On Wednesday, October 30th 2014, Singapore’s Court of Appeal ruled that Section 377A is constitutional. Section 377A is a piece of legislation that Singapore inherited from colonial Britain that states:
Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by an male person of, any act gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years.
Arguments for and against the repeal of 377A are aplenty. Pro LGBT rights groups have long campaigned for social equality, and the nation’s Pink Dot movement has gained much momentum in the past years.
Conversely, opponents of the repeal include Pastor Lawrence Khong of the Faith Community Baptist Church who, in a statement in front of Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, said that ‘the repeal of similar laws have led to negative social changes, especially the breakdown of the family as a basic building block and foundation of the society’ (Oi 2013). In 2014, in an attempt to counter Pink Dot SG – an event where citizens dressed in pink get together to show their support for the LGBT community – Islamic religious teacher Ustaz Noor Deros started a Wear White campaign, encouraging people to wear white to defend traditional family values.
Additionally, in 2014, Singapore’s National Library Board (NLB) removed three books concerned with LGBT themes from the library. They are An Tango Makes Three, The White Swan Express, and Who’s in my Family. NLB decided to pulp the books. The decision ultimately proved extremely controversial and Minister Yaacob Ibrahim ordered both An Tango Makes Three, and The White Swan Express to be reinstated in the libraries, but categorised under the adult section instead of the original children’s. Who’s in my Family had a more unfortunate fate as it had already been pulped earlier.
In defending the constitution and Section 377A, Judges Andrew Phang, Belinda Ang, and Woo Bih Li of the Court of Appeal write:
It is also important to emphasise that it follows that nothing in this judgement impacts the freedom of a person or group of persons to freely espouse as well as practise his/its values within the boundaries of the law.
This freedom cannot, however, extend to an insistence by a particular group or individual that its/his values be imposed on other groups or individuals (CNA 2014)
The irony of this statement is simply too painful to ignore. By insisting that a particular group cannot impose their value on other groups simply reiterate the fact that a majority group is/has always been reinforcing a hegemonic belief, and this is where I become particular disappointed by the ruling.
My stance is clear: LGBT groups deserve the same rights just as anyone else – they should not be made criminals because of their sexual orientation; they should not be discriminated because their beliefs may stray away from the mainstream majority; and, most importantly, their onscreen representations should not be turned into stereotypes.
Onscreen stereotypes of gay characters are aplenty in Singapore, and they usually boil down to being effeminate and crude. Ultimately, these characters are the butt of the jokes. I have not, in my experience of viewing Singaporean mainstream media (both television and cinema) come across a positive representation of a gay character. Further, the Media Development Authority (MDA) makes it difficult for films that are perceived to promote a homosexual lifestyle to be screened to a huge audience. For instance, Milk (2009), a biopic about gay rights activist Harvey Milk, was given an R21 rating. This means that only cinemas in the city centre are allowed to screen them, whereas suburban cinemas are not. In another example, the Filipino film Boy (2009) received a Not Allowed for All Ratings (NAR) certificate from the MDA because the film attempts to ‘normalize homosexuality and that the movie romanticizes sex between men’ (Calindas, 2009). The stance held by the MDA towards portrayal of gay men and the issue of homosexuality is, frankly, extremely unacceptable. This, coupled with the lack of formal media education in schools, leads to a whole generation of people who are brought up to believe in these stereotypes. Stereotypes (not just of the LGBT community) are damaging.
Here, it is crucial that I take a detour. In a letter to the Straits Times’ Forum, Edmund Khoo Kim Hock writes that gender stereotypes ‘exist because they are fairly accurate generalisations of both male and female attributes’ (Khoo 2014). On top of using the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ interchangeably, Khoo argues that girls should wear pink and dresses whilst boys should wear blue and never play with dolls. Ultimately, ‘gender stereotypes exist for a purpose, which is to define the roles of men and women in our culture and society, and not to define us as people’.
This is an extremely appalling viewpoint. Stereotypes exist because of one reason: to serve the myopic worldviews of bigots who are simply too lazy to realise that the world is made up of individuals. A quick browse through the works of – say – Judith Butler will highlight the fact that gender is indeed a construct that forces people to behave in certain ways. A study of how gender is represented on screen will highlight the damaging sexist stereotypes that still exist. And it is our responsibility as thinking human beings to not take everything we see or hear point blank, but to challenge them dutifully.
Here, I cannot reiterate the importance of the humanities. Unfortunately, Singapore’s education system has long placed more emphasis on the sciences than on the humanities. I do not have empirical evidence to back this claim up (and I welcome anyone to disagree with me), so I merely have to fall back on personal anecdotes (not stereotypes). My parents were horrified when I decided to switch from the Science Stream to the Arts Stream during my Junior College years. “Why?” they said angrily, “Why would you throw away a good future?” In the army, I am known as the “Thespian” with a capital ‘T’, not necessarily a term with positive connotations. Army superiors and fellow army colleagues held me with deep suspicion because I was the one who dealt with – and I quote – ‘airy-fairy beliefs’ and everything I said was mere fluff because ‘arts people only know how to smoke’. All these simply stem from the fact that I preferred Literature to Physics, History to Maths, and Drama to Business. Even as I tell people I am a Screen Studies scholar now, they still think it entails me standing in front of the camera acting, and that I’m not going to have a bright (monetary) future after my education finishes.
Crucially, I am not discounting the importance of reading science. In fact, I very much love and enjoy my Chemistry, and I think science is an irreplaceable part of our lives. However, I do disagree with the hierarchical position science is placed in relation to the humanities. Why is one more important than the other? Why can they not be both of equal standing? I think this is a dire situation that needs immediate address here; doing humanities does not equate to doing a lesser degree.
Humanities, for one, introduced me – from a very early stage – to the fact that there is no such thing as a right or wrong answer. Unlike early education science where there is a definite right and wrong answer, humanities grounded me with the ability to defend my beliefs, and that my thoughts are just as valuable as the person next to mine. It also, importantly, allowed me to very clearly see the injustice faced by different groups of people simply because they do not belong to the majority hegemonic ideology.
In doing Screen Studies, I learnt that the less powerful groups of people (women, African Americans, gays and lesbians, for instance) constantly struggle for positive representations, and that is how stereotypes come about. Stereotypes do not exist because they are right or fairly accurate. Stereotypes exist to subjugate. In doing Screen Studies, I learnt that the world is a very unfair one, and that I can only hope to make it a better place by becoming more grounded with social reality. And I did not only learn these from Screen Studies. I got the same values from reading Literature, Drama, History, and Geography. These rewards are not necessarily the most visible nor tangible, and that is perhaps why there is still a slight stigma towards the humanities in Singapore (again, I do not have empirical evidence and I am merely arguing from personal experiences).
At this point, I just want to thank all the humanities teachers who are working hard to equip students with this invaluable ability to be more in touched with the social injustices faced by many groups of people – keep up the good work!
Unfortunately, at the current political climate, I neither foresee the MDA changing its stance on the portrayal of homosexuality on screen, nor can imagine Section 377A being repealed anytime soon. My only suggestion is that we keep fighting. We cannot dismiss the humanities as subjects less worthy of study because they do not make us money. Rather, we should look beyond and see that these subjects make us more empathetic, and in a society that just ruled the criminalisation of homosexuality as constitutional, we sorely need to be humane.
CNA, 2014. ‘Decision on Section 377A “not acceptable”: LGBT’
http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/decision-on-section-377a/1443512.html (Accessed 1st November 2014).
Calindas, Marconi, 2009. ‘Filipino film “Boy” captures hearts in San Francisco’
http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/166505/pinoyabroad/filipino-film-boy-captures-hearts-in-san-francisco (Accessed 1st November 2014).
Khoo, Edmund Kim Hock, 2014. ‘Gender Stereotyping Serves an Important Purpose’
http://www.straitstimes.com/premium/forum-letters/story/gender-stereotyping-serves-important-purpose-20141023 (Accessed 1st November 2014).
Oi, Mariko, 2013. ‘Is Singapore’s stance on homosexuality changing?’
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22088852 (Accessed 1st November 2014).