White or Pink? Color isn’t the only issue

pink-dot-singapore

I missed this year’s Pink Dot LGBTQ pride parade because I was in Europe, and I was very much disappointed that I didn’t get the chance to be part of the 26,000-strong crowd thronging Hong Lim Park. This annual event, held since 2009, is less a protest against Singapore’s incrimination of gay sex (Penal Code 377A) than a promotion of the freedom to love. It has always been a gay (pun intended) and peaceful affair, and it held true to these characteristics despite the tensions that flared up. Gay activism in Singapore has always been a controversial issue, but 2014 saw a surprising assertion by the religious fundamentalists when a Muslim cleric decided to exercise his right to hold a counter protest/promotion of heterosexual family units. Called the Wear White Campaign, it encourages those in favor of protecting prevailing social norms to don white in a statement of solidarity.

There is nothing wrong with that. I welcome the Wear White campaign, though I cannot embrace its values. Some of those who are pro-LGBTQ may feel affronted by the deliberate push-back attempt, but enlivening the space for public debate is one of the hallmarks of democracy. Just as Pink Dot activists have the liberty to work towards a gradual revolution of societal mindsets, so should other stakeholders have the right to guard the status quo without being regarded as purveyors of bigotry. That being said, I fear for Singapore, and yes, I solemnly refuse to refer to our nation as a “little red dot”, a low-level joke The Straits Times has sadly fallen prey to. Singapore has always managed to strike a fine balance between secularism and carving out comfortable spaces for religious organizations to flourish. This is most evident in our educational institutions, where the majority of secular government schools that disallow the use of a tudung, or headscarf worn by religious Muslims, exist alongside the minority of convent schools and madrasahs.

The government has expressed its concern that the diametrically opposed sexuality camps will polarize Singapore further. I argue that this polarization will be inevitable, and in fact, dangerously inflammatory, if the anti-LGBTQ rights movement is primarily chaired by religious organizations. Whether it was intentionally maneuvered to be portrayed this way or not, I shall not venture to speculate, but the Wear White campaign has become entrenched in the public consciousness as the publicity gimmick of the religious conservatives. Perhaps it couldn’t be helped as all news reports took it upon themselves to stress that it was the brainchild of a Muslim cleric, thus giving the campaign a religious slant to begin with. You could say that we can never take religion out of the equation since his beliefs are naturally influenced by the Koran’s condemnation of Brokeback Mountain scenarios, but just as our education system has shown us, it is possible to strike that elusive balance. What makes me uncomfortable isn’t an anti-LGBTQ campaign, but a religious anti-LGBTQ campaign because it freezes this debate over civil rights to be religious, irreconcilable and bitterly divisive.

There are two problems with a religious-led movement and I shall list them here briefly. The first is a cliche, but a very valid one: Singapore’s commitment to secularism will be strengthened if the same-sex debate avoids overtly religious tones. Yes, our views on same-sex rights may bear the traces of our personal religious beliefs, but when one debates about it in the public sphere, it is a respect to our secular founding values as a country that we avoid arguments laced with religious rhetoric. Secondly, if the same-sex rights debate becomes one where the religious are pitting themselves against “homosexual supporters”, there will inadvertently be the impression that one has the moral high ground over the other, who are godless atheists or anti-theists, whatever they like to call themselves. And this is why I applaud Pink Dot for being staunchly secular in nature – it is a campaign that involves a motley collective of Singaporeans. When we think of the Wear White movement, we may immediately recall the Muslim cleric and the Christians who are in joint cahoots. When we think of Pink Dot, we think of liberal Singaporeans, not “atheists” and “freethinkers” because most of those who join Pink Dot are not necessarily so and Pink Dot has never developed its image as a movement for the non-religious.

Meanwhile, Lawrence Khong, the pastor of a mega-church in Singapore, was quick to hail the Muslim cleric’s initiative and he warmly expressed his support, even going so far as to encourage his 10,000 church members to dress in white as well. This public endorsement makes it seem like two major religions in Singapore are joining forces to gang up against the pro-LGBTQ movement. I suppose you can say that I am wistfully wishing that the Wear White campaign, and future anti-gay efforts, aren’t couched behind a religious banner, and I am glad the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore had the foresight to persuade Muslims not to get themselves entangled in vocal opposition against Pink Dot. The problem with Singapore’s current anti-gay camp is that it consists largely of not very opinionated Singaporeans who are moderately opposed to homosexuality but can’t be bothered to sign petitions or shop for white shirts, and the highly indignant religious individuals who fill Facebook with invective and self-righteous criticism. As a result of the apathy of the former, the anti-LGBTQ side of the story has been hijacked by the latter. And why should this concern Lawrence Khong and Co? It is my personal opinion that the more the conservative religious right trumpets its anti-gay cause, it will alienate the moderately religious (primarily Generation Y) and they will defect to the Pink Dot Camp in droves. It will also fail to galvanize the majority of somewhat concerned, but mostly unconcerned, Singaporeans who oppose homosexuality on the grounds of traditional values (Buddhists, Taoists and non-religious or freethinking groups). Right now, though 78% of Singaporeans do not support homosexual rights, this majority has dwindled into a noisy “minority”, consisting of Lawrence Khong and well, mostly Lawrence Khong. Temper it, especially the religious potshots at the immoral, and then maybe the anti-gay movement can organize itself into a proper civil organization that involves that 78% of Singaporeans.

But why am I giving advice to the opposition? And why do I seem to have a problem with Lawrence Khong? Good questions. And I hope I can provide equally good answers to the first question (I shall save the second for a future post, if I ever summon the courage to offend his congregation of 10,000 members). My views on sexuality are quite unexciting because I’m not a radical on either side of the rainbow abyss. Hedonistic Protestant though I may be, in the grander scheme of things, I believe that homosexual acts are a sin (note that being a homosexual is not a sin since it is not a choice, but acting on these biological impulses sadly is, according to the Bible anyway). Nevertheless, I firmly believe that these religious moral codes only apply to the religious, that is to say, I have plenty of gay friends and I accept them fully. I am also not icky on the subject of HIV, anal sex or lesbians kissing on the train (I sat through all of Blue is the Warmest Color, FYI). Still, it doesn’t change the fact that I disagree with Christians who believe that practicing lesbians should be elected to church leadership positions, or that if you’re a Christian, it is not breaking God’s ten commandments to engage in sexual acts with someone of the same sex. I do not believe in the loose and liberal interpretation of the Bible that God condones homosexual acts, and just because God loves sinners doesn’t mean He loves the sin.

…Goodness me, I can’t believe I’m quoting cliches everywhere in the above paragraph. To put it simply, I don’t think fellow Christians should distort the Bible to give themselves a free salvation pass. Adultery and premarital sex are immoral acts, and if you commit them, it’s wrong in the eyes of God – the same goes for homosexual acts. And no, I do not think that fellatio between males is in any way a more terrible transgression than cheating on your wife, even if it is committed in the style of the missionary position. As I wrote before in this post, I postulate that homosexuality takes on a special significance in Singapore because of our cultural norms.

I do not apologize for my beliefs because I think it is fully within one’s rights to hold an opinion, so long as one does not strive to create a homogeneous society that adopts only one’s narrative. This is why I support Pink Dot – I do not think it contradicts my religious values to support the freedom to love and sustain healthy same-sex relationships in Singapore, especially among people who do not share my religious values. I do not expect society to be beholden to my opinions. I keep them to myself (and my blog). I accept the fact that society composes of a collective of individuals from various groups, not single group. I therefore accept the view of the majority even if it does not gel well with my own – I would like Singapore to be more friendly to people of a homosexual orientation, but I will not insist on these civil liberties to be implemented right now because the truth is that the majority have yet to come around.

Society is in constant flux and there will always be opposing forces struggling for the upper hand. I do not have to cite the frequent overturning of abortion/same-sex marriage court verdicts in the United States to prove this point. Statistics like 78% and 22% will change, but hopefully our respect for all beliefs never will.

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