is possible to define it in different ways. A common way is to plot it on a Kinsey scale ranging from 0 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual). 

In the Bailey study, there are two sets of results those based on a strict criteria (Kinsey score 2 or higher) and lenient criteria (Kinsey score 1 or higher).



  1. Christopher de Souza is a lawyer and a People's Action Party Member of Parliament for Holland-Bukit Timah Group Representation Constituency. His speech can be seen at Christopher de Souza's speech against repeal of 377A 
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  2. Latin: quod erat demonstrandum - "which was to be demonstrated", used at the end of mathematical proofs 
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  3. See the highly technical paper here 
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  4. See the highly technical paper here
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