Section 377A: A Primer on Empathy and Generous Listening
“So, why are you here?” a stranger on my right posed that question to me, before thrusting his shiny, red Bluetooth microphone into my face. The novelty item was meant to add some much-needed lightheartedness, as we discuss and debate the repeal of Section 377A. Like all events of considerable importance, today’s gathering of like-minded individuals at SMU’s stately hall came with an almost predictable share of contentious drama when the original venue at Suntec City was suddenly declared unavailable just days before the scheduled town hall. Initially, I was rather excited when I heard that Suntec City was the chosen venue, and wasn’t expecting the turnout and sense of rejuvenation to mirror the 2009 AWARE saga.
Section 377A is a very tiresome topic not because of its regularity (hardly, in fact), but because every time the discussion is broached, the points of argument are always de rigueur. The supporters of the repeal will argue human rights, freedom to love, equality, ‘love is love’ while religious conservatives will come out, guns blazing to defiantly espouse traditional values, express fear of the family unit being slowly denigrated, and, God forbid, that this great nation will eventually allow same-sex marriage. Almost as if on cue, Thio Li-Ann will emerge from a puff of smoke from whatever corner of academia she’s currently residing in (urban legend dictates that if you say 377A enough times, Thio Li-Ann appears), write a letter to The Straits Times and attempt to educate us—using her unique brand of lawyer verbiage and a hint of narcissism—on how poor our grasp is of human rights. Once again, reminding us, that she will always be the smartest woman in the room.
In the distant future, when historians and students alike study this period of time when Section 377A was challenged, they will refer to Professor Tommy Koh and his comment on Simon Chesterman’s Facebook post, dean of the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law who shared a New York Times article on India’s landmark ruling.
“I would encourage our gay community to bring a class action to challenge the constitutionality of Section 377A,” Professor Koh remarked. To which, a netizen, Edward Tay quipped, “Prof, hasn’t that angle been disposed of by Lim Meng Suang?”
“try again (sic).”
With those two words, the LGBTQ+ community rallied and raced against the ticking clock of democracy and equality to put together a petition, a website (with official translations, mind you), a town hall event, and a slew of very official sounding ambassadors and principal signatories to legitimise the movement.
While the pro-repeal side was busy sorting out the administrative processes and ensuring that the online petition was not merely a registration of names but with verified identities and addresses, the conservatives were busy stoking and fanning the flames of slippery slopes and fallacies, aiming for quantity without a care for quality. Yes, they may have the numbers, but if a person can sign your petition under the name of “GOD HATES THE GAYS!!”, then it probably bears reminding that an empty online vessel, big and mighty as it may be, do make the loudest noise.
Legitimacy concerns aside, the issue of Section 377A is indeed a polarising one. And not just between the two groups we would expect: the pro-repeal and the conservatives. Polarisation exists, surprisingly, amongst the LGBTQ community itself, some of whom are extremely proud and vocal about their insouciance regarding the repeal, not truly realising that their uninterrupted and beautiful life (by way of PS Café brunches, themed birthday parties at five-star hotels, the occasional scheduled trips to Bangkok for Songkran or Perth for Pride marches) are a result of privilege.
They don’t see the need to fight as hard for equality because they have successfully found a way to circumvent its disparity. They use wealth and positions of power in employment to vigorously equalise (or normalise, whatever ‘normal’ means) their presence in society to the point where they are unable to empathise with the average gay man who faces discrimination in a way that affects his very ability to live and love. We must remember that equality should be given and not requested for. And so often, it comes begrudgingly.
At times, the repeal of Section 377A can feel like a rowdy, shouting match between the pro-repeal and conservatives—who sincerely believe they’re both equally right and equally justified in their conclusions. We shout and raise our voices over each other to the point where it sounds like a huge mess of noise. Amidst all this kerfuffle, is there space to listen? Are we simply talking and shouting without giving each other space to exchange views and judge the validity of those views against our deeply ingrained beliefs? We’re all so used to being such staunch proponents of views we care about, but can that get in the way of actual generous listening?
I am reminded of the values of generous listening because of an encounter I had with a good friend who was instrumental in helping me with the translation of the Ready4Repeal website. It was a herculean task both long and laborious, yet salient in highlighting Ready4Repeal’s insistence at inclusivity. At the end of our collaboration, I asked if she had signed the very petition we’ve vetted and read through countlessly. With a heavy sigh, she launched into a coherent explanation why she did not sign the petition.
She spoke fast but cautiously, and with every breath where religion was mentioned, she also emphasised her love for her gay friends and how terribly sorry she felt of our current law. She was stuck and incredibly torn between abandoning the belief systems she was raised in and wanting to be seen as progressive, modern, and more importantly, supportive of the LGBTQ community—whom she has come to know and love as a chosen family. She shared with me her fear of raising her son in an environment where she has to explain why gays need to be accepted as part of society when the Koran considers homosexuals acts a sin. Outwardly, fear guides her decision, yet inwardly, she remains a quiet supporter.
Just the other day, over lunch in Toa Payoh, my gay best friend of 13 years recounted a conversation he had with a young Christian girl and her views on Section 377A. She cited the usual spiel about not being able to actively promote any gay agenda due to her religion but still expressed love for her gay friends. She went on to recount the miraculous journey she took to find God at a time when her life was in peril—and in a way, felt that she owed God for being her saviour. The least she could do was not to support a cause that goes against His doctrines.
Generous listening is tough. It is a concept I learned from my favourite spiritual guru, Krista Tippett, and which I now actively practise at SG Narratives—a group that I co-founded with my two best friends Sudirwan Juhaimi and Syakir Roslee, which aims to encourage empathy in conversation. Generous listening demands a level of vulnerability most Singaporeans are not used to or avoid completely, and at all cost. Krista says it best:
“Generous listening is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves a kind of vulnerability—a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. The listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other, and patiently summons one’s own best self and one’s own best words and questions.”
Take a breath. Understand that generous listening starts with creating a space that breeds trust—one that is also non-judgemental and empathetic, allowing people to speak with vulnerability, where no one feels the need to defend themselves in an exchange of viewpoints.
Now that the dust has settled and a quiet unease descends, how do we proceed? As of today, the Ready4Repeal petition has received 50,142 signatures and is being kept open indefinitely—although the first batch of signatures has been submitted to the Ministry of Home Affairs. On the other side of the coin, the petition to keep penal code 377a has closed, with 108,967 signatures to its name. Personally, I don’t think Section 377A will be repealed this year or any time soon—especially not when we’re this close to an election cycle. The Singapore government is highly pragmatic, and will not remove 377A unless presented with ample evidence that its presence adversely affects the economic growth of the country.
At times, it feels like we’re lagging behind the diversity and inclusion movement as compared to our neighbouring countries. Two months ago, Hong Kong handed down a historic legal ruling, allowing same-sex spouses to apply for dependent visas to stay with their partners in the country. In May last year, the Council of Grand Justices in Taipei ruled that the current law, banning same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional. Similarly, Thailand’s government has introduced a bill to legalise same-sex civil partnerships set to be passed before the next general election in February 2019. And of course, we have India’s Supreme court that struck down a 19th century law criminalising homosexuality in India.
The reluctance to move the needle in Singapore can be attributed to the fact that we’re surrounded by Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, which may be more sensitive to such issues. Repealing Section 377A can be interpreted as condoning, even encouraging homosexuality, which might risk straining bilateral relations—especially if more conservative leaders took power.
So will we ever reach a conclusion that satisfies all parties—right, left, and the middle who tethers between progress and potential conservatism? Together as a society and a community, we ought to understand that a country where equality is an ideal worth chasing after, is not and should not just be a utopian dream.
Above all, we must realise that the various privileges we enjoy that allow us to live our life to its fullest doesn’t apply to everyone. All too often, we sit in silence and watch someone else’s rights being taken away because we are too detached or lackadaisical to ever imagine otherwise. Empathy. That’s what’s missing in this narrative and is a quality that every single one of us needs to cultivate and nurture in such trying times.