To many, Pink Dot SG is probably the figurehead of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights agenda in Singapore. It is, to some extent, the local equivalent of Gay Pride.
Pink Dot has been held at the Speakers Corner at Hong Lim Park since 2009. But only this year has Pink Dot faced significant opposition, particularly from a campaign known as Wear White.
Why is this so?
Why Pink Dot 2014 has faced greater opposition
The reasons why Pink Dot 2014 has faced greater opposition have been concisely summed up in the following statement on the Wear White website:
The movement’s genesis was from our observations of the growing normalization of LGBT in Singapore. However, we recognize the conduct and it’s support among Muslims is due to the lack of understanding and connection with Islam and our fitrah. We thus came together initially with the expressed purpose of reminding Muslims not to participate in the LGBT event on 28th June.
The first reason lies in the growing efforts to normalise LGBT lifestyles in Singapore, together with efforts to sanction certain forms of disapproval. Although controversies have arisen over the years, such as the debate in Parliament over section 377A of the Penal Code in 2007, and the AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research) saga in 2009, several events have intensified the debate in 2014. Early this year, the Health Promotion Board (HPB) stirred controversy in its FAQs on Sexuality by claiming that “[a] same-sex relationship is not too [different] from a heterosexual relationship”. In the debate that ensued, complaints were lodged against National University of Singapore (NUS) Professor Dr Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied for describing “alternative modes of sexual orientation” as “wayward”, and as “cancers” and “social diseases” to be “cleansed”. According to NUS, he acknowledged “poor judgment in the tone and choice of words” after he was counselled by the university.
The second reason is the preservation of religious identity. While the debate has often been portrayed as one between religious conservatives and secular liberals, the video promoting Pink Dot 2014 explicitly threw religion in the mix by featuring a hijab-wearing Malay-Muslim woman and an individual wearing a crucifix. A number of Muslims took offence at this. Among the responses included an open letter titled, “A letter to Muslimah Sister Regarding her Support for PinkDotSG2014“. The Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association (PERGAS), Fellowship of Muslim Students Association (FMSA), and Masjid Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS) have since drawn a line in the sand, whether directly or indirectly. Likewise, the Catholic Church and the National Council of Churches in Singapore have made statements calling upon Christians not to support Pink Dot.
What is at stake here
At stake in the LGBT debate are competing notions of human dignity, sexuality and the family. Although both sides of the debate hold unequivocally that human beings are rights-bearing individuals, there are marked differences in their appreciation of human nature.
On one view, marriage – the comprehensive, exclusive and permanent union based on the sexual complementarity of a man and a woman, which is intrinsically ordered to produce new life – is a personal and social good. It fulfils and enriches human personality, and provides the foundation for procreation, family and society. Human dignity is attained by taming desire and directing it according to reason. Therefore, there are both substantive and procedural norms governing sexual expression.
On the other view, an essential aspect of human dignity is that of self-actualisation or self-realisation, part of which is sexual expression. Reason is instrumental to desire, and the only norm governing sexual expression is consent. Marriage and family, then, are emotional unions based on commitment.
These two competing conceptions strike at the heart of society and cannot simply be relegated to one of mere opinion or preference. At the moment, the former view is the dominant one in society. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in 2007:
Singapore is basically a conservative society. The family is the basic building block of our society. It has been so and, by policy, we have reinforced this and we want to keep it so. And by “family” in Singapore, we mean one man one woman, marrying, having children and bringing up children within that framework of a stable family unit.
Recent surveys conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies have shown that Singapore continues to remain conservative.
Given that “[the] family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society”, as affirmed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there will be significant impact on society, whether society adopts one view or the other.
In fact, the Singapore Government has recognised the social benefits and costs when family is affected. The Shared Values White Paper (Cmd. 1 of 1991) writes:
12. The sanctity of the family unit is not a value unique to Singapore. All major faiths consider this a cardinal virtue. The family is the fundamental building block out of which larger social structures can be stably constructed. It is the group within which human beings most naturally express their love for parents, spouse and children, and find happiness and fulfilment. It is the best way human societies have found to provide children a secure and nurturing environment in which to grow up, to pass on the society’s store of wisdom and experience from generation to generation, and to look after the needs of the elderly.
13. In recent decades many developed countries have witnessed a trend towards heavier reliance on the state to take care of the aged, and more permissive social mores, such as increasing acceptance of “alternative lifestyles”, casual sexual relationships and single parenthood. The result has been to weaken the family unit. Singapore should not follow these untested fashions uncritically.
How the Government has contributed to the culture war
The Government has repeatedly cautioned against “culture wars”. For example, then-Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng cautioned in 2009, “We must not import into Singapore the culture wars between the extreme liberals and conservatives that are going on in the US.”
However, in 2014, the Government has itself fanned the flames of the culture war in Singapore by its own doing.
The first was the controversy over the HPB FAQs on Sexuality, which both conservatives and liberals recognised as a significant shift in the Government’s stance. Gay Star News praised it as a “groundbreaking move”, while PERGAS and Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC) senior pastor Lawrence Khong made similar observations, to great consternation. The Government’s defence of the FAQs that followed can only be described as weak and self-contradictory (see “Welcome to the Animal Farm: MOH’s response to HPB FAQs on Sexuality“).
The second was the Government’s statements in response to the Wear White campaign. Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said that those who “express support for a cause or a choice of lifestyle should express it in a way that does not divide the community”. These statements were perceived as Government bias against conservatives, sentiments which were perhaps best expressed by Lam Jer-Gen in a letter to TODAY, “Expressions of pro-family support are not divisive” (25 June 2014):
I disagree with Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim’s views…
Why should the Government allow groups, such as the one that organised the Pink Dot event, to promote alternative lifestyles, yet criticise pro-family groups and consider their expressions of support for a cause or a choice of lifestyle divisive?
Once again, the Government’s response has been little more than a bare denial (see “Impressions of Government Bias in Culture Wars“).
Conclusion: Where do we go from here?
During the debates on section 377A of the Penal Code, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said:
… I do not think it is wise to try to force the issue. If you try and force the issue and settle the matter definitively, one way or the other, we are never going to reach an agreement within Singapore society. People on both sides hold strong views. People who are presently willing to live and let live will get polarised and no views will change, because many of the people who oppose it do so on very deeply held religious convictions, particularly the Christians and the Muslims and those who propose it on the other side, they also want this as a matter of deeply felt fundamental principles. So, discussion and debate is not going to bring them closer together. And instead of forging a consensus, we will divide and polarise our society.
I should therefore say that as a matter of reality, the more the gay activists push this agenda, the stronger will be the push back from conservative forces in our society, as we are beginning to see already in this debate and over the last few weeks and months. And the result will be counter productive because it is going to lead to less space for the gay community in Singapore. So it is better to let the situation evolve gradually. [Emphasis added]
As noted in a previous post, the least the Government can do is to level the playing field in a democratic society by guaranteeing equal rights of freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.
There are two possible approaches to realise this:
Ban all forms of lobbying. While this is a possible approach, this would raise serious questions about the state of democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of conscience in Singapore. It is not a preferable option.
Permit lobbying by both sides. This is an approach which best comports with democratic principles though, in the Singapore context, the Government will most likely have to mark out the boundaries in such debates with clear and bright lines.
Any effort perceived as being biased towards one side or the other is likely to provoke a backlash against the Government.
At the rate things are going, it is foreseeable that both Pink Dot and Wear White will remain a part of the Singapore landscape for a long time.