Singapore 2025

What of Singapore towards 2025? Thoughts of a Singaporean.

Archive for April 2019

One Singapore Family: Rising above the Culture War

Good evening Moderator A/P Bilveer Singh, SMS Chee Hong Tat and Dr Tan Cheng Bock, students, faculty and friends who have come to attend this event. At the outset, I would like to thank the organizers for giving each speaker a broad canvas to speak on anything pertaining to leadership transition and the key social and political challenges facing Singapore in the coming decade.

Today the world faces new challenges and many leaders are on the defensive against the forces of protectionism, ultra-nationalism and anti-intellectualism. Emotions are running high as people are caught up in identity politics and culture wars, fighting over questions of globalization, race, religion, class, gender and sexuality. Critically many seem unwilling to talk and listen to each other forget about trying to engage each other respectfully. A centre does not seem to exist online and perhaps this is not unexpected given the internet’s ecology but it will be worrisome if this state of affairs extends to the real world as well.

In Singapore, the country is retooling for Industry 4.0. But even as we do, our political and social institutions and political leadership will come under pressure from larger global forces in the years to come, if they have not already. The culture war encompassing simplistic extremes, opposing identities and values have entered our mainstream conversations and presents a new fault lines that can damage the overall unity and cohesiveness of Singapore society, a unique society that already has the added task of simultaneously integrating 20,000 – 30,000 new citizens from different races, religions and cultures into the Singapore family each year.

Section 377A

The issues I can speak on make up a very long list. After much reflection, I have decided to focus on a divisive issue that splits Singaporeans. That is the existence of Section 377A on our statute books. As some of you know, an extensive Penal Code review will be debated in Parliament next month. Section 377A’s status is not on the Parliamentary agenda. For those of you who do not know, Section 377A states that, “Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years.”

In the last decade or more, a culture war pitting, for want of better terms, conservatives holding traditional values against liberals espousing progressive values has crystallized around this piece of colonial statute. This statute was introduced in the Straits Settlements very late in 1938 and can be traced to colonialism and the politics of empire. While many former colonies and Asian countries have gotten rid of this law or taken a clear judicial position on it such as China, Hong Kong and Taiwan and more recently India, Singapore continues to wrestle with it.

The problem of Section 377A came to head in 2007 when the culture war become audible in Parliament during a review of the Penal Code to keep up with the times. While oral and anal sex was de-criminalised if it involved two women, “any act of gross indecency” between men remained on the statutes.

Prime Minister Lee noted there were very different views among Singaporeans on whether homosexuality was acceptable or morally right, but equally recognised that enforcement of the law was problematic. PM therefore took the position of an “uneasy compromise” on 377A, where the law would remain on the books, but the government would not enforce it.

The Workers’ Party only had two MPs then, Mr Low Thia Khiang, who was MP for Hougang SMC then, and Ms Sylvia Lim, an NCMP at that time.

Our stated position, which remains today, is that WP would not be calling for the repeal of 377A because there is no consensus within the party’s central executive committee on the issue. Even within the party at large, views differ on the matter, a microcosm of Singapore society.

The Culture War

Fast forward slightly more than a decade, Section 377A has become more of a symbolic lightning rod for conservatives and liberals. The culture war has deepened and expanded, consuming time and energy with campaigns pitting against one group against the other in the public sphere. Conservatives frame their campaigns as pro-family, while the liberals refer to theirs as the right-to-love. Such is the nature of advocacy I can understand the necessity of such simple communication. But such framing leaves little room for each side to stop and listen to each other and reduce temperatures. As currently framed, 377A generates a lot of heat, but sheds very little light.

The main issue surrounding some in the conservative camp who focus on pro-family campaigns is the apparently disproportionate focus on the tangential issue of 377A. This is precisely when the institution of the family is coming under a lot of social and economic strain. Young people are delaying marriage, less marriages are taking place, fewer children are being born, divorces are on the rise and whole families are suffering from inequality and even poverty in Singapore. And as a recent Institute of Policy Studies survey has shown us, infidelity is by far the dominant concern surrounding marriage.

We need to focus on the larger issues besetting Singaporean families. It is not useful to deploy the family to defend Section 377A. The political imperative of the leaders of our generation in the decade to come is to equip Singaporean families to face the socio-economic pressures of globalization and disruption, not drag the family into the public square to flog a sin for all to see.

The main issue with some in the liberal camp and their right-to-love campaigns is that they have unwittingly weaponized the concept of love for many of those in the middle, particularly those who do not take a position on the matter. Like many of my peers Section 377A has no effect on my affection and esteem for my LGBT friends. I know faculty at NUS who are gay. Those who taught me were some of the finest intellectual minds I have ever come across. Thousands of undergraduates and graduates would be so much poorer if not their impact and contributions. I know more than a handful of civil servants who are gay. In executing public policy, they are likewise some of the most even-handed and respectful people I know.

But when some in the pro-LGBT camp speak of the right-to-love, the implicit suggestion is that those who align themselves to conservatives, by default hate LGBT people. Our various religious groups and their leadership give a lot of support and comfort to those across the income spectrum, from low-wage workers to high-income earners to deal with the challenges of life. Instead of considering the tremendous contributions people of faith, including Christians and Muslims have made on society, helping those in need and providing a sacred canopy for the faithful, some of our respected religious figures and friends are singularly judged through their views on section 337A. This is not fair because even within different faiths, there are different views on issues such as 377A.

Now my friends, the Workers’ Party is against hate, especially when it is enacted in speech and action against people for their race, religion, gender, class, disabilities, sexual orientation and so on. We have seen what hate speech can set off – most tragically a few weeks ago in Christchurch. So let’s be mindful of what we say, particularly online where there are fewer inhibitions, no matter on which side of a polarizing issue we stand on.

The concern I have is how the turning of Section 377A into a political issue may worsen divisions in our society. And I have a few questions I hope the audience can ponder over and consider later when the floor is opened to questions.

First, in light of where the debate has taken us thus far, would not the active championing of either the conservative or liberal camp by any political party immediately invite further polarization of the matter with even less prospect for consensus or tolerance?

Second, would it not invite politicization to divisive issues such that our political leaders and Members of Parliament start taking positions based on political expediency and majoritarianism rather than on conscience and strengthening our common space?

Thirdly, would it not cause voters to reduce the complex political and economic issues we face as country into this one singular issue and choose leaders based on their view on Section 377A? Do we want Section 377A to define the ballot box and determine elections?

Five Principles

So, in the midst of this culture war over Section 377A and LGBT rights and identities, what should we do? I would like to propose five principles that could guide our way forward.

One, FAMILY FIRST. This is what the WP MPs have been doing in Parliament. Our energies have been invested first and foremost into championing for policies and institutions that will shore up Singaporean families as they face the pressures of economic transformation and social change. We do it without prejudices. Thus, we care for the single, widowed and divorced mothers who have to bring up children in difficult circumstances, for women who have been caregivers for their parents and others for the large part of their lives and now need care themselves, for unmarried singles who continue or seek to continue to be part of loving families, for children that their best interests and welfare be put first when their parents are going through a divorce. And we must consider homosexual friends who are coming out and their family members who coming to terms with their sexuality too. Can they not be better supported if they face prejudice and depression? In the final reckoning, I would suggest that our definition of family, a wider Singapore family, should be an enlightened and inclusive one.

Two, NEVER POLITICISE THE ISSUE. This is what we have been doing by advising party members and party leaders to stay out of public campaigns by either side. We have not and will not turn Section 377A into a political issue by pandering either to conservatives or liberals. Electoral support for the WP based on Section 377A does not enter into our decisions to field specific candidates. Our candidates’ individual conscience about this issue is irrelevant in their selection as candidates. What matters is their integrity, credibility, ability and the depth of their concern for Singapore and Singaporeans. The converse is also true. We should immediately suspect those who try to label our MPs and candidates as anti-gay or pro-gay, anti-family or pro-family, and who campaign for or against WP on this basis. These people targeting WP are trying to politicize the LGBT issue and have a hidden political agenda to do so.

Three, CONTINUE THE DIALOGUE. Within the party, we do not disallow or discourage dialogues and debates across different levels and fora on this issue. But mutual respect has to represent the foundation of such conversations. There is a wide diversity of views among our members, but we are united by one thing, to not allow this one issue to derail our shared purpose of pushing for reforms to strengthen and equip Singaporeans to survive and thrive in the world of tomorrow.

Four, RESPECT INDIVIDUAL CONSCIENCE. The wide diversity of views among our members on this issue arises from individual conscience. Our members hold deep religious, spiritual and philosophical beliefs that form their individual conscience. It is this very sense of individual conscience that gave our members courage to drop their fears and acquire the mental strength to accept the sacrifices to join WP to serve Singaporeans. That is why we need to talk and listen to each other respectfully. We will seek to find common ground if there is common ground. If not, we will have to give each other the space to express our own deeply held beliefs and values, without prejudice and without prejudicing another’s right to express their views.

Fifth, RISE ABOVE THE CULTURE WAR. Culture wars were historically a European thing, when just a few centuries ago religious conflicts were commonplace until the European experience proved that the only way out from total destruction of society was the tolerance for different beliefs and the respect for individual conscience. This is a powerful lesson they learned and we cannot ignore it. In America, many communities are fighting each other over what each one thinks is right or evil, sin or truth. I think we should agree that we cannot let these culture wars represent the Singapore way. We should not fight over who is more right than the other – we should listen, discuss and debate with the suspicion that we may be wrong, and look for common ground to overcome our differences.


To conclude, the Workers’ Party is committed to strengthening our bonds as a society and one people and empowering Singaporeans to face the uncertain future of disruption and change.

We welcome people from all walks of life to join us to walk with Singapore – people with different views and opinions, all united by the cause of serving Singaporeans, who will continue to talk and listen to each other and make sure the centre holds. We know that people who drop their fears and make sacrifices to join us have a strong conscience giving them the courage to do so, and thus we respect each other’s individual conscience.

The Workers’ Party will not participate in the culture war over LGBT issues because this is prejudicial to the common good of our society. We seek to rise above it. Because the moral courage required to address the issue of Section 377A is not in reveling in the glory of taking absolute stances on what we believe is right, but in lowering ourselves, swallowing our pride and listening to another. If all of us do this, then one day we will get to that place where the uneasy compromise we see today transfigures into a unifying consensus marked by a tolerance and understanding befitting of the Singapore that respects both the public and private space, and a Singapore we all will be proud of leaving behind for the next generation.

Thank you.

Written by singapore 2025

05/04/2019 at 9:39 am

Parliament: Debate on Restricting Hate Speech to maintain Racial and Religious Harmony in Singapore

1. Mr Speaker, social harmony, racial and religious tolerance, robust but reasoned and respectful debate on contentious issues, all create an environment for modern societies to flourish and thrive. Hate speech, regardless who it is directed against – be it fellow citizens of different races and religions or against other communities and groups such as immigrants, those of a different ethnic origin, new citizens or even against those who proscribe to different life choices, do not profess a faith, or are of a different sexual orientation – ought to have no place in Singapore society, either now or in the future.

2. Hate speech per se tends to exist at one end of the spectrum as it usually hosts extreme prejudice or calls for actionable violence against individuals. The Christchurch terrorist attack on a mosque by a white supremacist exposes the dangers of hate speech that is directed at people of a particular faith with the perpetrator making his views known publicly before carrying out his gruesome act that was roundly condemned by all Singaporeans. The WP too condemns this cowardly act. Nonetheless, it is telling how significant our own biases and perceptions determine attitudes towards people who are different from us. A fair number of people I spoke to were surprised that more than 70% of all terrorist attacks are carried out by far right, non-Muslim and often white attackers, a fact Minister shared during his recent speech to the Religious Rehabilitation Group.

3. Apart from hate speech however is a potentially larger category of offensive speech, not quite a call to arms and as extreme, but expression which is deeply abhorrent, insensitive and completely unnecessary nonetheless. This category can potentially be made even larger depending on how quickly certain individuals gets offended, making executive action open to politicisation. Given Singapore’s open economy and cosmopolitan society which is exposed to both Western and Eastern views, attitudes to what some regard as offensive speech can differ greatly amongst citizens and even those from the same religious group.

4. Most recently in 2017, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) released a statement on offensive speech and expression involving race or religion. It set out the Government’s position in managing issues and reiterated that Singapore’s approach to the matter sought to guarantee the safety, security and freedom of religion for all, with a view to create a common space for everyone. The annex to the MHA statement covered 14 incidents from 2005 to 2017 where the Government had to invoke the Sedition Act and Penal Code to deal with offensive speech, including the issuance of stern warnings and conditional warnings against various individuals. None of these interventions involved offensive speech in the performing arts or entertainment space. Unsurprisingly however, 11 out of the 14 cases involved comments made online, on Facebook, on blogs or in online chatrooms.

5. Sir, my generation has grown up with the internet being a large part of our lives. While the internet has been an incredible platform in democratizing information and has been a force for good in many aspects of our lives, from economics to entrepreneurship – the anonymity, immediacy, and ubiquitous nature of the internet has also given extremists and those who revel in offensive speech a powerful podium. Combined with political economy of social media revenue models and the unique heuristics of the internet ecosystem that highlights the sensational, hate speech is something all societies are affected by, with approaches to address it differing even amongst seemingly similar societies.

6. Going forward Mr Speaker and partly arising from the online space, my sense is that the Government and Singaporeans will have to come to terms with disagreement and contestation on a wide array of issues. Many societies around the world are getting more religious with many groups more strident in their advocacy. Separately, a recent IPS survey observed that young people take a more permissive attitude to offensive speech – a fact which does not necessarily suggest that they approve of it, but they are prepared for a discussion on such issues.

7. In such a context, the balance between respecting individual views of a very diverse society like ours that hosts different mores, thresholds and tastes on the one hand and the importance of a fair and even-handed approach in governing a multiracial and multi religious society on the other will become an important marker of a cohesive and united society. This cohesion and unity will be in danger if the Government is seen to be straying from its longstanding approach of strict secularism to preserve the common space that must be shared by all communities and individuals in Singapore – a common space that must ensure minorities continue to deserve protection and should not be subject to mob justice. Our people will also have a critical role in adopting an even-handed attitude in living in a society that seeks to preserve the common space, and respect the fact that one does not have a right to impose one’s beliefs on others.

8. The recent episode involving the black metal band Watain is a case in point. From public comments made by Minister and the Infocommunications and Media Development Authority (IMDA), there may be a conflation in the public mind of the regime MHA applies in deciding whether to approve or reject the entry of a religious preacher on the one hand, and the conditional approval by the IMDA of a black metal band which covers a genre of entertainment on the other. It would appear that different considerations should continue to apply in each respective case.

9. In the case of a preacher, it would appear that prior comments, particularly on inter-religious matters made by such a person would be relevant in deciding whether to grant such an individual entry into Singapore. Should a preacher have described those outside his faith or even within his faith in offensive terms, then a red flag ought to be raised as the Ministry has done in the past and the person prevented from entering Singapore for the purposes of addressing a congregation.

10. Unlike the assessment regime for entertainment however, it would not be reasonable or rational to impose conditions that require a preacher to avoid of speaking about race or religion. If anything, promising not to disparage others faiths in Singapore but to be able to do so in other jurisdictions would make a mockery of the entire belief system of such an individual.

11. In the case of entertainment or a band, the Government appears to have a variated regime in place, one which does not hesitate to prohibit, correctly I would add, music that denigrates other religions, peoples or faiths. My understanding is that this has been imposed in the past for concerts involving even mainstream singers like Eric Clapton and other black metal bands.

12. By its own admission, IMDA’s conditions in originally allowing Watain to perform in Singapore included the removal of songs which were religiously offensive, the band could not make references to religion or use religious symbols and that no ritualistic acts like the showering the audience in pig’s blood as had been done before in another jurisdiction, were to be performed on stage. Furthermore, given band’s history and concerns as expressed by MHA, IMDA allowed the Watain concert with a rating of Restricted 18 (R18) and on the condition that it would be a very small concert with only a maximum of 200 people allowed to attend. It would also appear that IMDA and MHA’s assessment included foreknowledge of Watain’s reputation, the use anti-Christian lyrics and references to Satanism in some of their music.

13. On the surface of things, these conditions should have addressed concerns about race and religion since the application essentially involved an established genre of entertainment. I should also add that I was not aware opposition to the Watain concert was prevalent amongst mainstream Christians until revealed by the Minister. In rationalising its decision, IMDA stated that in assessing and classifying content for arts performances and concerts, it aims to protect the young from unsuitable content, maintain community norms and values, and safeguard public interest, while enabling adults to make informed choices. Allowing adults to make informed choices is a clarion feature of a secular society that seeks to preserve the common space. It would appear that the originally approach taken by IMDA correctly sought to carefully balance the competing and legitimate concerns of various segments of society.

14. Two days before the band’s slated performance, a widely publicised online petition made its rounds seeking to I quote “ban satanic music groups Watain and Soilwork from performing in Singapore.” The Ministry of Home Affairs thereafter requested IMDA to cancel the concert on the day of the scheduled performance and at the eleventh hour. Ironically, the cancellation arguably brought far more attention to the band and their music than it would have had the concert gone ahead. In fact, for period of time on Spotify in the days following the ban, Watain had more listeners from Singapore compared to any other country in the world.

15. According to the IMDA’s letter to the Straits Times Forum, the cancellation of the concert was due to new and serious concerns about public order, and ground reactions relating to social and religious harmony. Mr Speaker, I accept that new considerations can present themselves after approval is granted for performances and the Government is not out of place to revisit the issue.

16. Interestingly, in the comment section of the online petition against Watain, more than a few interventions alluded to why the Government was suddenly allowing black metal bands – many of which regularly host Satanic themes into Singapore. From an online search, it would appear that even local black metal bands have been part of our of entertainment ecosystem for many years now and foreign black metal bands have been allowed into Singapore previously. For example, a band known as Mayhem are one of the founders of the Norwegian black metal scene from the 1980s, a forerunner of bands like Watain. They built on the extreme metal sound crafted by earlier groups such as Venom, Slayer and Bathory. Their early years were filled with notoriety – their singer committed suicide with a gun to his head, and a picture of his corpse was used as an album cover. The band was also tied to a string of church burnings in Norway. I do not know how many members are aware that Mayhem performed in Singapore in 2006. Deafheaven, a Grammy-nominated band, but derided by old metal heads as “hipster-metal” band also played in Singapore in 2014. To that end, how will the IMDA assess applications for black metal groups in future? Furthermore, which agency will compensate Watain’s promoters and what amount does the wasted expenditure come up to?

17. In conclusion Mr Speaker, it is the secular basis of our state which also allows for selective interventions which allows the government to accommodate totally different spiritual and moral beliefs hosted amongst different citizens. As the 1989 White Paper on the maintenance of religious harmony iterated, while the Government should not be antagonistic to the religious beliefs of the population, it must remain neutral in its relations with the different religious groups, not favouring any of them in preference to the others. I would add that this expectation of neutrality should not only apply to religious groups but other civic groups and citizens in general in their dealings with the Government as well.

18. Overall, the Government’s careful and balanced approach to uphold a strictly secular society so as to preserve a common public space, and its principles towards religious harmony as enunciated in the 1989 White Paper on the maintenance of religious harmony and separately the MHA’s 2017 statement are sound and should be supported. But the Government must be careful not to be perceived as taking sides but instead err on the side of wisdom, especially on matters that are expressions of free speech, particularly in the entertainment and performing arts space. Instead of a hard policy such as bans, a graduated approach establishing a range of conditions like that done by IMDA in its original assessment of the Watain concert would better reflect the compromises required to create and sustain as accommodating and robust a common public space as possible.

19. To that end, effective laws and an activist bureaucracy are only one aspect of the solution. A robust education system which continues beyond school – one that enjoins Singaporeans to ascribe to an attitude of live and let live, respect for both the religious and non-religious, and dealing with fellow citizens with tolerance and mutual respect with the knowledge that we only have each other to lean on in good times and bad, are equally, if not more important.

20. Ultimately, the Golden Rule – that we should not do unto others as we would not have done to us – must be the dictum all Singaporeans ascribe to, be it the online or real world. References to the Golden Rule are found in all the Abrahamic faiths including Christianity and Islam, and separately in other faiths and belief systems such as Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism amongst many others. And even for those who are atheist or agnostic and do not follow any religion, such a moral principle – underpinned by mutual respect and tolerance – is one they, like all Singaporeans I hazard, would generously support.

Thank you.

Written by singapore 2025

01/04/2019 at 9:54 pm

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