Parliamentary debate on Section 377A, part 8: Alvin Yeo

Editor’s note: He devoted his entire parliamentary time/speech to 377A.

Source: Parliamentary Reports

22 October 2007, 7:20 pm, in Parliament

Mr Alvin Yeo (Hong Kah): Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, thank you for allowing me to take part in this debate at this late hour. After such powerful moving speeches from our two Nominated Members of Parliament, one is tempted to remain silent. But allow me to respectfully add my perspective.

In the run up to this debate, I read an interview or feature in the New Paper where Mr Siew Kum Hong was asked for his personal background and his reasons for bringing this parliamentary Petition. He replied that his personal background was irrelevant to the issue and that he was bringing this Petition as he supported the principle of equality of treatment, including for those who engage in homosexual conduct.

I should say that I agree with Mr Siew that one’s personal background is simply not relevant to the issue and, personally, I applaud Mr Siew for his willingness to subject himself to intense media and public scrutiny for a principle he subscribes to. I say that one’s own background and indeed one’s own personal views are not what is really important. Because our role as Members of this House is to represent not so much our own views, but those who have placed us in this position of responsibility. This means that one has to take account of not just the minority views but the majority views as well, to not just listen to the vocal, the articulate, the high profile spokesmen for their various causes, but to try and discern the views of the vast and silent segments of the population whose views and feelings run just as strong.

It is generally accepted that a large portion of the population remains uncomfortable with, even troubled, by homosexual behaviour. The Straits Times ran a poll where something like 70% expressed discomfort with these views. Those of the Muslim faith, many with Christian beliefs, oppose the condoning of homosexual conduct. Do their views not have to be taken into account? Is this tyranny of the majority? Some commentators think that it is outmoded for our laws to reflect the moral and social values of the people it governs. I disagree.

In our nation which has, as one of its ingrained principles, the rule of law, indeed it is usually considered one of our competitive strengths as well, the law stands, not just as a boundary line of what conduct will or will not be prosecuted, but as a moral compass of what we stand for. It is a benchmark of our values, our beliefs, not just a reference book to determine when we can sue and when we can be sued. That is why our courts, in interpreting the law, have always required parties to observe not just the letter of the law, but also its spirit and its purpose.

In this regard, I do take issue with the two points that Mr Siew, notwithstanding his forceful and loquacious arguments, has made. The first is that, because the Ministry has said that section 377A will not be proactively enforced, it is an admission that no harm results from it. I think other speakers, more eloquent than me, have spoken of the social and psychological and moral harm that can result from embarking or slipping down the slippery slope. I prefer to think that the stand of the Ministry is not because they recognise that there is no harm, but because they wish to show some degree of tolerance to those who subscribe to different views to give them some space in their personal lives. But they are standing firm on what the principles and beliefs that our society stands for in continuing to have this law on the statute books.

Mr Siew also says that he does not agree with this “signposting” argument because, to him, signposting is an all-or-nothing approach. Again, I have to respectfully disagree. There are certain key markers in all our laws which reasonate through the fabric of our society more than others. For instance, how many of you have heard of section 498 which has to do with enticing a married woman, and how many of you consider that doing away with that law means that this House is permitting adultery or promiscuity? Certainly, from all the press reports, none of them seem to labour under the misimpression that the non-repeal of section 377A was what that particular signpost was about.

One of the points made is about equal treatment for all before the law, including homosexuals, which I think is the central plank of the petition that has been presented. Equality before the law is a fundamental concept. But it cannot be looked at in vacuum. It does not deprive a state, a government, of regulating what it considers to be proper and correct behaviour. It is equal rights for all, as measured against the values and beliefs of our society. And our society is a multi-religious, multi-racial and multi-cultural one. So, for instance, we have an Administration of Muslim Law Act which imposes a separate regime on Muslims in family and estate matters. Yet, we do not hear complaints about unequal treatment from either Muslims or non-Muslims. It is accepted as part of our multi-cultural, multi-religious Singapore.

To take another more recent example, the Human Organ Transplant Act (HOTA), where Muslims are not subject to the same opting-out provisions on account of their religious beliefs.

Even then, discussions and consultations are going on within the Muslim community and outside, to remove this particular difference. Again, the principle of equal treatment of all has to be moderated by our aim of preserving harmony among our different races, of mutual respect for each other’s beliefs. I do not believe that anyone seriously contends we should not continue to uphold this.

Having said that, there may be something to be learnt from HOTA and the discussions relating to its possible change. To those who support the removal of section 377A, it is an object demonstration that laws can and do change based on a reconciliation of different views. But such changes, particularly where they involve deeply-held deep-seated religious and moral beliefs, do take time and they cannot be forced. Indeed, I hope that all concerned in this particular lobby effort will be patient and understand that the views of others do count as well and try to give this issue more time and not let it be something that divides our society.

Overall, Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, the changes to the Penal Code may keep it more relevant to this day and age and are to be welcomed.

Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, I support the Bill.

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