In an about-turn from the previous Bush administration, the Obama presidency announced in March this year that it will sign a UN declaration calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality and the protection of human rights for peoples of different sexual orientation and gender identity around the world.
While not a legally binding document, 66 members of the UN have signed the statement which reaffirms the principle of non-discrimination of every human individual, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The declaration condemns killings, torture, arbitrary arrest, and “deprivation of economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to health for LGBTQI, the acronym for peoples who are gay, lesbian, queer, questioning, transgender and intersex.
While some critics may charge that it is a form of Western values imposition on the rest of the world, the list of signatories reveal otherwise, with states from Asia (e.g Japan), Latin America (Uruguay and Venezuela) and Africa (Central Africa Republic) endorsing the document.
In Singapore, the gay issue was blown out of proportion when the ruling party decided to retain the colonial legislation, 377A, that criminalises same-sex male behaviour. It argued that 377A exists not to actively persecute gays, but merely to act as a moral indicator of the times. This is however a circular justification given there are no scientifically accurate polls on how Singaporeans feel about the topic given its tightly controlled media and repressive laws on freedom of expression and assembly.
Recently, the issue of homosexuality was re-ignited with the “AWARE saga”. A group of women who belongs to a conservative evangelical Christian organisation joined the feminist NGO and voted themselves into the EXCO. It turned out that they were upset at AWARE’s programs, which in their opinion, had become too pro-gay and pro- abortion. The former leaders of the group stated they were being secular and were advocating “pro-choices” when it comes to educating women and their rights.
Throughout both episodes (repeal of 377A and AWARE saga), the ruling and opposition parties have remained relatively silent. While the PAP has continued to defend its stance on 377A, it is relatively eager to let the pro- and anti-377A camps play itself out through the heated conversations in the blogosphere. On the AWARE saga, none of the PAP or Opposition MPs have openly made any statements on this matter.
While the AWARE saga is mainly a matter of concern only to members of AWARE and its supporters, and to a lesser extent, other parties in civil society, the 377A debate is not. It is a curiosity (some might say aberration) that the Opposition has yet to make any comments on the gay issue, in particular, 377A. There is apparently a lack of motivation, on the part of both the ruling party and the Opposition, to woo the “pink vote”.
That is not surprising given the Opposition has always been more comfortable confronting PAP on mainly economic or bread and butter issues which the latter perceives that its success is hinged on. Social justice issues tend to be less discussed, the exception being the SDP which has championed human rights and questioned the ruling party’s record, especially on its civil and political rights. In this respect, the Opposition needs to gain greater confidence.
Regardless of the controversy of 377A this is a litmus test for any political party, in particular the Opposition, as it could prove its willingness and adeptness to fight for the rights of the minority, however unpopular it may seem at the time. The Opposition should aspire to envision and struggle for a more just and equitable society that treats any minority with respect, not just questioning the PAP over bread and butter issues.
If Barack Obama, who is viewed positively by many parts of the world as “an American President for Change”, can endorse a statement calling for non-discrimination against sexual minority groups around the world, there is no reason why Singapore’s political parties are not able to do so.
On gay issues, the Opposition can adopt and explore practical strategies with both educational and activism functions that will hopefully and gradually create a more liberal and progressive society.
For a start, through informal or formal consultations with the public and within the party itself, the Opposition can issue position papers on gay equality, declaring their stance for the support of gay rights and what they will do to achieve these goals.
Moreover, coming out in support of gay rights need not be done in isolation. It could form part of an overall agenda to promote human rights. Urging the current government to respect human rights will be a long term struggle but it needs to start now given the city state is lagging behind many others.
Joint statements, manifestos or charters could be drafted demanding the PAP government to respect citizens’ human rights as well as sign major UN Human Rights Declarations and in the case of conventions, ratify these documents. Singapore is non-signatory to a growing collection of such documents and treaties from the UN declaration against the death penalty, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Inevitably, such a process will generate media debate, foster good-will and co-operation amongst civil society and provide a spring board for future activism activities.
The language of human rights is a growing world-wide phenomenon that will gain greater currency. If Singapore is to integrate or at least be a responsible member state in an increasingly globalised world, it will be increasingly measured by this yardstick. Respecting human rights especially within its own borders is therefore a must, not a luxury or Western invention as the PAP has distortedly claimed. In that aspect, gay rights is by no means any different from any other branches of human rights that sought to protect the rights of other minorities such as the disabled or indigenous peoples.
Charles Tan is a member of the Young Democrats.