Stop making A mockery of rule of law: Let’s accept gays - by HO KWON PING

http://www.todayonl /274653.asp

Hot News // Monday, September 8, 2008

Stop making A mockery of rule of law: Let's accept gays
Why keep such an archaic statute when there's no intention to prosecute?


SINGAPORE is known to be economically liberal, but socially conservative. It is a rules-governed society with clear parameters for behaviour, whether political, economic, or social. And within the "OB markers" (out-of-bounds markers) of these do's and don'ts, it is a transparent and fair social order, with no favouritism for anyone operating outside the parameters.

This state of affairs governed the issue of homosexuality in Singapore for many years. Not only was gay sex illegal, but every manifestation was openly discouraged — some would say suppressed — and discrimination against gays in the public domain (the civil service, the military, the police, schools, and so on) was commonly accepted. Indeed, because it was public policy to promote heterosexual family life as the only norm, any other lifestyle was considered deviant and handled accordingly. Repressive though it certainly was to gays, it was at least very predictable.

Today, official attitudes towards homosexuality in Singapore are quite different. They are certainly ambivalent and ambiguous — some would even say, schizophrenic. On the one hand, many gay Singaporeans are feted and lauded for their creative contributions to Singapore, and warmly accepted by even senior figures of the establishment. On the other hand, gay sex remains a criminal activity, even after much public debate on the issue, and any kind of activity which is seen to promote a gay lifestyle remains off-limits.

To those who believe that the non-persecution of gays is already something to be grateful for, one could argue that allowing a black person to sit in the front of the bus while legally forbidding it, is something to be grateful for. Or, in an analogy closer to home for the supposedly homophobic heartlanders, should a Chinese person be grateful if the edict forbidding Chinese and dogs to enter parks in Shanghai in the '20s were relaxed in reality, but maintained in the law?

At another level, my gay friends argue cogently that non-prosecution (or non-persecution, for that matter) signals, at the most, simple tolerance of them, and nothing more. There is a difference between being tolerated because gays are seen to be at the leading edge of the "creative class" — which Singapore is trying to develop as part of its new knowledge-based, creativity-oriented economy — and being accepted because of the recognition that fundamental human rights and the dignity of the individual extends to gays as much as to anyone else.

The somewhat schizophrenic decision to not prosecute an illegal activity has ramifications beyond the gay community, and has disturbed some sections of the larger community, which is not particularly interested in gay issues.

To many thoughtful citizens, Singapore has always openly claimed that the Rule of Law, possibly even more than the formal mechanisms of democracy, is a vital component of good governance. Yet, to criminalise gay sex and, in the same breath, state that anyone breaching this law will not be prosecuted, makes a mockery of the Rule of Law.

Minor though this violation of the principle may be, the proponents of the concept that the Rule of Law is a sacrosanct pillar of the Singapore ethos lament that the Government did not take the bold step to simply decriminalise something which the rest of the developed world has long decriminalised; which most Singaporeans (except, perhaps, the most fervently fundamentalist Christians or Muslims) don't care that much about one way or the other; which the police, courts, and legal community would welcome simply to remove an archaic, Victorian-era statute; and finally, which the gay community would embrace as an important signal that their right to privacy — a fundamental human right — is considered to be more important than the right of anti-gay groups to proselytise about morality.

Optimists hope that the decriminalisation of gay sex — a yawn to anyone except the homophobic and the gays themselves — will eventually occur. In reality, rather than in law, gays in Singapore today have never had it so good, and should within a short time, become fully-accepted — not just tolerated — members of an increasingly diverse, and therefore vibrant, Singapore community.

But if we pat ourselves on the back for being so "bold" as to accept casinos and Formula 1 events into staid Singapore, why can't the boldness extend to a simple act to enable gays to realise their dream — indeed, their simple right — to be normal Singaporeans like anyone else, no more and no less.

The writer is chairman ofSingapore Management University,executiv e chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings and chairman of MediaCorp.