Why close one eye? Such an attitude towards homosexuality is a lose-lose approach

Today newspaper
8 May 2007

WHY CLOSE ONE EYE?
Such an attitude towards homosexuality is a lose-lose approach

Comment by Thomas Koshy

WHAT is clear from the rejuvenated debate on whether homosexual acts under Section 377A of the Penal Code should be decriminalised is that passions run high over this issue. And where passions run high, reason often runs dry.

Much ink has been spilt arguing whether homosexuality is about nature or nurture, choice or instinct, whether it is sinful or simply an alternative choice of lifestyle. It is unlikely that a consensus is going to be reached anytime soon. But in the fracas over whether gay sex should be a crime, these issues are what one might call pink herrings.

Is the possible repeal of Section 377A really about whether homosexuality is immoral?

Section 377A is a rare mutant in the laws of Singapore. A paper tiger which provides for a punishment of up to two years in prison for homosexual acts but which the authorities have an official “close-one- eye” policy to.

When the Home Affairs Ministry announced the proposed changes to the Penal Code which will soon be debated in Parliament, it said that although Section 377A would not be deleted, it would not be “proactive” in enforcing this law against consensual acts that take place in private.

Indeed, for over 10 years, there has been no prosecution under section 377A for gay sex between consenting adults.

This, of course, does not mean that there has been no gay activity. And it is no secret. Launched last year, the book SQ21: Singapore Queers In The 21st Century tells of gay persons coming out in Singapore and even includes full names and photographs. Bold criminals indeed!

In July 2003, Mr Goh Chok Tong, then the Prime Minister, revealed that the public sector had begun employing openly homosexual people, even for sensitive posts. Criminal civil servants as leaders of society?

So, the argument that repealing Section 377A would transform homosexual sex from a crime into an alternative lifestyle is blind to realities. Surely it already is an alternative lifestyle in modern-day Singapore.

The point is this: What purpose does Section 377A actually serve and what difference could its repeal make when gays – and even the Government – are today carrying on their affairs as though it does not exist? This should be the crux of the debate.

On this key issue, only one argument appears to be at all relevant. It is the somewhat-paranoid slippery slope argument that decriminalising homosexual acts will open the floodgates to all sorts of evils – so that one day gay lobbies might even clash with religious groups and pastors may be prosecuted for preaching that homosexuality is a sin.

Is this not getting leaps and bounds ahead of ourselves? After all, surely religious incitement is a crime in itself – look at what happened to the bloggers charged under the Sedition Act last year.

There is nothing inevitable about what will happen if Section 377A is decriminalised. At every step of liberalisation we can question again whether the next step is a prudent one or not. It is difficult to see why this step of bringing the law in line with real life by repealing Section 377A should lead to a tumble down a black hole of debauchery.

There is another difficult question that those who predict doom if Section 377A is repealed should address. Section 377A only makes male homosexual activity illegal; lesbian acts are not. What great ill has befallen society from that?

An alternative argument could be made that even if Section 377A serves no purpose, leaving it in the Penal Code does no harm. Why change the status quo?

First, there is the negative branding of Singapore as a place where individual freedoms are constrained. This is particularly damaging to Singapore’s attempt to position itself as a global and vibrant city.

Second is the cultural and economic cost suffered from the loss of diversity when gay people shun Singapore. Tolerance of people who are different has been identified as one of the keys to stimulating creativity with its attendant economic benefits.

Third is the confusion that arises from having a law which is officially not enforced. Quite apart from the mistaken notion it may give foreigners that criminal laws in Singapore are generally not strictly enforced, one wonders what outsiders would think of a people who gain some sort of satisfaction from adopting an attitude which hints of hypocrisy.

And not least is the undermining of the rule of law itself. As more Singaporeans come to accept homosexuality as a personal choice, maintaining a law that is honoured only in its breach is bound to lead to erosion of respect for the law.

So, the retention of Section 377A while maintaining a “close- one-eye” attitude to homosexual activity is a lose-lose approach for Singapore. If we are going to allow homosexual activity, why not take credit for being open-minded enough to do so?

The writer is a former Deputy Public Prosecutor. And he is not gay. These are his personal views.

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